Nations urged to stay the course on foreign aid

Workers carry aid provided by the World Food Program for distribution in Pissila, Burkina Faso, in January.  |  Reuters/Anne Mimault photo

World Food Program recently doubled its estimate of the number of people at risk of imminent starvation to 265 million from 135 million

Open borders and funding for overseas food aid are essential in preventing starvation for hundreds of millions of people, says the head of the United Nations World Food Program as well as the head of Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a problem everywhere, but poor countries risk being hit much harder than developed nations.

“People tend to forget that you might get sick of COVID (anywhere), but if you’re sick on top of borders closing, transportation limitation of food, labour shortage in the field, income reduction, you may starve rather than (die from) a COVID episode,” said Jean Lebel of IDRC, a research-focused organization.

The World Food Program, which supplies emergency food supplies, as well as co-ordinating other food aid in developing countries, recently doubled its estimate of people at risk of imminent starvation, from 135 million to 265. Already 30 million of those rely entirely on the WFP for all their food.

The doubling isn’t just due to COVID-19, but also because of a huge outbreak of desert locusts in central Africa and political conflicts that have led to huge numbers of people being turned into refugees.

Before COVID-19 struck “I was looking at 2020 being the worst humanitarian crisis year since World War Two,” said WFP executive director David Beasley in a May 12 video session with people involved in food aid.

Now, with COVID-19 exacerbating food production, food distribution and food trade, things look much worse.

“In World War Two, you didn’t have a breakdown of the supply chain worldwide,” said Beasley.

“You had a breakdown in war zones. But we’re having a breakdown in the supply chain globally (today.)”

Beasley urged governments such as Canada to continue funding the World Food Program and other aid programs, to increase aid, and to avoid blocking exports of food during the crisis. Food systems in the developing world are already struggling and an interruption of trade would put many lives at risk.

If in “a country like the United States or Canada, where people at first were panic-buying, if you couldn’t get toilet paper, if you couldn’t get protein like before, if that’s (what happens to) the most sophisticated food chains on the earth, imagine what happens in Niger, in Mali, Burkina Faso,” said Beasley.

During economic hard times, donors often reduce foreign aid funding. Beasley urged Canadians and others not to withdraw their support.

He said the WFP is the world’s most experienced and efficient provider of emergency aid across the planet’s trouble spots.

“We know how to overcome barriers, hurdles,” said Beasley.

“We know how to do this.”

While most of the world’s attention has been on the impact of COVID-19 in developed economies like China (the source of the virus), the United States and Europe, the biggest impact might be on developing nations in coming months, where it has been slower to spread.

Those countries are following the same infection trajectory as that of developed countries, but have much lower abilities to deal with a health shock.

Medical systems are weaker, food supply chains are not as developed, and millions of people are suddenly falling into poverty from lockdowns and job losses not just in their home nations, but around the world.

Many countries rely upon money earned by their citizens working in developed nations being sent home in remittances, but many of those workers are now unemployed.

Beasley said children in developing nations are at particular risk for starvation, especially because of the lockdowns.

“When this hit, 1.6 billion children were out of school,” said Beasley.

School meals were being provided to 375 million of those children.

“For many of those children, that’s the only meal they get per day.”

Beasley said people in developed countries will worry first about their own domestic food supply, but he said they also should worry about the situation in other parts of the world, because those problems will lead back to the developed world and the global economy. Those issues will be more costly to address than preventing starvation in the first place, he said.

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