UN's $100M famine response is not enough to match rising needs, experts say

A worker gives a food ration to a woman at a charity kitchen in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo by: Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

NEW YORK — The United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund released $100 million in emergency funding on Wednesday to avert the rising risk of famine in four countries.

But the new money, while helpful, will likely be a “drop in the bucket” of what is needed, according to Sarah Fuhrman, a humanitarian policy specialist at CARE International. International funding for humanitarian response, including food insecurity, remain at record low levels, despite the rise in humanitarian needs.

“We need international donors, the U.S. and everyone else to step up and take this risk seriously, so we can avert a larger crisis,” Fuhrman said.

“I think we are seeing a bit of donor fatigue,” Fuhrman said. But, “it is not an option for people in Yemen or the DRC to take a day off from the circumstance they are facing, and it should not be an option for us, either.”

CERF, an emergency organization situated within the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, dispensed a joint $80 million to Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, northeast Nigeria, and South Sudan earlier this week. The funding allocation followed the U.N.’s warnings last week that the risk of famine was increasing in all of these countries.

“Famines result in agonizing and humiliating deaths. They fuel conflict and war. They trigger mass displacement. Their impact on a country is devastating and long-lasting.”

— Mark Lowcock, emergency relief coordinator, United Nations

An additional $20 million has been set aside for anticipatory action for food insecurity and drought in Ethiopia, according to OCHA Spokesperson Zoe Paxton. CERF, unlike other U.N. bodies, has the ability to almost immediately dispense funding during a crisis. It is now considering which organizations and partners will receive the money, Paxton said.

“The prospect of a return to a world in which famines are commonplace would be heart wrenching and obscene in a world where there is more than enough food for everyone. Famines result in agonizing and humiliating deaths. They fuel conflict and war. They trigger mass displacement. Their impact on a country is devastating and long-lasting,” U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said in a statement.

A “toxic combination” of the pandemic and other climatic and economic conditions has made the possibility of famine in areas of these countries likely within two to six months, according to the World Food Programme.

People in 25 countries will face “devastating levels of hunger” because of the pandemic, the WFP announced in July.

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But overall humanitarian emergency response appeals remain funded at just 43.6%, far below the 63% funding level in 2019. All overall response plans since 2010 have been funded at more than 56% of the total they required. The total required to meet humanitarian needs tops $39 billion this year, a sharp rise from the $27.8 billion required in 2019.

“The crisis is getting worse and the funding is getting less, and that is one of the biggest issues right now,” said CARE spokesperson Rachel Kent.

The pandemic has likely diverted funding from these other areas of work, even as COVID-19’s secondary impacts include worsening hunger, inequality, and employment, among others. CERF has also issued $134 million for the global pandemic response.

“I have not personally heard a donor say that the pandemic is drawing money away from humanitarian response funding, but if we are looking at the data and seeing the numbers, the funding is that much less than it was in previous years. I think the data speak for itself,” Fuhrman said.

CARE released new findings on Thursday that show how COVID-19 is making food insecurity worse for women and girls, in particular. This is the first time that four separate regions have experienced an imminent famine risk at the same time, according to Fuhrman.

“This is the first time we are seeing this many countries, this many people, so close to the brink.”

— Sarah Fuhrman, humanitarian policy specialist, CARE International

“Of course the world has seen famine before, and there has been a risk of famine on multiple occasions, but this is the first time we are seeing this many countries, this many people, so close to the brink,” Fuhrman said.  

CERF’s funding will be distributed via cash and vouchers. Afghanistan, where 3.3 million people face emergency levels of food insecurity, will receive $15 million. Burkina Faso, where the numbers of hungry people have tripled since 2019, will receive $6 million. The Democratic Republic of the Congo will receive $7 million, and northeast Nigeria will get $15 million. South Sudan will get $7 million, while Yemen will bring in the most amount of available funding, totaling $30 million to feed the 10 million people who are hungry.

“No one should view a slide into famine as an inevitable side effect of this pandemic. If it happens it is because the world has allowed it to happen. Famine can be prevented. But we have to act in time to make a difference. Right now, more money for the aid operation is the quickest and most efficient way to support famine-prevention efforts,” Lowcock said in a statement.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.