Nearly eight years ago I wrote an essay for New York Times Opinion asking whether the world had finally moved beyond the peril of large-scale famines. My answer was that it might very well have.

I was wrong. Famines are back.

I underestimated the cruel resolve of some war leaders to use starvation as a weapon. And I overestimated how much the world’s largest humanitarian donors cared about feeding the hungry in conflict zones, and giving them the necessary help to rise above the devastation when the fighting finally ended.

Since 2016, the year I took that optimistic view, a decades-long improvement in world nutrition has stalled. That year, the United Nations estimated that 130 million people needed emergency aid. By late last year, that figure had risen to 363 million, an increase of 180 percent. And famine — which had all but vanished globally — has returned to threaten a dozen countries and territories today.

The list of countries at risk of famine now includes Afghanistan, Syria and Mali. Humanitarian observers also worry that North Korea may be nearing a famine. And Gaza, of course, has shockingly raced to the fore of places that the Famine Review Committee, the independent group of experts convened by humanitarian agencies to assess the gravity of the worst food crises, has warned is at risk.

Despite the critical situation in Gaza, the current global epicenter of food crisis lies 1,000 miles to the south, in a cluster of countries near the Red Sea. About 90 million people are facing severe hunger in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. These countries, unfortunately, have their own histories of severe food shortages, but the world has never witnessed all of these countries descending toward mass starvation at the same time.

Leading aid agencies use a standardized five-point scale and color-coded maps to measure food deprivation. Areas colored green are near normal. Yellow are “stressed” — a warning to pay attention. Areas that are considered to be already in crisis are colored brown; this is when humanitarian aid efforts should kick into action. Places colored red are experiencing a food emergency and have started abandoning their homes and selling their last possessions to buy food, and children are already dying of hunger, disease and exposure to the elements. Dark red or purple marks the final, catastrophic stage of a food crisis: famine.

Today, entire countries in the region are shaded brown, and the red blotches are spreading. Veteran aid workers are privately and officially warning that several regions in Ethiopia and Sudan will soon be plunged into full-fledged famine unless aid is urgently provided.

Many things go into the conditions that create a food crisis: crop failures, high food prices, unemployment. But it’s war that has created the famines taking shape today. Worldwide, about two-thirds of the people who are facing hunger live in war or violence zones, like Sudan and Gaza, or are trying to flee them.

At the same time, as emergency needs are escalating, aid budgets aren’t keeping apace. Until five years ago, the United Nations’ annual appeals for emergency aid were funded to the tune of 60 percent. In 2023, that dropped to about 35 percent. This year aid spending could be even lower.

The reasons the world isn’t responding on the scale that’s needed are complex. For a start, it’s simply more expensive for donor nations to send food aid today than it was just a few years ago. Food prices have gone up, and shipping costs have shot up even more. A cargo of Ukrainian wheat destined for Ethiopia, for instance, has first to circumvent Russia’s Black Sea blockade and then in the Red Sea run the gantlet of missiles fired by Yemen’s Ansarallah, known as the Houthis, or take a weeks-longer, and far more costly, voyage around South Africa. Aid agencies say that freight costs have gone up anywhere from 15 percent to 100 percent, depending on the route.

But there is another, arguably stickier problem facing food aid today: corruption. Last year, USAID uncovered in Ethiopia what U.S. officials have reportedly called possibly the world’s biggest aid theft scheme. The scale of losses isn’t fully known. But it prompted the American agency to pause food aid to Ethiopia for five months while the United Nations put in place a rigorous system for reaching the needy and monitoring the distribution.

Scandals like these offer the perfect pretext for lawmakers who don’t like foreign aid to insist on budget cuts and ironclad guarantees that no assistance goes astray. Humanitarian providers are acutely sensitive to this and their systems have become ever more stringent. But the hard reality of aid in a war zone is that no mechanism will reduce theft to zero. And bitter experience tells us that the longer aid is delayed, and the more desperate people get, the greater the challenge of establishing properly run, fully accounted-for aid distribution. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The World Food Program and other aid agencies are already planning cutbacks across the world. They plan to shift their programs to target the very neediest, cutting out those who are merely hungry. That will mean limiting distributions to families who are easier to reach — for example, people in refugee camps — and neglecting the larger numbers of people who live in more remote villages.

The United States is still by far the world’s largest food aid donor, but its food aid budget isn’t meeting demands. In 2022, with supplemental funds unlocked after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which also pushed up the price of food, the United States nearly doubled its spending on the World Food Program to $7.24 billion. (The agency that year received a record $14.1 billion from its donors.) Last year, with Congress deadlocked over the national security supplemental budget, U.S. spending was back to $3.052 billion. Unless the supplemental budget is passed soon, the spending appears set to be even lower this year.

The bill before the House includes $10 billion in humanitarian aid for civilians in conflict zones, which would be used for all purposes, not just food, and all agencies, not just the World Food Program. It’s aid that is intended for Ukraine, Gaza and the rest of the world. But alongside disagreements over the border and aid to Ukraine, some lawmakers have objected to providing aid to Gaza and the West Bank that would be handled by the Palestinian Authority, alleging it could be mishandled, or by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, following Israeli allegations that some of its staff were implicated in the Oct. 7 attacks. American leaders should not be bickering over stopping famine. They should be leading the world in delivering help.

Without immediate aid, the overlapping food crises of today are almost certain to deepen month by month. Young children and the elderly will starve first. Then it will be women who save their last scraps of food to try to keep their children alive longer. Diseases like cholera will rampage through overcrowded camps. Families that are merely hungry today, but not starving, will leave their homes, abandon farms and sell their last possessions to eat.

Mass starvation isn’t just a stain on our conscience. It can be a global security threat. Famines can cause social collapse. They may push millions to migrate. Starvation fuels bitterness, hopelessness and protest. Food crises can bring down governments.

When hunger combines with war, that vortex of instability spins faster. Around the southern Red Sea, neighboring countries can’t shoulder the burden because they’re facing crises themselves. In fact, simultaneous food emergencies and civil wars in adjacent countries threaten to merge and metastasize into the perfect storm of food crises, unlike any we have seen before.

Humanitarian aid should be a bipartisan issue. Congress needs to unlock the needed aid funds.

There’s no time to lose.

Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, Medford, Mass. He is the author of “Mass Starvation: The history and future of famine.”

Source: NYTimes

 

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