Food prices are soaring around the world, and along with it so are rates of food insecurity and the risk of famine.
As my guest today, Sir Mark Lowcock explains, this is only partly due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which exacerbated an already worsening situation.
Mark Lowcock is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of the new book Relief Chief: A Manifesto for Saving Lives in Dire Times. He served as the top United Nations humanitarian official from 2017 to 2021 and prior to that had a long career in the British government, including as the top civil servant in the Department for International Development.
We kick off discussing what we know about the worst global food crisis in several decades before having a broader conversation about its causes, consequences — and specific actions that can be taken to prevent this crisis from getting worse.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
How Many People Are Living in Hunger During This Food Crisis?
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:02:12] What we have now is the world’s worst food crisis. For many decades, the United Nations, in the form of the leading agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agricultural Development have just in the last day or so, put out a new report, their annual report, on the state of food security and nutrition in the world and what that says is that there’s been an increase by 150 million people in the number of people around the planet who are going hungry, basically, who face some kind of chronic undernourishment or malnutrition or worse than that. So, it’s gone up from something less than 700 million to something closer to 830 million.
How has Russia’s war on Ukraine affected the current food crisis?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:09] To what extent is the Russian blockade of Ukrainian exports of key agricultural goods, grains and maize and other goods responsible for that increase?
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:03:24] Well what Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has done is make dealing with that big increase in chronic food insecurity much harder. The causes predate, by and large, the invasion so at the beginning of this year, we were already dealing with a very severe problem in multiple countries around the world, low-income countries mostly. And that problem has its origins in the spread of conflict around the world in recent years, in the increasingly visible and damaging and dangerous effects of climate change, both droughts and more aggressive storms and floods, and also in the economic impact of the COVID pandemic, which has been much worse in very poor countries than in rich countries. And in fact, the economic impact of the pandemic is probably much more damaging to human health and livelihoods than the virus has been itself. What the invasion of Ukraine has done is firstly send food prices through the roof — they were already at high levels, higher probably than we’ve seen since 2007 — but also sent fertilizer prices through the roof and energy prices through the roof and that combination of food, fuel and fertilizer deals with both the immediate problem of hunger, but also the challenge of reducing hunger in years ahead because it makes producing more food more expensive and more difficult and transporting to the places that need it more difficult. The other effect that Putin’s invasion has had is to take off the market 21 million tons of grain stuck in Ukraine silos. That’s enough grain to meet the needs of 400 million people and the fact that that grain is not there anymore is another kind of reinforcing problem which goes beyond the price hike that we’ve seen.
Which countries are hardest hit by the current food crisis?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:32] So you describe in a blog post on the Center for Global Development’s website, a suite of countries that you have identified that are both highly dependent on food imports and also already prone to high levels of food insecurity. Could you maybe describe that relationship and also describe what it’s like in some of those countries right now?
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:05:59] If a human being wants food to eat, that person has two options. Firstly, they can grow the food for themselves and their family and in many poor countries, large proportions of the population are based on subsistence agriculture, food that they grow on their own lands. The second option, of course, which is the one that is now available to the vast majority of human beings on the planet, didn’t in history used to be available to so many, is to buy food. Now there are lots of countries in the world which don’t produce enough food to feed their populations. The United Kingdom, where I’m talking to you from, is one of them but there are many countries in the developing world who have a chronic need to import food, so they are very affected by the markets and their ability to import food is also obviously very affected by their financial situation, the state of their economy and availability for foreign exchange and so on. And those countries come into two groups, really. The first is the group of countries which are essentially credit worthy and could borrow from the international financial institutions and to some degree on the markets to import the food that they need and the problem those countries are facing is the problem arising from the hike in the food prices and the closures of key markets. The other group of countries, though, are those where typically famines occur, where their governments have very limited resources; too many families this year and in many years are unable to grow enough food to feed themselves and those countries are often ones that are not so creditworthy. They can’t borrow on the markets, and which are also heavily reliant on the humanitarian agencies and in that last group of countries, I’m thinking about places like Somalia, Ethiopia, especially northern Ethiopia, Afghanistan, large parts of the Sahel, Yemen and so on. But there is a bigger group of countries who’ve got this fiscal problem and they include places like Turkey, include Egypt, Lebanon: a wide variety of slightly better off African countries.
