About 300 children gather at Coronationville Secondary School as they wait for a food and goods distribution ahead of Christmas, lead by the grassroots charity Hunger Has No Religion, in Coronationville, Johannesburg, on December 23, 2020. (AFP)
The resurgence of hunger is one of the greatest problems we face today. A toxic mix of widespread civil war, poverty, and COVID-19 threatens to bring mass starvation on an unprecedented scale. Sadly, ending hunger and malnutrition is the one UN Sustainable Development Goal on which we have failed to make progress in recent years.
The World Food Programme was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2020 for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contributions to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-afflicted areas, and for acting as a driving force to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”
Saudi Arabia has long advocated for global attention to food security issues. At the recent G20 meeting hosted in the Kingdom, members committed to greater investments in agricultural development. At various moments in history when the WFP faced funding shortfalls, Saudi Arabia came to the rescue of those most in need by making significant contributions; in the 1970s, and during the sharp rise in food prices in 2008, the Kingdom made the largest cash donations to WFP by a single donor up to those dates, which helped the WFP implement programs aimed at lessening the impact. In 2019, the Kingdom was the WFP’s fifth-largest donor through the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center. Last year alone, the Kingdom invested $440 million in food assistance and agricultural development in 36 countries worldwide, the main focus being support to the WFP in Yemen for the past five years.
While starvation in conflict zones easily draws attention in the media, chronic hunger does not. There are so many drivers behind it: Poverty, discrimination, environmental degradation, and insufficient investment in agriculture. With each passing year, climate change inflicts more harm on farmers as they struggle to cope with rising temperatures and cruel cycles of flood and drought. After harvest, an astonishing 1.3 billion tons of food simply go to waste each year.
Add COVID-19 to the global hunger equation and we could soon see another pandemic — a hunger pandemic as brutally relentless as the virus itself. COVID-19 has taken over 1.7 million lives already. If we allow it to create a second pandemic of hunger and malnutrition, the cost in lives lost will be far more devastating. Hunger and malnutrition are already efficient killers, taking the lives of over 3 million children under 5 each year. We cannot allow the spread of COVID-19 to add fuel to that fire.
The COVID-19 pandemic has eaten into harvests, disrupted supply chains, and decimated the incomes of tens of millions of households. Where food is available, each day more people lack the money to buy it. All told, 270 million people may find themselves in an extreme hunger crisis in 2021, including about 30 million already on the brink of starvation.
What is the way forward? First, we must press all parties to honor the UN secretary-general’s call for a global cease-fire, which is consistent with the Kingdom’s policy focused on peace as its strategic choice and one of the most important pillars of its foreign policy. If most hunger stems from politics, we need political solutions. Brokering peace will not only curb outbreaks of hunger in war zones, it will stem the surge of refugees and economic migrants now overwhelming many host countries.
Second, we must position food in the most vulnerable regions by year’s end. This is not just a task for governments. We all must help. If there was ever a time to share, it is now.
Third, we must take a strategic approach to aid working in tandem and with a true spirit of collaboration. “Smart funding” through multiyear and multisector donations can help donors have a broad impact beyond containing emergencies. Better targeting of aid to focus more on women and girls would surely pay off, as they are most often the victims of malnutrition. It is not enough for us to save lives if we do not fundamentally change lives.
Finally, we must build resilience in societies so they can better withstand shocks like COVID-19 in the future. We must start with youth. School closures have ended school meals for 370 million school children around the world and the WFP, Saudi Arabia, and other donors are already providing food assistance to strengthen nutrition and prevent disease among them. We cannot let a generation in the developing world become collateral damage in this pandemic — malnourished and uneducated, with little hope of leading productive lives.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is empathy. Even in wealthy nations, families with jobs one day could find themselves relying on government aid or food banks the next. Tens of millions in the developed world today no longer take food for granted and share the worries of the world’s poor in a way we never imagined possible. Perhaps in the pain COVID-19 has thrust upon us, we can finally come together and work toward building a world without hunger.
• Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud is the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs.
• David Beasley is executive director of the World Food Programme.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view