Considering that the world had barely begun to overcome the devastating impact of Covid-19 on both the human and the economic level, the nearly eight-month war in Ukraine has added to existing shortages in basic food needs worldwide due to a lockdown in supply chains.
Russia and Ukraine are not just major wheat producers, but many developing nations also depend on imports of fertilisers and the seeds needed for cooking oil from there. At least 36 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, rely on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports.
The sharp rise in the imports bill of all developing and poor nations has led to major crises in several countries that either declared default in paying foreign debts like Sri Lanka, or were very close to taking that harsh decision.
Adding to the turmoil in oil markets with Western nations seeking to limit sales of Russian oil and gas, the situation for nearly all world economies has become very difficult, especially for the poor and middle class segments of the populations. No wonder over 20 countries have applied for IMF emergency loans in the hope of meeting the basic demands of their populations for food and other vital imports.
According to the UN, the number of people affected by hunger has more than doubled in the past three years. Almost a million people are living in famine conditions, with starvation and death a daily reality. A staggering three billion people out of the world’s population of nearly eight billion cannot afford a healthy diet.
At the outset of 2022, more than 190 million people had been driven into acute food insecurity. The war in Ukraine could add an additional 70 million people on top of that. Millions are facing hunger and malnutrition.
Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies are scrambling to prepare themselves for even more critical levels of hunger, as they face a $14 billion annual gap in food security spending. The result has been to slash food rations previously provided to countries like Yemen, Ethiopia and Somalia.
According to the World Food Programme, a record high of 49 million people in 46 countries could descend into famine or “famine-like conditions” amid the food crisis. The worst affected countries are Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, where there are 750,000 people facing starvation and death, of which 400,000 alone are in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where there is an ongoing Civil War.
This situation, said Guterres, can be reversed if world countries worked together to face the accumulated crises. “There is enough food for everyone in our world this year. But farmers need to urgently access fertilisers at reasonable cost to ensure enough food next year,” he warned.
With the theme of this year’s World Food Day being “Leave no one behind. Better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life,” the UN chief called on world governments, scientists, the private sector and civil society to work together to make nutritious diets available and affordable for all.
This is easier said than done, unfortunately. So far the developed countries spending billions to fund the war in Ukraine under the banner of protecting democracy and human rights and confronting Russian expansionist ambitions have failed to meet their pledges to provide help to countries that are paying a heavy price for this war without being involved in it in any way.
Considering that there seems to be no end in sight, with scenarios tilting more towards escalation than diplomatic solutions, this will only usher in more trouble and hardship for poor and developing nations. If citizens of the richest countries in the world are now bitterly complaining and holding violent demonstrations to protest increasing prices and soaring inflation, one can only imagine what the situation might look like in countries that have already been suffering food shortages and starvation for years .
International financial institutions have indeed declared plans to increase their support for developing countries so that they can help their people and invest in food systems. Yet pledges for aid are not conditions-free. They are usually accompanied by a long list of demands on so-called “structural reforms” that can only add to the misery.
For decades, it was the so called developed world and its superpowers that would intervene to bring an end to endless wars in the Middle East and Africa, claiming the priority was ending human suffering. With those same nations currently cheerleading the war in Ukraine and even exchanging warnings on the possible use of nuclear weapons, one wonders how the insanity which is impacting the entire world economy, and adding unprecedented hardships to poor and developing nations might come to an end. What is at stake is no more geopolitical and strategic interests, but human beings facing famine, food shortages and starvation.
* That is what we need to remember on the World Food Day.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.