Is humanitarian aid that would typically be spread across countries being diverted solely to Ukraine because of Russia’s invasion?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:28] I wanted to dive a little deeper into those two baskets of countries: in the countries that are most vulnerable, that are not creditworthy, that are more reliant on international aid and humanitarian relief, are you seeing as a consequence of the Ukraine crisis, that aid is, in fact, being diverted from major donors, typically those that you would expect to contribute to relief in places like Somalia, is going to Ukraine instead? That we’re not increasing the entire pie, rather, what aid budgets are available are being diverted to Ukraine.
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:09:12] Yes, so that is what we saw, especially in the first few months of Putin’s invasion. So, the first thing to happen is prices went through the roof so aid agencies could buy less with the money available to them. The second thing that happened was many countries reallocated the aid they were given to humanitarian agencies to deal with the Ukraine problem at the expense of some of those chronically undernourished and famine threatened countries that we talked about earlier. The country, which made the most egregious and damaging decisions unfortunately, is the U.K. The U.K. as part of the overall aid cuts since 2020, has savagely reduced its emergency assistance for countries affected by or threatened by famine.
What are Western governments doing to provide aid for famine-threatened countries?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:09] The U.K. is historically a key donor in this area, so this reallocation is particularly painful.
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:10:16] Five, six years ago, just in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, the UK’s assistance has fallen from £850 million, which is what it was then, to less than £200 million, in fact. So that’s a huge reduction. Now, fortunately, no other donors-imposed cuts of that scale and in the last couple of months, some donors have recognized the scale of the problem and have put additional money on the table to try to cope with it. Above all, the Biden administration, I really give them a lot of credit for the fact that the president proposed, and the Congress approved, an additional $5 billion to tackle this global food security challenge. And if that money is spent fast enough in the right places, we may still avoid mass loss of life through extreme famines. There’s at least a chance of doing that now because of what the administration has done but I’m not sure whether we will avoid that, whether the money will be quite enough or whether it will be deployed fast enough in the places it really has to go.
How is national debt related to food insecurity and vulnerability to famine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:29] So the other basket of countries you referenced are those that may be heavily indebted and may have a difficult time both servicing that debt and providing fiscal support for their population to buy wheat and other food stuffs. What’s the relationship between a country’s level of indebtedness and its ability to handle modest or even sharp increases in global food prices?
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:11:59] Well, unfortunately, it’s a very substantial and acute one. Of course, these countries with high levels of debt are typically also countries which are very poor. So, it’s not just about being indebted it’s also about overall levels of resources. And many African countries are so indebted that they are really struggling at the moment to access the resources at a decent price, to be able to buy food for food imports, and then to be able to scale up their social safety net programs so that families can access money to go to the markets and buy the food that’s being imported. And the thing that really, I think needs to happen to deal with that is twofold. Firstly, in the short term, there needs to be additional financing made available to those countries, particularly from the international financial institutions. And then secondly, there will need at some point to be some kind of renewed treatment of that debt, as happened during that period of heavy indebtedness about 20 years ago. This time is going to be harder because the creditors are broader and, in a way, more complicated — there’s lots of Chinese debt and there’s also the private sector debt — so whereas, 20 years ago, that problem could be solved largely by agreements between Western countries, that is not going to work this time.
What was the Jubilee debt forgiveness campaign of 2000?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:33] Yeah, 20 years ago there was this whole movement around debt forgiveness inspired by the Jubilee, the year 2000. I think the pope got on board, civil society groups got on board, and it was a fairly successful endeavor but you’re saying now because debt is far more diffuse, it’s going to be harder to encourage creditors to forgive all these debts.
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:13:57] Yeah and that Jubilee campaign 20 years ago was really a cool thing because it wasn’t just about forgiving the debt, rescheduling it, it was also about promises and guarantees that the resources freed up would be used to deal with poverty and promote the social good. A lot of the money that we saved was specifically earmarked for things like getting every child into school, to improving basic health services and so on. So, the deal was help with indebtedness in exchange for reforms, which would be for the benefit of the wider population. And that is, again, something that needs to be part of a next phase of debt relief but the crucial thing and the thing that’s holding back the next phase is the fact that the creditors are much more diverse. And no one group of creditors will want to offer generous help if the others are taking a free ride.
