The year 2020 has been, and continues to be, a year of reckoning. From the devastations of COVID-19 to international outcries against racism, many aspects of life are being approached with new perspectives and scrutinies. When the World Food Programme (WFP) received the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize on October 9, another simple fact of life was thrust into re-examination: food.
A branch of the United Nations, the WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, with focuses on eradicating hunger and providing food security in developing countries. While food is a granted routine of life for most, hunger is the only reality for 690 million people around the world.
In this interview, The Globe Post discusses with WFP Communications Officer Kyle Wilkinson about the organization’s recent Nobel Prize award, the current threats of food insecurity, and the importance of humanitarian food assistance.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your reaction to the WFP winning the Nobel Peace Prize? How will the award influence the World Food Programme?
Wilkinson: I had the biggest smile on my face when I heard the news. I am deeply humbled that WFP won the Nobel Peace Prize, and I’m so proud to work for such an incredible organization.
Most importantly, though, the award is a tribute to the work that my colleagues do in some of the toughest conditions – putting their lives on the line every single day – to bring food and assistance to more than 100 million hungry children, women, and men across the world.
The decision of the Norwegian Committee comes as progress in defeating global hunger is being reversed, mainly because of conflict. It puts the struggle of the 690 million people who go to bed hungry at the center of world attention.
We welcome this, and we hope that this increased global awareness will mean that the world will pull together in solidarity and help WFP close its widening financial gap so that we can reach people in need. WFP currently faces a shortfall of around US$5 billion in funding due to increased levels of need in communities that have been pushed into hunger as a result of the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Given the large operational scales of the WFP, how does the organization optimize the efficiency of its aid?
Wilkinson: On any given day, WFP has 5,600 trucks, 30 ships, and nearly 100 planes on the move, delivering food and other assistance. Every year, WFP distributes more than 15 billion rations at an estimated average cost of $0.61.
Embracing technology and data to enhance the efficiency, accountability, and impact is key to our work. Our solid partnerships with the tech sector enable us to experiment and adopt cutting-edge technologies to strengthen food systems, shorten humanitarian response times, deliver assistance more efficiently, and make funds stretch further.
To give you an example, WFP is using blockchain technology in Jordan to provide food aid to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees to buy groceries from local shops using iris scans instead of cash, paper vouchers, or credit cards. When a refugee visits a grocery store to make a purchase, their eye “unlocks” their virtual account, and the bill is settled without the refugee opening their wallet. The transaction is immutably recorded on the blockchain. This system makes cash transfers faster, cheaper, and more secure.
There is currently enough food in the world to feed everyone, yet food insecurity is on the rise. What is causing this disparity and what is the WFP doing to address it?
Wilkinson: You are correct that hunger is on the rise. Approximately 690 million people are hungry and nearly all the world’s major food crises, 10 out of 13 of them, are driven by conflict.
Conflict and insecurity – along with climate shocks and economic turmoil – are the main drivers of hunger. Many of the people we help are fleeing conflict, and have been forced to abandon their land, homes, and jobs.
In 2018, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2417, which WFP and other UN agencies were instrumental in promoting. The Resolution breaks new ground: it is the first time the global community has explicitly recognized the formal link between hunger and conflict, and that the world will never be able to eliminate hunger unless there is peace.
For those caught in conflict and natural disasters, food assistance saves lives and it is a vital tool for promoting longer-term development and stability. This is where WFP’s work comes in.
WFP has been on the frontlines of conflicts and natural disasters for more than 50 years, saving lives in emergencies and bringing hope to millions caught in conflict. When governments are weak or corrupt, when people are at the mercy of armed groups, WFP’s presence provides hope and is one of the building blocks of peace.
When conflict ends, WFP stays to help communities build back better with programs that strengthen resilience and help people back onto their feet, working with governments to strengthen systems of stability and supports people as they reconstruct their communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the threats of hunger around the world and has also affected the economies of donor countries. With no end to the pandemic in near sight, how will the WFP proceed as the coronavirus continues to compound these issues?
Wilkinson: Although conflict and insecurity remain the main drivers of hunger, the added dimension of COVID-19 means that hunger is indeed on the rise, as you rightfully point out. WFP estimates that the number of acutely food insecure people could jump by 80 percent to 270 million by the end of 2020 in the 79 countries where WFP works.
Despite the enormous challenges, in the first six months of 2020, WFP was able to continue its lifesaving operations and reach 85 million people, expanding to meet emerging humanitarian needs, while responding to the longer-term impact of the crisis on food security. In 2020, WFP is mobilizing to meet food needs of up to 138 million people – making this the biggest humanitarian operation in WFP’s 60-year history.
As long as funding is available, WFP will continue to deliver, ramping up operations and adapting assistance as needed.
