The World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley and Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva inspect food distributed by WFP in Ganyiel, Unity region, South Sudan. Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farrran / FAO

The heads of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.N. World Food Programme were in Washington, D.C., on Monday, in an effort to garner attention and funds for famine relief in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria.

Visibly frustrated with the slow donor response, José Graziano da Silva, the director-general of the FAO and David Beasley, the executive director of the WFP, reiterated calls for financial support. U.N. agencies know what needs to be done, they said, but they lack the funds to respond effectively.

Famine has already been declared in parts of South Sudan, while the rest of the country, Somalia, Yemen and northern Nigeria are on the brink of famine. Nearly 20 million people in those four countries are either living in famine or near-famine conditions, the U.N. said in March.

Yet in the months since the U.N. warning, the donor response has disappointed. “At this moment what is missing is financial support,” da Silva said.

The two U.N. officials cited donor fatigue as well as the allocation of European funds toward internal migration-related issues. Beasley called on China, Russia and France, particularly, to do more. The two officials are visiting a number of donors in hopes of winning more support.

Dire needs, urgent response

In order to declare a famine, the U.N. Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC scale, must indicate that, even with humanitarian assistance, one in five households have an extreme lack of food and “starvation, death, and destitution are evident.” Mathematically speaking, a famine is declared when 1 in 10,000 people are dying every day.

The situation today is reminiscent of famine in Somalia in 2011 and 2012, Beasley and da Silva, warned. The international community was slow to act in that case, and about 150,000 people died as a result, they said.

“This situation is about to repeat in the countries we’re talking about,” da Silva said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

Current funding levels won’t sustain the response, and if donors don’t step up, the agencies will be forced to make difficult decisions about where to work and how to deploy resources, which, Beasley said, will result in deaths. The U.N. only has about 25 percent of the funding it needs to address the challenge in the four countries, he said.

The need is urgent, da Silva said, not just because of the acute food aid needs, but because the rainy season is about to begin in much of Africa, and the FAO needs funds now to be able to distribute seeds so that smallholder farmers can grow crops and sustain themselves. Local production is critical to addressing food insecurity, both in the short and long term, he said.

“If we don’t act now we won’t have local production next year,” he said.

Seed distribution has to be complemented by immediate food relief, da Silva continued. In some cases, farmers have faced such dire conditions that they have eaten the seeds that were distributed.

America First?

In their effort to drum up donor support, Beasley and da Silva are meeting near-weekly, they said. The two recently traveled together to South Sudan and are now undertaking a tour of donor capitals.

Beasley, who supported United States President Donald Trump throughout the election, said he has been talking to that administration about supporting the efforts against the famine, including through funding, and he didn’t mince words when calling for action.

“If you want to put America First, you’ll fund the World Food Programme,” he said. “It’s the most effective program out there, dollar for dollar, for fighting extremism.”

Beasley, who has been at his post just two months, acknowledged a steep learning curve. But he was visibly passionate in calls for greater support, particularly to save the 1.4 to 1.5 million children who are at risk of dying in the next eight months.

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

Less than two months into his new position of executive director of the World Food Programme, David Baisley, 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. 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.

He called it “totally inexcusable” that children should die because they don’t get the food aid they need with the wealth the world has today.

The Trump administration has committed to supporting efforts in the four countries with the most acute food insecurity and “the money will be there,” said Garry Hall, senior director for international organizations and alliances at the ‎National Security Council, who was in the audience.

It is unclear how much money the administration intends to commit, however, or how those funds will be allocated. The Trump administration’s overall budget proposal to Congress would seek to cut food aid more generally.

Conflict zones

A great deal of global food insecurity today is caused or exacerbated by man-made conflict. Even in Somalia, where the famine has been driven by severe drought, conditions are complicated by elements of conflict.

“Peace is the most important precondition to eradicate this hunger,” da Silva said, adding that it is also crucial to the FAO being able to effectively do its work.

Peace, cessations of violence, and even guarantees of safety and passage for aid workers have proven illusive, particularly in South Sudan and Syria, where aid workers and relief convoys have been specifically targeted.

In conflict situations, the FAO and WFP are required to respect local government positions, and are often limited in what they can do. Agencies such as the FAO can, however, provide incentives to build peace, or in the case of South Sudan, work with regional groups such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to encourage neighboring countries to put pressure on the government.

On their recent trip to South Sudan, Beasley and da Silva met with local leadership, including the country’s vice president, to urge them to end the conflict and allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need, Beasley said.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.