The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed millions of people into poverty and hunger. The United Nations estimates that between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger in 2020 — about 161 million more than in 2019. However, it would be wrong to blame the pandemic solely for the rise in global hunger figures. After about two decades of consistent decline, hunger began to increase from 2015 onwards. The last few years also witnessed a comeback of famines. In 2017, a famine was declared in South Sudan while Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen were on its brink. Currently, famine-like conditions prevail in Yemen, South Sudan, Madagascar, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia.
While the famine in Madagascar is the consequence of a severe drought due to climate change, all the other countries facing famine-like conditions are conflict zones. Yemen, described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, has been under famine-like conditions since 2016. The conflict between the internationally-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Houthi rebel movement that began in 2015 has ravaged the country. Nearly 16.2 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance. About 50,000 people from Hajjah, Amran and Al Jawf are living in a famine-like ambience. Child undernutrition in Yemen is one of the highest in the world, with about 2.3 million children needing urgent treatment.
Similarly, South Sudan has been in a state of conflict since 2012-13 that has destroyed lives and livelihoods. About 60 per cent of the South Sudanese population is hungry. Ethiopia, until recently one of the fastest-growing African countries, is experiencing another famine due to the ongoing conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and Ethiopian troops. About 400,000 people in the Tigray region are facing famine. Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consequent suspension of international aid have also heightened the risk of a famine in that country. The Afghan economy is in a shambles and Afghanistan is facing a severe drought. About 23 million Afghans are threatened with hunger and nearly one million Afghan children need immediate treatment for malnutrition.
Amartya Sen has often stressed the role of democracies and government action in the prevention of famine. However, unlike functional democracies, none of the governments in these countries is actively engaged in famine prevention. In fact, some governments have actively contributed to the famine through neglect or deliberate prevention of relief to those in need. For instance, the South Sudanese government has largely downplayed the crisis while the Ethiopian government is widely accused of creating the famine by preventing the flow of relief into Tigray. Likewise, the Taliban leadership lacks both the wherewithal and the intent to prevent mass starvation in the country.
The international community needs to step up its efforts to address mass starvation in these nations. While scaling up humanitarian efforts is the need of the hour, it is also important to recognize their limitations. For instance, considerable resources have already been spent on South Sudan and Yemen since 2016 but their people continue to suffer from extreme hunger. The key question is this: is it even possible to end hunger in these regions through humanitarian efforts without addressing the underlying cause of hunger — conflict? In addition to food aid, there is a need to put an end to the conflicts so that the nations and their people can resume normal economic activities and become less reliant on international support.
Ending hunger (Sustainable Development Goal 2) is not possible without peace and security (Sustainable Development Goal 16). Global hunger should not, therefore, be looked upon in isolation. The inextricable link between hunger and peace and security must be acknowledged and peace-building must become an essential ingredient in the fight against hunger. To achieve the sustainable development goal 2, additional resources should be channelled towards peace-building. Political solutions to conflict must be prioritized. Enhanced humanitarian assistance will not be enough.
Malancha Chakrabarty works as a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation