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BRUSSELS — China and other powerful countries need to step up to help steer the world away from a potentially “catastrophic” hunger crisis this year, the new head of the United Nations’ World Food Programme said.
Cindy McCain, an American diplomat and the widow of the late U.S. Senator John McCain, also told POLITICO that the EU and U.S. should see world hunger as a national security issue due to its impact on migration. She furthermore accused Russia of using hunger as a “weapon of war” by hindering exports of Ukrainian grain.
McCain, formerly the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. food agencies, took the helm of the WFP on April 5 and begins her five-year term at a time of increasing world hunger. The number of people facing food insecurity around the world rose to a record 345 million at the end of last year, up from 282 million in 2021, according to the WFP’s figures, as Russia’s war in Ukraine deepened a food crisis driven by climate change, COVID-19 and other conflicts.
This year could be worse still, McCain warned, with the Horn of Africa experiencing its worst drought in 40 years and Haiti facing a sharp rise in food insecurity, among other factors. “2023 is going to be catastrophic if we don’t get to work and raise the money that we need,” she said. “We need a hell of a lot more than we used to.”
Non-Western countries, which have traditionally contributed much less to the WFP, need to step up to meet the shortfall, McCain said, pointing specifically to China and oil-rich Gulf Arab countries. China contributed just $11 million to WFP funds last year, compared to $7.2 billion donated by the U.S.
“There are some countries that have just basically not participated or participated in a very low fashion. I’d like to encourage our Middle Eastern friends to step up to the plate a little more; I’d like to encourage China to step up to the plate a little more,” said McCain. “Every region, every country needs to step up funding.”
Her entreaty may fall on deaf ears, however, given rising geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China. The WFP’s last six executive directors have been American, dating back to 1992, and Beijing may prefer to distribute aid through its own channels. Last summer, for example, China shipped food aid directly to the Horn of Africa following a drought there.
Countries hesitant to throw more money into food aid should think about the alternative, McCain said, particularly those in Europe that are likely to bear the brunt of any new wave of migration from Africa and the Middle East.
“Food security is a national security issue,” she said. “No refugee wants to leave their home country, but they’re forced to because they don’t have enough food, and they can’t feed their families. So it comes down to if you want a stable world, food is a major player in this.”
The WFP is already having to make brutal decisions despite raking in a record $14.2 billion last year — more than double what it raised in 2017. In February, for instance, it said a funding shortfall was forcing it to cut food rations for Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh.
The problem is compounded by surging costs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, which sent already-high food prices soaring further, as grain and oilseed exports through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports plunged from more than 5 million metric tons a month to zero.
A U.N.-brokered deal allowing Ukrainian grain exports to pass through Russia’s blockades in the Black Sea has brought some reprieve, but Moscow’s repeated threats to withdraw from the agreement have kept prices volatile.
The deal, initially brokered in July last year, was extended for 120 days last month; Russia, however, agreed to extend its side of the Black Sea grain initiative only for 60 days. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threatened, once again, to halt Moscow’s participation in the initiative unless obstacles to its own fertilizer and food exports are addressed.
Moscow claims that “hidden” Western sanctions — those targeting Russia’s fertilizer oligarchs and its main agricultural bank, as well as others excluding Russian banks from the international SWIFT payments system — are hindering its fertilizer and foods exports and causing hunger in the Global South.
Ukraine and its Western allies have countered that Russia is deliberately holding up inspections for ships heading to and from its Black Sea ports, creating a backlog of Ukraine-bound vessels off the Turkish coast and inflating prices.
These delayed food cargoes are hindering the WFP’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises, said McCain, who did not hold back on the issue.
“Let’s be very clear, there are no sanctions on [Russian] fertilizer,” she said. “It is not sanctioned and never has been sanctioned.”
Russia is “using hunger as a weapon of war,” said McCain. “it’s unconscionable that a country would do that — any country, not just Russia.”
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