Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to UN World Food Programme

Today, October 9, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) "for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict."

Q1: How is hunger related to conflict and war?

A1: In 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the WFP warned that 2020 would be a record year for global hunger, largely due to political conflict and wars. The relationship between hunger and war—or food security and peace—is complex. In the Lake Chad region, for example, Boko Haram appropriates assets and means of production, like livestock and land, to extend their influence and control. In Yemen, where 70 percent of the population is food insecure, hunger is a casualty of the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Venezuela, hunger is a consequence of economic mismanagement, the government’s collapse, and the Maduro regime’s use of food for political purposes.

On the other hand, improving food security is a way to build peace. Following Mozambique’s civil war, investments in agriculture helped stabilize the country, building livelihoods for those affected by conflict. In southern Sudan, WFP executive director David Beasley used the “good offices” of the WFP to broker the first visit by a UN official to contested areas, facilitating cross-line assistance to areas inaccessible for nearly 10 years and brokering engagement between Sudan’s transitional government and rebel groups.

Q2: How bad is global hunger today?

A2: Covid-19 is intensifying hunger in the United States and around the world. The WFP estimates that, because of Covid-19, up to 270 million people worldwide could be acutely food insecure in 2020. This is an increase of 80 percent over the WFP’s pre-pandemic estimate.

The WFP was among the first to name the culprit: as it relates to Covid-19, today’s hunger crisis is a crisis of incomes, not of food. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres stated this summer, “global food markets remain robust with abundant stocks of most staples following a good harvest in 2019.” The WFP based its projections on job- and wage-loss estimates by the International Labour Organization and region-specific declines in remittances projected by the World Bank.

Losses in jobs, wages, and remittances will push healthy diets further out of reach for a significant proportion of the world’s population. Even before the pandemic, the United Nations estimated that 3 billion people worldwide—over 40 percent of the world’s population—couldn’t afford the least-expensive version of a healthy diet. The pandemic will almost certainly push this number upward.

Q3: What does the WFP do?

A3: “Food assistance” may conjure images of bags of grains and seeds, but the WFP is moving away from in-kind assistance in favor of cash-based transfers. In the form of bank notes, vouchers, and electronic funds, cash transfers now make up one-third of all WFP assistance, up to $2.1 billion last year from $10 million in 2010. The benefits of cash transfers include multiplier effects on local economies and greater choice and potentially better nutritional outcomes for beneficiaries.

But the WFP’s work is not limited to food. The WFP is considered the backbone of the UN system’s humanitarian operations, providing logistical support in the form of air travel through the UN Humanitarian Air Service as well as ground support and even telecommunications assistance. Managing and providing technical and logistical support assists implementing partners, including large international nongovernmental organizations and smaller local, community-based organizations, to free up resources to carry out essential humanitarian activities in hard-to-reach locations.

Q4: Is this the first time a Nobel Peace Prize has focused on global hunger?

A4: No. The Nobel Committee awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Norman Borlaug for his contributions to the Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America. In 1986, Borlaug founded the World Food Prize, now awarded annually on World Food Day, October 16. In 1949, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Lord Boyd-Orr, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.

Q5: This year’s award has received some criticisms. Why?

A5: The Nobel Peace Prize is no stranger to contention. This year’s prize is attracting early criticism due to inefficiencies and controversies affecting the organization’s internal operations. Travel restrictions due to Covid-19 have also demonstrated the importance of community-based organizations as essential first responders. Furthermore, the global humanitarian sector has long emphasized the importance of shifting resources toward local organizations as a necessary step to rebalance power structures and dynamics within the aid sector, an effort with renewed urgency in the wake of global protests around social justice. As such, focusing on a multibillion-dollar UN agency may be seen as a step backward for those efforts. That said, the past year has also seen a backslide from multilateral efforts to respond to global crises. Acknowledging the good work of the WFP reinforces the critical importance of international cooperation.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jacob Kurtzer is interim director and senior fellow with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program
Jacob Kurtzer
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Humanitarian Agenda