Pandemic will double number of starving people

UN agency which won Peace Prize says gap between aid spending and donations widening

Sacks of food from the World Food Programme (WFP) being unloaded from a UN helicopter in South Sudan in 2012. A WFP official says the coronavirus shock has made clear that aid cannot keep pace with multiplying threats, adding that with the pandemic set to nearly double the number of people facing starvation this year, preparing better would help battle such crises in the future. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • The Covid-19 pandemic is set to nearly double the number of people facing starvation this year, but preparing better would help battle such crises in the future, said an official at the World Food Programme (WFP), after it won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

As the United Nations food-aid agency was rewarded for its efforts to fight hunger and improve conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas, Mr Gernot Laganda said the coronavirus shock has made clear that aid cannot keep pace with multiplying threats.

"You won't get to zero hunger with humanitarian aid alone," Mr Laganda, head of climate and disaster-risk reduction for the WFP, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"You need two parallel lanes of work: responding to extreme events and helping governments build systems that can manage risks."

As Covid-19 has tested countries' ability to deal with stresses "like never before", growing knowledge of the gaps "is equally relevant in managing the climate emergency", he noted.

Today, as hunger grows despite a global goal to eliminate it by 2030, WFP spends about 80 per cent of its money in responding to urgent crises in places from Afghanistan to East Africa, Mr Laganda said.

But as worsening extreme weather linked to climate change and threats like the pandemic and conflict push more people into hunger, the gap between what the agency can raise in donations and what it needs to spend is widening, he added.

That is a problem likely to worsen as an economic downturn provoked by the pandemic tightens aid budgets around the globe.

"Even with the prize now, whether we can fill this gap is a question," Mr Laganda said in a telephone interview.

At the award announcement, Ms Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, called on the international community to adequately fund the food-aid agency.

"This is an obligation, in our minds, of all states of the world, to ensure that people are not starving," she said.



To help close the funding gap, reduce suffering and get help to people more quickly, WFP has invested in efforts to curb risks, through measures including better early-warning systems, insurance policies and social safety nets.

In Bangladesh, hit this year by floods that covered a quarter of the country, early-warning systems provided a four-day notice of the coming deluge, Mr Laganda said.

That triggered "anticipatory" payouts - cash delivered via mobile phones through a social safety net programme - that gave 20,000 families resources to move their valuables out of harm's way.

WFP, which helped set up the government system through which it delivered the support, said experts had documented that each dollar of such spending can save US$3 (S$4) in humanitarian aid, as well as disruption and losses for families.

Similarly, in drought-hit countries such as Zimbabwe and Mauritania, WFP is supporting insurance policies that provide quick payouts - four to six months faster than humanitarian aid usually arrives - when rains and crops fail, he added.

Early assistance helps cash-short farmers avoid selling the oxen they need to replant fields next year or cutting down rain-regulating trees to sell as firewood - measures that can push them into a downward spiral, Mr Laganda said.

Ms Reiss-Andersen said tackling hunger means "not only providing food - it's also about creating sustainable communities where the food production... can support (their) people".

"If (lack of) food is the reason for war and conflict, creating food-secure communities also creates safer communities which are less prone to conflict," she added.


Mr Laganda noted one big problem is that people who become reliant on humanitarian aid - often after crops fail, jobs and remittances dry up and all their assets are sold - usually struggle to survive without it.

Programmes like those providing food vouchers or cash for people who do work like planting trees, digging ponds or restoring degraded farmland often last only through the disaster period, he noted.

To help break the cycle, humanitarian spending should be combined with development aid to tackle poverty and build resilience for the longer term, he said.

Mr Laganda warned that while wealthier countries have so far avoided the worst of the hunger, conflict and climate crises affecting the rest of the world, they are not immune from shocks, as the coronavirus pandemic has made clear.


  • Singapore's flagship carrier Singapore Airlines and the Temasek Foundation partnered the World Food Programme during the pandemic, arranging flights to transport medical supplies and other essential items to areas of need around the world. Temasek contributed up to US$6.5 million (S$8.8 million) to cover the flight costs.

From United States wildfires and unprecedented heat to a string of destructive hurricanes, climate pressures "are knocking on everyone's door", he said.

Ms Sara Pantuliano, head of London-based Overseas Development Institute, said the Nobel award to WFP should reinforce "the importance of looking at the longer-term impact of a number of crises - the pandemic being one, but also... climate change and other global pressures".

Giving the prize to a UN agency could be seen as pushback against nationalistic responses to international threats, she noted.

"Hopefully, this is a moment that will focus minds to think how we need to reshape global cooperation" with an emphasis on broader alliances with business and civil society, she added.

"We cannot address global crises in isolation."


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2020, with the headline Pandemic will double number of starving people. Subscribe