The U.S. Government Must Continue Leading on Overseas Humanitarian Aid. The World Depends on It. Literally.
The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.
There is an old political saying: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Amid all the hardships unleashed by Covid-19, the humanitarian community has an opportunity to rebuild our social, economic, and environmental systems so we are stronger, more resilient, and more equal. This is our chance to create the better world we all want to see, and the World Food Programme (WFP) is counting on the U.S. government to help us make that happen.
Change on a global level is never easy and presents myriad challenges. I have been asked to consider how the obstacles we face today differ from the challenges of 5-10 years ago.
The major challenge—today and always—is funding, of course. As generous as the United States and other governments have been, the world’s food needs have outstripped WFP’s resources.
Without the necessary funds, a wave of hunger and famine still threatens to sweep across the globe. If it does, it will overwhelm nations already weakened by years of instability. In the meantime, WFP is forced to do the unthinkable, like our recent cut in rations to 2.7 million refugees in East Africa.
But funding shortfalls are not new. What makes today’s funding challenge different is that it is defined by what I call “the three Cs”—conflict, Covid-19, and climate.
Never before has conflict and armed violence among different factions so impacted WFP’s ability to deliver food. The largest hunger crises are no longer the result of natural disasters, like the 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti or the 2013 typhoon that devastated the Philippines. They are now the direct result of man-made conflicts. When roads are bombed, trucks carrying flour and lentils can’t get through. When air strips are destroyed, planes carrying cooking oil can’t land. And when fighting continues day and night, hungry people can’t venture out to seek food, farmers can’t work their fields, and food markets stop functioning.
“If meager incomes dry up when economies shut down, people cannot buy food. And as incomes have shriveled in developing countries, remittances have slowed, severely hampering access to food among those who were already hungry.”
I just returned from the Sahel, where extremists are trying to expand their influence into areas that have been relatively stable politically. Al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Islamic State—who could have imagined 10 years ago that these groups would become part of our vocabulary? A woman I met in my travels told me her husband was tempted to join an extremist group not because of ideology, but because this faction offered money and food while he struggled to feed the family. Last year, WFP spent about 80 percent of its $8 billion budget responding to conflicts in just five countries—the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Just imagine the good we could accomplish in the world if that $6 billion was freed up to invest in long-term development and resilience programs.
The unnecessary price being exacted by conflict is even more tragic when we consider the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In many places where WFP operates—where people survive in cramped quarters, with no running water for handwashing—the hungry cannot easily protect themselves from coronavirus. As infections spread, families will be even more challenged to secure food, especially urban populations that had previously managed to escape severe levels of hunger. But the economic impact of Covid-19 might be even worse than the medical impact: If meager incomes dry up when economies shut down, people cannot buy food. And as incomes have shriveled in developing countries, remittances have slowed, severely hampering access to food among those who were already hungry. This unprecedented crisis means WFP must work to assist up to 138 million people this year. That’s a new record, and not one to be proud of. (Our previous record was 113 million during the Iraq war in 2004.)
“Aid agencies will not be effective in these turbulent times unless their leadership reflects the people and places they serve and all the talent that is available."
The impact of erratic, increasingly powerful weather patterns is also making food assistance more difficult than we could have imagined 10 years ago. Climate disasters look different in each setting but have devastating impact everywhere. In South Sudan, we have watched flooding reach new levels, creating a heavier and longer rainy season that weakens the planting, weeding, and harvest periods. So instead of helping people in March or April, we began assistance six months earlier. But farther south, in Zimbabwe, the problem is not rain but recurrent, widespread droughts and dramatically lower rainfalls. For those dependent on smallholder farming, this means limited food stocks, fewer meals, more children out of school, and the sale of livestock.
But not all of today’s challenges are external. Humanitarian agencies should scrutinize internal structures and ensure their workforces are genuinely diverse. Aid agencies will not be effective in these turbulent times unless their leadership reflects the people and places they serve and all the talent that is available. Championing gender balance must be more than printed policy. I push for this at WFP, where more women serve in senior leadership positions now than at any other time and where initiatives are underway to further increase diversity and gender balance. Of our six regional directors—powerful posts in WFP—three are women and three are men, who together represent a strong mix of backgrounds.
As head of WFP, I have seen tremendous suffering around the world firsthand. I have met Rohingya women who saw their husbands killed and who, in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, are now terrified about their future. In Ecuador, I saw how years of drought and poor crop yields have swollen the numbers of hungry people—and how aid agencies struggle to keep up while more pour in from Venezuela and Colombia. In Yemen, I was greeted by an eerie silence entering a children’s hospital ward: Hundreds of babies were being treated for malnutrition but were simply too weak from lack of food even to cry. And in Lebanon, I saw how an unexpected chemical explosion transformed previously independent people in vibrant Beirut into people dependent on WFP and others for food.
“I urge U.S. government leaders, whoever they may be in January, not to walk away from a commitment to humanitarian assistance and overseas development aid.”
Why do I share these encounters? On the one hand, they are examples of how we as a global community have failed each other. The most privileged among us, despite years of effort, have failed to lift the most impoverished out of conditions that leave them in constant hunger.
On the other hand, these are all places where the United States has made an unmistakable difference. In every region, the United States has time and again demonstrated its commitment to humanitarian aid with an impact.
I urge U.S. government leaders, whoever they may be in January, not to walk away from a commitment to humanitarian assistance and overseas development aid. The United States has been WFP’s largest donor for its entire 60-year history, last year contributing $3.4 billion. I recognize that the United States is investing billions on domestic stimulus packages and must prioritize spending so that scarce resources sustain programs that deliver the greatest impact. But countless lives depend on U.S. foreign aid.
U.S. assistance has become so prominent that it presents a challenge of its own—persuading taxpayers that the bang is worth the buck. With so many Americans suffering—jobs and careers put on hold, health insurance canceled, evictions looming, heartbreaking lines at foodbanks—many Americans are questioning, if not resenting, aid sent overseas. I applaud the United States and other governments that have shown a real willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with lower-income nations because that solidarity has become a matter of life and death. Literally.
But the United States has demonstrated more than just financial commitment. It has demonstrated genuine leadership—and this is more important than ever. By continuing to step up, and not step back, it is setting an example to the rest of the international community. In these unprecedented times, global cooperation and leadership are critical—above all for the hungry people who depend on foreign aid.
David Beasley has been executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) since 2017. WFP is this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
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