Q&A: WFP and FAO chiefs on South Sudan’s creeping donor fatigue

Officials from the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme are briefed by an FAO officer on fishing hooks distribution for the community in Ganyiel, South Sudan. Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farran / FAO

“It’s a disgrace upon the people of the Earth, and it’s heartbreaking,” said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, commenting on South Sudan’s famine. “It’s just not right in the 21st century to be facing all this brokenness, with all the technology and wealth that’s available in the world today.”

Less than two months into his new position, the former governor of South Carolina is taking his first trip to South Sudan, together with José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In an exclusive interview with Devex, they speak about what their respective organizations are doing to combat the famine, and the potential dire consequences of donor fatigue.

“In the past, when you moved to a level three emergency, it was enough to get the attention of donors,” said da Silva. “Now we have to declare famine and even now it’s not working.”

Both directors say that if the funding gap in South Sudan isn’t bridged, the situation could become increasingly devastating. The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

What is FAO doing to combat famine in South Sudan?

We’re working with the WFP and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as they’re providing direct assistance and food aid to the population in conflict areas. We’re complementing their work in other areas that aren’t under acute conflict, as it’s not enough to give food to people to avoid hunger, you need to get them back to work so they can produce their own food. The farmers have to start planting so they can harvest — if we don’t do that they’ll become dependent on food aid forever. In addition to saving lives, FAO wants to save livelihoods, and the precondition for that is peace. We can’t give pastoralists back their goats and sheep if they’ll be killed. South Sudan is a great country and it can become great again as it has all of the conditions including good water and good land — the only issue is the conflict.

How are you able to provide livelihoods to people while the conflict is ongoing?

We’re doing our best. We’re giving kits to fisherman, which allows them to fish, as it’s a way to try and restore the possibility of a normal life. But if we don’t stop the fighting now, it’ll become more and more costly. The planting season is starting and we’re missing the opportunity in the best part of the country, in the south, for farmers to plant. Last year, despite the conflict, we harvested one million tons of food. This will be an additional amount that we’ll need to buy next year, if they’re not able to plant this year. It’s a goal that is getting bigger and bigger due to the conflict, and donors are starting to become fatigued. There’s continued action without results.

Do governments cause harm to their people by not agreeing to an IPC recommendation for famine to be declared?

“What we’re seeing now is that children who were born five years ago, who were not fed enough, are now stunted.”

— José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization

The problem isn’t the declaration, or not, of famine. Famine is a cumulative situation and what we’re seeing is that the situation is deteriorating. Food security and nutrition is an accumulative process. What we’re seeing now is that children who were born five years ago, who were not fed enough, are now stunted. We’re condemning an entire generation of people in this country. Famine is when you cross the limit and we should not wait for that. We need to stop the process before that.

Why does the declaration of famine no longer get as much attention from donors as it did in the past?

The dimension of the crisis we have today is much bigger. It’s like a crisis after a war. In the 50s and 60s, we had 100,000 million people on the brink of famine. Now, we’re coming up to the same number with several countries on the brink of famine. Forty-eight countries and 108 million people are in IPC phases three, four and five. The donors are the same, but their priorities have increased a lot. They’re paying more attention to internal problems such as migration, so this is in some ways deviates attention.

Speaking with David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme:

Can you give us a snapshot of what the WFP is doing in South Sudan?

On the ground we’re encouraging the leadership to grant greater access. If we end the conflict, we have enough funds to achieve the objectives and feed the people. Our teams have been prepositioning food in very difficult areas that you can’t get to once the rains hits, and we’re about 90 percent positioned at this time. That still begs the question for lack of funding that we need for the remainder of the year. We have enough funds for several more months, but around October we run out and that could be catastrophic. Famine has already been declared in two counties and we’re on the brink of famine in many other locations in this country. Five million people are looking for food on a daily basis and the number of children on the brink of starvation is extraordinary — 1 million children in South Sudan alone are going hungry.

What can you share with us about the upcoming review of February’s IPC report?

The conditions are worsening, the funds are getting more difficult, the activity of conflict has increased in certain areas and our teams are trying not to get caught in the line of fire. There are a lot of bad things happening in this country, from women being raped to humanitarian organizations being held hostage, and we’re calling upon all parties involved to protect the humanitarian organizations.

What is the most difficult challenge the WFP is facing?

UN outlines 'new way of working in crisis' with $4.4B famine appeal for 4 countries

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said Wednesday that responses to crises in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia would see humanitarian and development groups work closely together to alleviate short-term suffering while looking for long-term stability.

There are three other countries on the brink of famine at the same time as South Sudan. This year alone we have 28 more million people worried about where they’re going to get their next meal. Ten of the 13 areas we’re in, that are costing us the most money, are man-made conflicts. We’re receiving about 25 percent of the funds we need for the four famine countries right now, and if we don’t receive the necessary funds we’re going to have to make some very serious decisions. We are literally facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, with 600,000 children alone dying in the next many months.

How does South Sudan compare to other countries in similar situations?

They’re all unique. South Sudan is more complicated in some ways. Yemen is extremely complicated. We’ll do everything we can, but the funds are running out and donors are getting weary and they’re going to have to make some hard decisions — if they find that countries won’t cooperate or won’t work, then they’ll put their money elsewhere. This isn’t what we want. We want to be neutral and we want to be the best that we can be in providing food for every single person in every single one of these famine countries.

Do you need to use the famine word to get donors on board?

Let the facts speak for themselves and let’s try to get the word out in the most colloquial common sense way so people understand.

— David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme

If you say a million people are “food insecure,” that doesn’t move the average person. If you say, “they’re on the brink of starvation and they’ll die if they don’t get food,” now that moves somebody, because you’re speaking normal language. Let the facts speak for themselves and let’s try to get the word out in the most colloquial common sense way so people understand.

The number one problem we’re facing around the world, aside from the man-made conflict, is that in these wealthy, donor-oriented countries, the media’s obsessed with Brexit, Le Pen and Trump, and they’re not providing balance on what’s taking place around the world. It’s making it more difficult for us to get the message out. We know historically people, especially in Canada, the United States and Europe, are very giving, caring people if they know about the crisis. So this is one of the reasons why I’m hitting the four countries on the brink of famine, as well as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan so that we can bring attention. We need the money sooner than later. The thing that makes me so mad is that it’s a man-made conflict and it’s a plight upon humanity.

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About the author

  • Sam mednick profile

    Sam Mednick

    Sam is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan. Over the past 12 years she’s reported on humanitarian, human interest and conflict stories from around the world. Sam’s work has taken her to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, writing for VICE, the Associated Press, Devex, Barcelona Metropolitan and iPolitics among others. Sam also produces and hosts the Happy Melly Podcast, interviewing authors, speakers and thought leaders about what it takes to live productive and fulfilling lives.