What do you call it when families around the world find themselves, once again, stalked by a killer of our own creation? A tragedy? A nightmare? Or, perhaps, more accurately, a crime on a planetary scale? Climate change, war and soaring prices are causing a hunger crisis as serious as any in our lifetimes. From Mozambique to Ireland, families and children are going to bed hungry, not knowing where their next meal will come from. This is a global food crisis and as world leaders prepare to travel to New York for the annual UN General Assembly, the stakes could hardly be higher.
In the Horn of Africa, someone is dying from hunger every 48 seconds. Hunger there is visible, visceral, violent. As ever, it is women and children who suffer the most, and mothers who shoulder the task of conjuring sustenance and comfort for sick children from nothing at all. But there is a wider, more chronic side of the food crisis, too: around the world, at least 828 million people do not have enough to eat. For far too many people, in rich and poor countries alike, a steady supply of nutritious food – the stuff of life itself – is out of reach.
The truth is, our food system is broken. Even before recent events, roughly three billion people could not afford a healthy diet
The war in Ukraine has exacerbated these problems, but it did not create them. The truth is, our food system is broken. Even before recent events, roughly three billion people could not afford a healthy diet; while at the same time, around a third of all food produced globally was being wasted. Climate change is wreaking havoc on harvests and imperiling livelihoods, but food production itself is responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the primary driver of biodiversity loss. There are actions we can take to solve this problem now – and forever.
Firstly, we need a political plan. Leaders must step up in New York this week. Think back to other great upheavals of our time – the Global Financial Crisis, the Arab Spring, the refugee crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic – all of them were at one point named and conceived of as a single phenomenon with localised effects. Similarly, while the global food crisis shows up differently in Madagascar, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan to Germany, the UK or the US, the hunger and hopelessness it generates knows no borders. Just as with global crises before, this needs to be designated a shared emergency to be met with a collective response.
After the politics comes the money. Leaders meeting at the UN this week must fill the $33 billion gap for the most urgent humanitarian assistance. It is intolerable that we are weeks away from a predicted and utterly preventable famine being declared on the African continent and agencies are having to pass a begging bowl to do life-saving work.
Do not think it will be readily forgotten that the world could quickly (and rightly) find $45 billion in humanitarian support for Ukraine and her refugees but on this – one of the great “black lives matter” tests of our time – we are set to fail. Rather than shamefully cutting aid to Africa to fund in-country refugee costs, rich countries must step up now to support lifesaving community-led initiatives and prevent disaster.
In the longer term, donors including the World Bank and IMF must offer countries hit hardest by the food and climate crises serious, strategic long-term financing so they can build their resilience to this and future shocks. Looking at the damage done in recent weeks by torrential rains and flooding in Pakistan, it is unmistakably clear that we must invest now to prepare for, and help prevent the worse version of, a volatile future. It is welcome that the US treasury secretary Janet Yellen started to outline plans for a new financing approach that would not leave us lurching from crisis to crisis. She must build on this vision and get other finance ministers and heads of state to back it.
In 2005, at the Make Poverty History rally in Trafalgar Square in London, Nelson Mandela urged world leaders: ‘Do not look the other way; do not hesitate’
It’s not just public money that’s needed to fund climate change adaptation and mitigation, and help make agriculture and food systems more resilient and less carbon-intensive. Private foundations are already doing a lot but must do still more. And multinationals and traders earning record profits should be made to pay more tax and ensure a fairer distribution of earnings along the supply chain.
‘Do not hesitate’
In 2005, at the Make Poverty History rally in Trafalgar Square in London, Nelson Mandela urged world leaders: “Do not look the other way; do not hesitate. Recognise that the world is hungry for action, not words”. Seventeen years on, that hunger has not been sated, and so we are pleased to join with civil society to launch the Hungry for Action campaign.
For every mother looking at an empty cupboard and wondering how to make it to tomorrow; every teacher overseeing a class of hungry, tired students; every farmer mourning failed crops; and every food-bank volunteer or user wondering how we have got here in a world of plenty, we give this campaign our full support. And we invite readers as outraged as we are to join us. Together we will say: we will not look away. We will not pass by. We are hungry for action. We must see it this day.
Graça Machel is founder of the Graça Machel Trust and The Foundation for Community Development. Mary Robinson is a former president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner for human rights