Preventing a humanitarian crisis: Food security amid Covid-19

According to the UN, the pandemic’s economic consequences are contributing to significant food security deterioration, including rising numbers of people pushed into acute hunger in fragile countries. It is possible that hunger will leave more casualties than Covid-19. On the front line, the World Food Programme (WFP), recipient of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, is providing more aid than ever. With sudden lockdowns, the disruption of supply chains hit the whole planet. Inventory levels and production capacity decreased everywhere, making both the production and distribution of food more complicated. For the industrial and agricultural sectors alike, political and logistical issues arise. How can the international community collaborate to prevent a worldwide food crisis?

Author: Sciences Po student Helena Brecht summarizes the debate session of the third edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Debate title: From the field to the fridge: Preventing a food crisis amid Covid-19

Date: 12 November 2020

A session of the 2020 Paris Peace Forum tackled the question of ending hunger amidst Covid-19. It gathered Christine Ockrent (journalist at France Culture), David Beasley (Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), recipient of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize), and Andry Rajoelina (President of Madagascar). The three exchanged their ideas and opinions on the issue, stating that the challenge of ending hunger remains a surmountable task but will require a comprehensive, targeted, and strategic multilateral effort with adequate financing. Indeed, the already sizeable challenge of preventing impending famines and mitigating current food emergencies has increased considerably with the Covid-19 pandemic.

WFP Executive Director David Beasley joined online from the United States, explaining how Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions have pushed people back into hunger due to the resulting economic deterioration. However, Beasley was also quick to emphasize that conflict and climate change similarly play a decisive role in food and nutrition insecurity. In that sense, Beasley explained that Covid-19 is to be considered as yet another compounding factor when examining food and nutrition security. With hunger on the rise due to Covid-19 induced restrictions and lockdowns, Beasley argued that there is an acute need for economic lockdowns to be tailored in such ways that the ripple down effects don’t end up causing greater harm. In fact, he pointed out that in 2020, more people died of malnutrition and hunger than of Covid-19. He also stated that hunger, malnutrition, and starvation are often inextricably tied to destabilization and conflict, with suffering, loss of life, and mass migration as the end results. Responding to such crises once they have become humanitarian disasters is also incredibly costly. Using Yemen as an example, Beasley argued the country is the world’s “worst humanitarian catastrophe,” with $1.9 billion in aid needed to avert famine in 2021.

Moreover, Beasley highlighted that the situation in Yemen is deteriorating rather than improving, and this is despite the WFPs presence in the region since the onset of the crisis. Donor cuts mean the WFP is simply unable to implement its humanitarian relief effort to the extent and scale required. Beasley also revealed that many donors are further reducing funds to the WFP due to the economic hardships they face at home as a result of Covid-19. Given the significantly lower cost of emergency relief and food aid on-site, these cuts are particularly short-sighted.

The President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, stressed the seriousness of the global hunger issue amidst Covid-19 by highlighting his own country’s problems. An endemic famine in southern Madagascar has been compounded further by the Covid-19 restrictions, limiting people’s access to income and agriculture. Beasley provided additional facts and figures: in Madagascar, an estimated 1.5 million people need emergency aid, with the WFP’s program requiring $70 million in funding over the next 6 months (as of November 2020). Beasley also highlighted the role that climate change and insecurity have in the country’s food crisis. Prolonged droughts in southern Madagascar added to the upcoming “lean season” (i.e., dry season) put additional stress on subsistence farmers, while the increase in activities such as cattle-looting increase both insecurity and hunger.

Yet, it was not all doom and gloom for Beasley and Rajoelina. Arguing that humanitarian and development initiatives implemented in tandem yield positive results for overall human security and resilience, Beasley repeatedly stressed the need for the international community to strategically yet comprehensively target starvation, destabilization, and migration together. Rajoelina explained how food-related development programs (for example, in the field of irrigation), when implemented with international assistance, can help reduce hunger in his country. With the WFP implementing programs such as these, Beasley’s final appeal was simple: to enable people to both “survive and thrive”, NGOs such as the WFP simply “need money”.

By Helena Brecht

Watch the full debate

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