The combined impacts of conflict, Covid and climate change are causing a global wave of hunger. In the Horn of Africa, four failed rainy seasons, limited aid and spiralling prices mean the overall death toll could be more than 10 times as high as the current loss of people from the war in Ukraine. In Afghanistan more than half the population needs urgent food aid to stay alive. In Central Sahel, an estimated four million children are at risk of starving in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
None of this is inevitable; decisions by world leaders to delay action and underfund responses carry deadly consequences. These are deaths by choice.
G7 finance ministers, including the UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are meeting in Germany today. The G7 could help to avert widespread catastrophe with an immediate injection of cash into the relevant UN humanitarian appeals. These funds get food to starving people and support lifesaving nutrition services, yet only 2 per cent ($93.1m) of the $4.4bn UN appeal for Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia is secured. Compare that to the $16bn raised in one month for Ukraine. In 2017, the international community acted to prevent famine in East Africa, but in 2022 political and media attention is elsewhere.
Beyond this emergency response, the bigger ambition has to be shifting the mindset of leaders in both rich, donor countries and those on the frontlines about the triple threat of Covid, conflict and climate change. People in power need to start to manage our shared risks and not simply respond to shared cataclysms.
In practical terms that means three actions. First, taking strong measures to limit further climate change and help those impacted by it to have reliable supplies of nutritious food and clean water. We already know what will happen if we don’t do this because we can see the results of our past failures: children born this year will face, on average, seven times more heatwaves than their grandparents. Heatwaves can lead to crop failures, disease spikes and, for some, the stark choice between moving and starving. In Somalia, drought has pushed more than 770,000 people from their homes since the start of last year.
Secondly, it means expanding social safety nets that help people prepare for shocks by providing cash and quick supplies in times of crisis. Social protection systems need to be able to respond quickly to unforeseen circumstances. The World Bank estimates that every 1 per cent rise in global food prices tips another 10 million people into extreme poverty, and food prices are spiralling upwards. Food prices reached their highest ever level in March — in part because Russia and Ukraine normally provide about a third of the world’s wheat, while food commodity prices have leapt by a third.
Finally, and most importantly, it means making global cooperation the default setting. Shareholders of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are under increasing pressure to deliver what Vera Songwe of the UN Economic Commission for Africa calls the agenda for the “voice… and volume and velocity of finance”. In other words, major financial institutions must provide shared, scaled and early financing and not wait for the worst to happen. Cutting aid, as the UK alone among the G7 has done, is no way to create the multilateral momentum needed to face today’s global challenges.
The other option is to do nothing and wait for the next wave of crises to crest. After hosting a G7 which failed to deliver vaccine equity and a Cop climate summit which fell short on climate financing and ambition, Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems to think there won’t be a political price to pay for his steady dismantling of the UK’s reputation for reliability and competence.
That belief underestimates the public and the action happening on the ground. Over the last few weeks, I have been speaking to people from local community groups around the UK, from Fife in Scotland to Greater Manchester and to those on London’s crisis frontlines. I have seen how hard people are working in food banks to ensure that no-one goes hungry and hearing how people increasingly see how the line separating what happens “over there” from what happens “over here” is blurring.
Our collective failures in Afghanistan are made clear when we house terrified children in UK holiday camps, hostels and hotels. The disruption of Ukrainian wheat exports shows up in the price of bread on our supermarket shelves. And when we fail to prepare for — or respond fast and fairly to — a global pandemic, we all pay the price. It isn’t an accident that polling shows Britons increasingly want the government to reinstate higher levels of overseas aid even as more people struggle to make ends meet, or that the public was so keen to support the Homes for Ukraine scheme that the website crashed.
Johnson often talks about his ambitions for a “Global Britain” but his actions — from aid cuts to plans to send refugees to Rwanda to leaving hungry people to their fate — don’t add up to serious leadership.
The fragility of the systems we all depend on for our survival has become painfully apparent in the last two years. Politicians have it in their power to make these systems more resilient. If they choose not to act, they will be responsible, directly or indirectly, for the suffering and death to come.
[See also: Why the world underestimates China’s climate action at its peril]