The 2020 Nobel peace prize has been awarded to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) for its efforts to combat hunger, foster conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war. This choice starkly underscores growing concern about increasing Global food insecurity and the clear connections between hunger and conflict.
Today, more than 820 million people – about one in nine worldwide – do not have enough to eat. They are affected by food insecurity, or just lack consistent access to the right foods to keep their bodies and brains healthy. Humans need a balanced diet.
Hunger has many causes. It can be a weapon of war; the result of a global pandemic like Covid-19 that disrupts production; or the result of climate change, as extreme weather events and shifting climatic conditions increase crop failures. Chronic hunger is rising around the world, and Covid-19 could worsen this trend.
The WFP was created in the early 1960s at the behest of US President Dwight Eisenhower. “We must never forget that there are hundreds of millions of people, particularly in the less developed parts of the world, suffering from hunger and malnutrition, even though a number of countries, my own included, are producing food in surplus,” Eisenhower said in a 1960 speech to the UN General Assembly. “This paradox should not be allowed to continue.”
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While the US was already providing direct food aid to needy countries, Eisenhower urged other nations to join in creating a system to provide food to member states through the United Nations. The WFP is now one of the world’s largest humanitarian agencies. In 2019, it assisted 97 million people in 88 countries.
The WFP works to strengthen individual countries’ capacity to meet their people’s basic needs. With its own fleet of trucks, ships and planes, the agency carries out emergency response missions and delivers food and assistance directly to victims of war, civil conflict, drought, floods, crop failures and other natural disasters.
When emergencies subside, WFP experts develop programmes for relief and rehabilitation and provide developmental aid. Over 90 per cent of its 17,000 staff members are based in countries where the agency provides assistance.
The Global Hunger Index attempts to assess the multidimensional nature of hunger by combining four key indicators of malnutrition into a single index score. The Nobel award recognises a key connection between hunger and global conflict.
As the UN Security Council emphasised in a 2018 resolution, humankind can never eliminate hunger without first establishing peace. Conflict causes rampant food insecurity: It disrupts infrastructure and social stability, making it hard for supplies to get to people. Too often, warring parties may deliberately use starvation as a strategy.
Food insecurity also perpetuates conflict, as it drives people from their homes, lands and jobs, deepening existing fault lines and fuelling grievances. Conflict-driven hunger has been widespread in the past several years in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Yemen.
Food insecurity is an urgent global challenge. The WFP reports that unless urgent action is taken, Covid-19 could almost double the number of people suffering from acute hunger by the end of 2020.
All aspects of food security may be affected by climate change, including who ultimately gets the food, how much it costs and how much is wasted.
The best way to prevent future hunger crises is to take action before they develop. Covid-19 has revealed many flaws in global political and economic systems and worsened food insecurity for the world’s poorest populations.
Eisenhower, who commanded US forces in Europe during World War II, understood where such conditions could lead. “In vast stretches of the earth, men awoke today in hunger. They will spend the day in unceasing toil.
And as the sun goes down they will still know hunger,” he observed in a 1958. “They will see suffering in the eyes of their children. Many despair that their labour will ever decently shelter their families or protect them against disease.
So long as this is so, peace and freedom will be in danger worldwide. For wherever free men lose hope of progress, liberty will be weakened and the seeds of conflict will be sown.” As the Nobel Peace Prize award makes clear, a world of peace and stability hinges upon everyone receiving the most basic of human dignities: The food they need to live.
Ms Eise is a postdoctoral researcher, Purdue University