UN Security Council must work to avoid 'destructive new wave of famine'

A young man waits with his family’s monthly food rations at a refugee camp in northern Uganda. Photo by: UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres announced Thursday at a Security Council briefing on the link between conflict and hunger that he will convene a High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine, as millions around the globe face the “brink of extreme hunger and death.”

Guterres said the task force will be led by Mark Lowcock, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, and will also include representatives from the World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization to “bring coordinated, high-level attention to famine prevention and mobilize support to the most affected countries.”

Lowcock announced his retirement as head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs last month but is expected to remain in the position until a replacement is named.

The task force will work with other U.N. agencies, international financial institutions, and nongovernmental organizations that aim to prevent hunger. Guterres said there are more than 30 million people in over three dozen countries living “just one step away” from a famine declaration.

“I urge all members of this council to support the task force in every way possible and to do everything in your power to take urgent action to prevent famine,” Guterres said.

During Thursday’s debate, Security Council members ticked off a grim list of food crises around the world: 70% of the population in Yemen needs food assistance; the Democratic Republic of Congo is poised to become the world’s largest hunger emergency, with 19.6 million people facing crisis; an all-time high of 12 million people in Syria face crisis or worse levels of food insecurity; and an estimated 3 million people need assistance in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where humanitarian access has been severely restricted by the government.

“Please don’t ask us to choose which starving child lives and which one dies. Let’s feed them all.”

— David Beasley, executive director, WFP

Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and the Central African Republic also face high levels of food insecurity.

WFP Executive Director David Beasley said his agency last year served the most people in its history: 114 million. He called food insecurity projections for 2021 “truly shocking,” with the vast majority of this famine being “entirely preventable” because it is caused by conflict.

“Unfortunately, new waves of COVID [COVID-19] have been unrelenting, and the concerns of 2020 are now a reality for 2021. So, today, I must warn you that we are once again sliding toward the brink of the abyss,” Beasley said. “While COVID is undeniably exacerbating fragility around the world, man-made conflict is driving instability and powering a destructive new wave of famine that threatens to sweep across the world. The toll being paid in human misery is unimaginable.”

As president of the Security Council this month, newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield convened Thursday’s discussion to “advance efforts” to eliminate conflict-driven food insecurity. During the debate, she said there is no reason in 2021 that the world should not be able to get food to people in need. But she noted that today’s conflicts are lasting longer, becoming more complex, and being compounded by external factors such as climate change.

Thomas-Greenfield also described a troubling trend in the politicization of hunger, which is taking place in South Sudan as the government prevents access to accurate reporting and data documenting the true scale of food insecurity levels.

“We can save lives, if we know where to go, and if we put the funding toward it. And if we don’t have the data, we can’t deliver that lifesaving assistance,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Part of our The Future of Food Systems series

Find out how we can make food fair and healthy for all. Join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems and visit our The Future of Food Systems page for more coverage.

“So to that end, we ask Secretary-General Guterres and his team for two formal reports to the Security Council each year, in addition to the current mandate to urgently notify the council when there is a risk. … We must depoliticize reporting and ensure that we have a regular mechanism for addressing these situations in the Security Council so that no more innocent civilians starve to death.”

Thomas-Greenfield said the United States is “happy” to partner with the U.N. to determine how to better enhance data collection and analysis of food insecurity so the organization can “identify who is responsible for hunger.”

Guterres and Beasley cited one major barrier to progress in the fight against growing food insecurity: a lack of funds. Guterres said the “disappointing outcome” of a pledging conference for Yemen last week — with only $1.7 billion raised for the $3.85 billion appeal — “cannot become a pattern.”

“The Security Council has a moral obligation to do everything in your power to end these wars. But until we can achieve that, we need you to give us the funds to stop millions of people from dying from starvation. We were able to avert famine in 2020; we can do it again,” Beasley said. “Please don’t ask us to choose which starving child lives and which one dies. Let’s feed them all.”

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.