Mincing no words, Finance Minister Mohamed Maait warned in an interview with the Financial Times this week that surging food prices since the outbreak of the Ukraine war three months ago could put the lives of millions at risk.
Those lives will not be in G-7, G-20 countries or any gathering of rich nations. They are mainly in underdeveloped and developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. In those countries, the situation had already been depressing long before the recent Ukraine war, Covid-19 closures and droughts that experts connect to climate change.
“We will feel shame if we find that millions of people [around the world] are dying because of food insecurity. They are not responsible for that, they did nothing wrong,” Maait said.
Maait spoke only a few days after United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres cautioned that the food crisis triggered by the Russia-Ukraine war was going out of control, hitting the poorest countries the most.
In a ministerial meeting at the UN Security Council on Global Food Security Call to Action, Guterres said: “It [the war] threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years.”
The food crisis, characterised by record-breaking food inflation and the near-cessation of the arrival of grain from these two countries at some 50 importers, are at a new high. In just two years, the number of severely food-insecure people has doubled, from 135 million pre-pandemic to 276 million today, the UN chief added in his statement.
In his briefing to Security Council members, Guterres said: “Two weeks ago, I visited the Sahel region of Africa, where I met families who do not know where their next meal is coming from. Severe acute malnutrition — a wasting disease that can kill if left untreated — is rising.”
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates there will be up to 13.1 million more chronically undernourished people in the next year due to the war, while the World Food Programme predicts that between 33 and 47 million people will face acute food insecurity. According to the Centre for Global Development, 40 million people will be pushed into poverty. These numbers will grow worse as the conflict continues.
The UN has been making urgent calls on countries not to stop exporting food items. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the number of countries imposing export restrictions on food has climbed to 17 from three.
“There should be no restrictions on exports, and surpluses must be made available to those most in need. But, let’s be clear. There is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertiliser produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets — despite the war,” said Guterres.
He revealed that he was in “intense contacts” with Russia and other key countries and is “hopeful” of an agreement to allow the export of grain stored in Ukrainian ports and ensure Russian food and fertiliser has unrestricted access to global markets.
India’s ban on exporting wheat on 14 May has also come under criticism from the developed countries. In the UN Security Council meeting, G7 countries asked India to revert its decision.
However, Indian officials stated that even in their own country, and despite adequate stocks, there has been an unjustified increase in food prices. They insisted that hoarding and speculation is at work, and denied that their decision to restrict exports was to blame.
UN agencies and the World Bank have recently called on countries to speed up food production, indicating that the current crisis is precipitating. On May 18 the World Bank also declared a $30 billion project to enhance food production and nutrition supply in food-insecure regions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who chaired the Security Council meeting called by the United States, said the world is facing “the greatest global food security crisis of our time.” America’s top diplomat urged countries to make significant new contributions to humanitarian organisations and agencies battling food insecurity, and he called on countries with significant grain and fertiliser reserves to also come forward quickly.
Blinken said the US had announced more than $2.3 billion for emergency food assistance since the Russian invasion and added $215 million more a week ago. He said the Biden administration expects Congress to approve about $5.5 billion in additional funding for humanitarian aid and food security very soon.
Yet the sad reality that the world knows well from previous human catastrophes is that money is easy to pledge, but far more difficult to materialise. In a recent briefing, the Pentagon spokesman was assuring reporters that the over $40 billion which the US has promised Ukraine, mostly to provide weapons, would be swift and immediate, taking days rather than weeks or months.
When it comes to saving poor people in low-income countries, it is a different story, and it would take years to provide even a small fraction of all good-will money pledged in public meetings, if at all. David McNair, executive director for Policy at The ONE Campaign, a worldwide movement to end extreme poverty, rightly said, “with the world’s poorest people facing the most dangerous food crisis in decades, the last thing the world needs now is a new paper tiger. Communiques and bureaucratic initiatives will not feed people. What we really need to see is real action – backed up by new funding – to ensure people have enough food.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.