WFP wins Nobel Prize but some question the choice

World Food Programme staff members at work in Jeremie, Haiti. Photo by: Alexis Masciarelli / U.N.

WASHINGTON — The World Food Programme has won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize at a moment when mounting hunger amid the coronavirus pandemic threatens to unmake crucial gains in combating starvation and malnutrition.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee said WFP was being recognized “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian agency and serves as the United Nations’ logistics hub, with a footprint in 88 countries in 2019. Its expertise in emergency and conflict settings allows the agency to deliver food aid in challenging security environments, which abound in a pronounced period of global unrest. Ten of the world’s 13 major food crises are driven by conflict, according to WFP, and 690 million people in the world do not have enough to eat. Global hunger numbers are expected to rise further due to COVID-19.

While many humanitarian organizations and other U.N. agencies celebrated WFP’s win, some critics say that while the work WFP does is valuable, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a U.N. organization does not make sense even at a time when multilateralism has been increasingly challenged.

“This is a peace prize. It is not a humanitarian prize,” said Mukesh Kapila, a professor of global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester.

“It’s a bizarre choice, and it’s a complete waste of the prize, in my opinion. I don’t think the World Food Programme needs this money, and I really object to awarding prizes to people or organizations who are just doing their paid jobs,” continued Kapila, who has worked for multiple U.N. agencies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the World Bank, and the former Department of International Development in the U.K. “I might as well get a certificate for having got up this morning.”

Andrew Blum, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, said it makes more sense to award the $1.1 million prize to a particular organization or person involved directly in a peace process. Last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali received the prize for “his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

In 2016, Juan Manuel Santos, then president of Colombia, was honored “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end.”

“There should be something about what the awardee is doing that is a breakthrough, that’s somehow transformational, or that takes a lot of courage, that’s kind of out there pushing things forward,” Blum said. “I think it’s okay to give the award to an organization but … I’d like it to be an organization that’s creating some kind of breakthrough.”

Sixty percent of the world’s hungry people live in a country impacted by conflict, and by 2030, more than half of poor people are expected to live in a fragile or conflict-affected environment. WFP works frequently in these environments, attempting to stave off hunger. Conflict and instability were major causes of hunger in all four countries where WFP helped avoid famine in 2017: Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen.

In 2018, the U.N. Security Council formally recognized the link between conflict and hunger, tying the prospect for peace to the ability to feed everyone in the world. But Michelle Jurkovich, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and former fellow in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Food for Peace, said anti-hunger efforts should not need justification.

“I do think we should be careful in how we talk about the links between hunger and conflict. Often we see anti-hunger efforts justified as a means to reduce conflict (and by contrast, to keep peace) but hunger should be addressed not because hungry people might perpetuate conflict, but because the persistence of hunger is a human rights violation,” Jurkovich wrote in an email.

David Bosco, an associate professor of international studies at Indiana University, said the Norwegian Nobel Committee may have been trying to send a message about the importance of multilateralism in an age when international institutions have had funding shortfalls and have seen declining support, particularly from the U.S. WFP Executive Director David Beasley, an American who took up his post in 2017, has been successful at retaining U.S. funding for his agency.

“I’m hopeful that this recognition will awaken the world that there are people dying out there that need our help and they have to understand the relationship between conflict and food insecurity.”

— David Beasley, executive director, WFP

The prize could have been better used to elevate lesser-known people or organizations, Bosco said.

“I see it as a bit of a missed opportunity because I think organizations like the World Food Programme are fairly well known. They have large budgets. They have ample means to get out their own message,” Bosco said. “The Nobel has the opportunity to highlight organizations or individuals who don’t get much attention but may be doing heroic things.”

Although WFP as an organization is well known, many of its front-line workers are not, said former WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran. Violence against aid workers reached an all-time high in 2019, when 483 aid workers were killed, kidnapped, or wounded in 277 separate incidents of violence. Just this week, a WFP convoy was attacked in South Sudan, and one aid worker remains missing.

WFP’s prize recognizes those who regularly put themselves in harm’s way, Sheeran said.

“This is really an honor to the many, many WFP people who have lost their lives in service to getting a meal to a child,” she said. “This is also a reminder that the world needs to honor those who have stepped up to the plate and are serving.”

Beasley said he hopes the award will raise awareness about the prevalence and causes of hunger, and he urged the world to come together to solve the problem.

“I’m hopeful that this recognition will awaken the world that there are people dying out there that need our help and they have to understand the relationship between conflict and food insecurity,” Beasley told the BBC from Niger. “If we ignore hunger, we will have more war, conflict, destabilization, migration. And it’s a lot cheaper to do what’s right on the front end than it is to wait too late when it costs a thousand times more.”

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.