Stepping Up to Prevent a Global Famine

As Putin’s war threatens global food security, it’s time for everyone to help the world’s most vulnerable

By Sarah Charles, Assistant to the Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance

Top: Sacks of sorghum donated by USAID arrived at Douala port in Cameroon. Photo: Blanche Salamatou/WFP Bottom Left: A young child is screened for malnutrition at a WFP distribution site in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Photo: Claire Nevill/WFP | Bottom Right: Two-month-old Abdullah, who suffers from severe acute malnutrition, is weighed and measured at a hospital in Aden, Yemen. Photo: Giles Clarke/UN OCHA

So far, 2022 has been an unprecedented year. It follows an unprecedented year, after an unprecedented year before that. Globally, humanitarian needs continue to rise and levels of hunger have reached alarming levels, driven by conflict and insecurity, the impacts of COVID-19, and extreme weather and other climate shocks. According to the recently-released Global Report on Food Crises, close to 193 million people across 53 countries or territories experienced acute food insecurity last year–a disturbing new record high, and one we are well on our way to break this year largely due to the far-reaching impacts of the war in Ukraine.

Horn of Africa Drought

In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, food insecurity has been prevalent in recent years, but ongoing conflict has greatly exacerbated the situation. USAID partner WFP is assisting 650,000 displaced people and host community members through monthly food distributions. Photo: Adrienne Bolen/WFP

Perhaps nowhere are the compounding effects of conflict, COVID-19, and climate on sharper display than in the Horn of Africa, where a historic drought is causing the driest conditions on record. Despite decades of progress and investment, people are facing severe livestock losses, water shortages, and land degradation. Families are struggling to buy food and fight back child malnutrition. More than 20 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya will need food assistance this year. To put this figure in some perspective, this would be a more than 70% increase in needs compared to levels recorded during regional food security crises in 2016 and 2017.

The Horn of Africa is experiencing a “perfect storm” of factors contributing to a growing food insecurity crisis, including back-to-back droughts, a locust outbreak, flooding, and COVID-19. Photos: Michael Tewelde/WFP and Sven Torfinn/FAO

This is not just another drought in the Horn of Africa. This is a perfect storm of multiple factors involving the impacts of consecutive crises — locusts, floods, successive droughts, COVID-19, and now Putin’s war on Ukraine, which continues to exacerbate humanitarian crises around the world.

Collectively, the international global community must increase investments in early warning systems, including analysis of compounding crises, and follow up with bold action. We know early warning when paired with early action works. In 2016–2017, when alarm bells sounded about impending famine in Africa, the international community and affected governments stepped up to curb the worst outcomes.

To be frank, it is very concerning that we aren’t heeding our own lessons. We have been warned about the threat of catastrophic food insecurity in the Horn, and now Somalia faces a growing risk of famine, but we haven’t seen sufficient action in the face of these warnings.

A girl gets water from a water distribution point at a displacement camp in Beledweyne, Somalia. Cycles of flooding and drought have become more recurrent and unpredictable in Somalia, forcing thousands of people to leave their homes. Photo: Luis Tato/AFP

Over the past few weeks, the U.S. Government announced more than $320 million in additional humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa. This will provide lifesaving food and nutrition assistance for vulnerable communities across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, as well as medical supplies and specialized water, sanitation, and hygiene assistance. Despite this, UN agencies such as the World Food Program, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization have received only a fraction of what they need to meet urgent needs.

For example, on May 3, UNICEF announced that it has only received 22 percent of the $351 million required to provide assistance to the estimated 9.9 million people in Ethiopia in need of humanitarian aid. We need much more urgent action from humanitarian donors, as well as from multilateral development banks.

Global Impacts of the Ukraine War

Even before Putin’s war on Ukraine began, approximately 768 million people were chronically hungry. The war has only made an already dire situation significantly worse. Photo: Anton Skyba/UNICEF

For the second year in a row, the Global Report on Food Crises identified conflict as the main driver of global food insecurity. It is therefore no surprise that seven out of the 10 worst food crises are in conflict-affected areas.

Conflicts create disasters for those who stay and those who flee. Conflicts also compound risks: They push people into areas where there is limited access to essential services and, often, also to assistance, which can strain physical and mental health and hinder or even halt livelihood activities.

Putin’s war on Ukraine is creating even more challenges for people in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere who are already experiencing the impacts of conflict. Even before the war began, approximately 768 million people were chronically hungry. The war has only made an already dire situation significantly worse, increasing the costs of food, fertilizer and fuel and threatening to push up to 40 million more people into poverty and food insecurity worldwide.

Combating Global Food Insecurity

Ukraine is a significant producer and exporter of grain, sunflower seeds, and corn. Millions of people—including USAID beneficiaries — depend on Ukrainian crops to survive. Photo: Adrienne Bolen/WFP

As the war in Ukraine continues to cause ripple effects around the globe, and especially for those already vulnerable, USAID–through its Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance–is more committed than ever to drawing attention to these impacts and responding to growing needs.

1. We are increasing emergency food assistance in countries that have high levels of food insecurity and are vulnerable to price shocks.

USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance provided food assistance to 59 countries in fiscal year
2021, responding to both emergency and non-emergency food needs. Photo: Imani Nsamila/WFP

On May 18, 2022, the United States announced nearly $215 million in additional humanitarian assistance to address the global food security crisis, which has been exacerbated by Putin’s war on Ukraine and its corresponding impact on global markets. This additional support will expand emergency food security operations in countries already facing food insecurity as a result of conflict, drought, and other disasters, including: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Yemen.

Since the war in Ukraine began on Feb. 24, the United States has provided nearly $1.7 billion in humanitarian assistance to respond to worsening food insecurity around the world. In addition, USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are taking the extraordinary step to program the full balance of the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust as part of an effort to provide $670 million in food assistance to six countries facing severe food insecurity: Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Yemen.

2. We are using data analysis to project the potential impacts of the crisis so that we can act to prevent a dangerous deterioration in humanitarian conditions.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) is a leading provider of early warning and analysis on food insecurity. Created by USAID in 1985 to help decision-makers plan for humanitarian crises, FEWS NET provides evidence-based analysis on approximately 30 countries. Map: FEWS NET

We are working with the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), the International Food Policy Research Institute, and our in-house data analytics teams to forecast the impacts of rising food, fertilizer, and fuel prices on people’s abilities to access sufficient food.

3. We are advocating with other donors to increase funding to prevent a global food security crisis.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, less than 13 percent of humanitarian needs have been funded. There is currently a more than 46 billion dollar funding gap between the financial requirements to meet growing humanitarian needs and funding received from donors. Graphic: Vanessa Rodriguez/USAID

We are emphasizing the importance of this assistance being additive in nature — it is critical that donors do not reduce funding from other crises to support this one.

USAID partner WFP carries out food distributions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Ituri Province. The number of displaced people in this area of the country are on the rise due to an increase in clashes involving armed groups. Photo: Charlie Musoka/WFP

According to the UN, the world faces a risk of food shortages during a time when hunger levels have never been higher. What this means is that tens of millions of people around the world do not know where their next meal will come from. The warnings have been sounded for governments to move swiftly to avoid further calamity. Now is the time to act.

Sarah Charles is the Assistant to the Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), the U.S. government lead for international disaster response. With a mandate to save lives, alleviate human suffering, and reduce the impact of disasters, BHA monitors, mitigates, and responds to global hazards and humanitarian needs.

Learn more about USAID’s lifesaving humanitarian work.

Follow USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn for updates.

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