By Mark Lowcock & Axel van Trotsenburg
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, DC – The toxic cocktail of climate change, conflict, and COVID-19 is making itself felt most intensely in the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries. As a result, a record 235 million people worldwide will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021 – an increase of 40% from last year.
It can be hard to wrap one’s head around such numbers. But behind the statistics are individual human lives. For the most vulnerable people, the pandemic’s secondary effects – not the coronavirus itself – will cause the most damage. And the hunger pandemic triggered by COVID-19 threatens to be the biggest killer.
The number of chronically hungry people increased by an estimated 130 million last year, to more than 800 million – about eight times the total number of COVID-19 cases to date.
Countries affected by conflict and climate change are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Empty stomachs can stunt whole generations.
Moreover, the specter of multiple famines looms just as government budgets are being stretched by efforts to protect populations and economies from the pandemic. International solidarity to help prevent such disasters may look like a hard sell just now. But preventing famine and food insecurity is a smart investment for everyone.
Still, we must ensure that we are getting the most from every dollar we spend. That is why the United Nations and the World Bank are increasingly investing in an anticipatory approach to humanitarian need. It has become ever clearer that acting early to address humanitarian needs ahead of a crisis is more effective, dignified, and cost-efficient than waiting until disaster has struck. Such a strategy also protects hard-won development gains.
For example, in Bangladesh last year, the United Nations and the Red Cross/Red Crescent provided vulnerable people with cash so that they could get themselves and their livestock out of harm’s way before devastating floods hit. This effort cost half as much as picking up the pieces afterward would have done, and it helped more people.
We are applying a similar anticipatory approach to the growing hunger pandemic, by taking action before food emergencies turn into full-blown famines. This involves addressing long-term drivers of food insecurity – including vulnerability to extreme weather and pests, low incomes, fragile value chains, and conflict – in order to prevent new crises down the road.
In line with this goal, the International Development Association (IDA, the World Bank’s fund for the poorest countries) committed $5.3 billion for food security in the six months between April and October 2020. This sum comprised a mix of short-term COVID-19 responses and investments to address the longer-term causes of food insecurity.
In Bangladesh, the World Bank redirected resources from an existing project to provide, among other things, cash transfers to 620,000 vulnerable small-scale dairy and poultry-farming households. In Haiti, where remittances were expected to decrease as a result of the pandemic, the IDA provided farmers with seeds and fertilizer to safeguard future harvests, and supported small irrigation works that increase long-term resilience. The IDA has also extended its Crisis Response Window to include $500 million in financing dedicated to responding during the early stages of slow-onset food-security crises and disease outbreaks.
Likewise, in June 2020, the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund provided financing to help avert a food crisis in Somalia. Acting ahead of the triple threat of locusts, floods, and COVID-19 reduced the risk of disease outbreaks. By upgrading boreholes early, the UN averted disputes related to water sources, kept livestock healthier, improved household finances, boosted mental health, and prevented large-scale population displacement.
The development of effective COVID-19 vaccines means that the world may soon start to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But for many of the most vulnerable countries, the crisis will have deep and long-lasting after-effects – on incomes, health, nutrition, education, and whole economies.
Swift action can make the hangover less painful. We need to focus today on monitoring risks and the factors that compound them, and emphasize effective early action and long-term investment to avoid much larger costs in the future.
Acting now on the danger signals is the smart, moral, and cost-effective strategy. By working together to save and transform lives, we can free the world’s most vulnerable people from crippling hunger and insecurity and build the foundations of a better future for all.
Mark Lowcock is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. Axel van Trotsenburg is Managing Director of Operations at the World Bank.