For example, we’ve observed that, because of COVID-19, hunger is becoming an increasingly urban problem in the developing world, affecting more people in cities and towns versus rural, remote areas. To address this WFP is scaling up cash-based transfers to urban populations and has transferred over $1.15 billion to vulnerable people and communities between January and August this year.
WFP is also adapting school meal programs, including take-home rations for seven million schoolchildren. Other measures include increasing local purchases, with over 500,000 metric tons of food sourced in countries of operation during the first half of 2020 – 17 percent more than in 2019 – while prepositioning food stocks and deploying staff to fill critical gaps and relieve field colleagues.
In addition, WFP has reviewed food distributions and other operations to reduce congestion and limit the risk of infection, staggering attendance, redesigning layouts to allow for physical distancing, adapting distribution cycles, and increasing the number of distribution sites and retail shops. Health mitigation measures have been put in place including health screening, handwashing stations, and educating communities on prevention measures.
Lastly, through the delivery of common logistics services to the humanitarian and health response, WFP served as the backbone of the global response to COVID-19, enabling organizations to stay and deliver through a network of hubs, passenger and cargo airlinks, and medevac services that enable a steady flow of humanitarian and health cargo and workers to the frontlines of the pandemic. These networks remain intact where there are no commercial passenger or cargo shipment options available.
Climate change has already affected hunger levels around the world, and will pose even greater threats to food security than COVID-19. How will the WFP approach the issue of climate change?
Wilkinson: Next to conflict, climate change is one of the main drivers of global hunger. Increased temperatures are already having a devastating impact on agricultural production. Particularly vulnerable are smallholder farmers living in the earth’s more fragile environments. More than 80 percent of the world’s most food-insecure people are being hit by extreme weather such as drought and flooding, as well as by other stresses such as pest infestation and land degradation.
Changes in climate are affecting the production of staple crops – wheat, rice, and maize – in both tropical and temperate regions. This situation is set to worsen as temperatures increase and become more extreme, and rainfall becomes more unpredictable. WFP is committed to saving lives in climate-related crises but climate change is happening so fast that humanitarian aid alone cannot keep up. That’s why it’s vital to put more effort into climate risk reduction and disaster risk management.
WFP is helping food-insecure communities on the front lines of climate change to prepare for, respond to, and recover from climate shocks and stresses. We are doing this by deploying programs and technology that reduce and manage climate and disaster risks.
Among the tools we are using are weather-index insurance which provides pay-outs to smallholder farmers in the event of extreme weather events; forecast-based financing which promotes early action to increase preparedness and reduce the impact of drought and flooding; and climate services which supply smallholders with climate information so they can plan for the next growing season and reduce crop losses when rainfall is poor.
The United States government is the biggest donor of WFP, but hunger is still an issue even within the US, with 13.7 million food-insecure American households in 2019. What is the WFP doing to address food insecurity within first-world countries?
Wilkinson: The UN World Food Programme operates only in the developing world — about 80 countries. We do not deliver food in the US or other developed countries. Even though there are increasing needs in the developed world, it is within every countries’ interest to invest in humanitarian assistance.
The pandemic is a global crisis and no one is immune as the virus spreads from one country to another. Investing in WFP food assistance means investing in an essential, foundational requirement to keep people alive and healthy, limiting their inclination to flee elsewhere with all of the disruptions to both local, regional, and global economies that this entails. Supporting WFP also ensures longer-term investments in resilience and development are protected and communities can get back on their own feet once the pandemic has passed.
Global solidarity is not only a moral imperative; it is in everyone’s interests. As long as the pandemic is affecting one of us, it’s affecting all of us.
In 2015, the UN agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, one of them being a pledge to end world hunger. Is the goal of achieving Zero Hunger by 2030 still realistic?
Wilkinson: Based on the figures in the 2020 State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. If current trends continue, the number of hungry people will reach 840 million by 2030.
Only massive, rapid, and pre-emptive action in the form of billions of dollars of funding from governments can keep the lid on rising hunger, promote stability, stave off famine, and put us anywhere near the realm of achieving Zero Hunger by 2030.
Even with the new challenges that COVID-19 brings, there is, and always has been, enough food to feed everyone on the planet. With today’s technology and know-how, it’s still possible, in theory, but only if the world comes together in solidarity with a commitment to recover better from the pandemic. Now is no time to throw in the towel.
What gives you hope about the future?
Wilkinson: My hope in the future comes from looking to the past at the incredible things that the world is capable of when we come together in the face of common threats.
Polio was once a disease feared worldwide; it would strike quickly and paralyze children for their entire life. The world united against this common foe, eradicating 99 percent of the disease, a remarkable achievement.
When scientists became aware of the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, the world united again. Politicians and world leaders quickly agreed on an international agreement to immediately reduce the chemicals that cause ozone depletion. This was a success, and now the ozone layer is healing.
We can learn from these examples to tackle world hunger, climate change, and just about every other major issue facing the world today. We have it within us, our leaders have it within them to commit to a better world, and I hope they will.