By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — While images of the war devastation in Ukraine have saturated the news bulletins around the world, a much more severe human disaster is unravelling in many other parts of the world that could throw over one-fifth of humanity back into poverty.
“We have all seen the tragedy unfolding inside Ukraine: cities flattened; people suffering and dying in their homes and in the streets; the fastest displacement crisis in Europe since the Second World War,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out in an address to the UN Security Council on April 5.
“But beyond Ukraine’s borders, far beyond the media spotlight, the war has launched a silent assault on the developing world,” he added.
“This crisis could throw up to 1.7 billion people—over one-fifth of humanity—into poverty, destitution and hunger on a scale not seen in decades,” he warned.
Ukraine and Russia provide 30 per cent of the world’s wheat and barley, one-fifth of its maize, and 80 per cent of its sunflower oil. Together, their grain feeds the poorest and most vulnerable people, providing more than one-third of the wheat imported by 45 African and least-developed countries. Russia is also the world’s largest exporter of fertilizer. Both disruptions to supply chains and the impact of sanctions are now threatening the world’s food security.
“The war in Ukraine will impact consumers across the world as the resulting increases in the price of food, energy and fertilizers put the next global harvests at risk,” the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Qu Dongyu, warned this month in an address to the 169th session of the FAO Council.
The meeting was held as the world’s food prices reached a 12.6% rise in February, touching an all-time high in March with cereals and vegetable oil prices surging, according to FAO’s latest Food Price Index.
These soaring prices for staple foodstuffs are “imposing extraordinary costs on global consumers, particularly the poorest,” Qu said. Adding that with energy prices rising in parallel with food prices, “the purchasing power of vulnerable consumers and countries has further decreased”.
Today’s high fertilizer prices, meanwhile, could lead to lower fertilizer use next season and possibly beyond, with the real prospect of a drop in food productivity leading to even higher food prices and food insecurity for the world’s poor in particular. “This would potentially result in even more undernourished people in 2022 and months to come,” Qu warned.
Addressing the Spring Meeting of the World Bank in Washington on April 18, Group President David Malpass also rang the alarm bells.
“I’m deeply concerned about developing countries. They’re facing sudden price increases for energy, fertilizer, and food, and the likelihood of interest rate increases. Each one hits them hard”, he told delegates gathered in the US capital. “These, plus the war in Ukraine and China’s COVID-related shutdowns, are pushing global growth rates even lower and poverty rates higher.” Thus, he pointed out that the World Bank has lowered its global growth rate to 3.2 % from 4.1% before.
Malpass noted that while the latest food crisis is bad for everyone, it is “devastating for the poorest and the most vulnerable”. He stated two reasons for this, with the first being that most of the world’s poorest countries are food importing countries, while the second being that food purchases are more than half of their household budgets.
“Global trade is still facing quotas, high import tariffs, high export tariffs, expensive food price subsidies, and even export bans on food products. These should stop,” warns Malpass. “The international community needs to immediately step up emergency assistance for food insecurity and help bolster social safety nets.”
The Ukraine war and sanctions triggered food crisis has been made worse for most developing countries with the high debts they have incurred in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his address, Malpass acknowledged that high debt and deficit levels have put countries in severe financial stress. “Sixty per cent of low-income countries are already in debt distress or at high risk of it,” he said.
The food price issue according to reports from the Washington meeting is high in the agenda of the World Bank meeting, because it could trigger serious social unrest around the world.
At the launch of IMF’s World Economic Outlook report on April 19, its Chief Economist Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas said that governments in lower-income countries face reduced fiscal space to respond, with their revenue streams already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic and other shocks including the Ukraine crisis. IMF argues that while social support to people in need is key right now, it must be targeted.
World Food Program’s executive director David Beasley in an address to the inaugural European Humanitarian Forum last month warned that the Ukraine crisis is going to throw up “a heck of a problem in about six to nine months” because not many people realize that Ukraine produces enough food to feed up to 400 million people. “If the agricultural leaders of the world can’t compensate fast enough if the war doesn’t end quick enough, you are going to have extraordinary conditions,” he warned, adding that it will destabilize many nations.
Beasley in a recent Twitter pitch to Tesla owner Elon Musk said that billionaires should be asked to contribute one or two days’ worth of their net worth increase during the COVID-19 pandemic to help address food insecurity issues, and he also argues that oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf should be told: “oil prices are up; you need to be stepping up in ways you’ve never stepped up before”.
“While much of the world has stepped up in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, there is no sign of the same support for the 1.7 billion other potential victims of this war,” laments UN chief Guterres. “We have a clear moral duty to support them, everywhere,” he argues.
Guterres, in his address to the UN Security Council called on all countries to keep markets open, resist hoarding and unjustified and unnecessary export restrictions, and make reserves available to countries at the highest risk of hunger and famine. “This is not the time for protectionism,” he argues. “There is enough food for every country to get through this crisis if we act together.”
“The only lasting solution to the war in Ukraine and its assault on the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world is peace,” he said in a passionate plea to the Security Council.
World Bank head Malpass agrees. He argues that to give high priority to energy and food production, the global community needs to strengthen security and stability, which “involves a commitment to security and peace”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 April 2022]
Image credit: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)