How might this current food crisis affect political instability across the world?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:59] So if present trends continue, if inflation continues to increase, food prices go up, if that grain stored at ports in Ukraine continue to be sort of locked in, to what extent might these trends contribute to political instability in certain regions, and are there specific countries that you’re particularly concerned for?
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:15:27] So my first concern is those countries threatened by massive loss of life through famines. You know, the whole of human history has been characterized by frequent events of large populations starving to death in countries all over the world and one of the remarkable things about the last 50 years is that that has essentially stopped happening. There’s only been one famine in the world at a significant scale in the last 20 years when a quarter of a million Somalis lost their lives in 2011 and the world has got much better at preventing that from happening and seeing all the risks when they appear but the scale of the crisis, we have now is that there is a clear and present danger of that kind of thing being repeated. For example, in Somalia, for example, in parts of Ethiopia, for example, if we’re not careful, in Afghanistan and Yemen and parts of the Sahel. Now, that is one order of problem and that’s, as I said, a problem that I’m very, very focused on, partly because my first job was dealing in Ethiopia with the famine that took a million people’s lives in the mid 1980s and I hoped that we wouldn’t see that kind of thing again. But it’s also the case that if you have food security crises which don’t threaten deaths on a massive scale but do add to people’s misery and malnutrition and grievances, there are political instability consequences of that, especially in places which are already unstable: parts of the Middle East, parts of Africa and so on. And one of the things that we know from unhappy experience over the last ten and 20 years is instability is infectious: problems created of that sort in one country spread very easily to neighboring regions. People flee when they think they can’t survive at home; that has a ripple effect. The ripple spreads very far and wide. A million Syrians walk to Europe in 2015 because they thought they wouldn’t get enough help to survive in a decent way, either in Syria or in the countries surrounding Syria to which they had first fled. So, there are serious and dangerous consequences of instability, in addition to the threat of mass loss of life.
How can the UN and the international community help prevent the continuing of this current food crisis?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:01] So we’re in this acute crisis period right now for reasons you describe. I’m curious to learn from you what can be done to nudge us out of this crisis phase? I mean, one immediate, obvious example is securing a deal to release that grain held in Ukrainian ports. I know your old boss, Antonio Guterres is working or at a time was working on a deal to perhaps release some Belarussian and Russian fertilizer in exchange for the lifting of that blockade in Ukraine. Would a deal like that have an immediate ameliorative effect?
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:18:45] Well, strategically, I think there are four broad sorts of things that need to happen. The first is, yes, we need to get some of the available grain on to the grain markets, preferably from Ukraine and with Russian acquiescence and that will not just make grain more available, it will also have a marked effect, I think, on food prices. So, it would help in multiple ways. Another way to achieve the same thing would be for those countries which hold very large strategic grain reserves, to be willing to release at least some of their grain onto the market.
Which countries have grain reserves that, if released, could help with the current food crisis?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:27] Which countries specifically have those reserves that could be released?
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:19:31] Well, there’s a number and they include the United States, China, and India. The second thing I think needs more attention and was touched on in a rather glancing way at the summit of the Group of Seven Western Industrial Country Leaders in Bavaria late June is what economists call the supply response, in other words, against the likelihood that it will be very hard to restore the levels of Russian and Ukrainian grain production and grain export to what they were last year and in previous years to various levels in the next year or two years or who knows how long, it needs to be compensatory planting and access to inputs, including fertilizer and a bunch of other places: that could include the European Union that we’re talking about, it could be North America, it could include Canada, South America and other places as well. That also, though, needs to provide some incentives and encouragement to more of the farmers in countries where the populations are most vulnerable to make it more attractive, to plant more grain and also to find the other inputs. And there is a particular problem to do with fertilizer, which is that some countries producing fertilizer in those regions where people are particularly hungry are exporting almost all that fertilizer. There is a very large new fertilizer factory in Nigeria, most of whose production is being exported to developed countries. So, there is some adjustment there that needs to be made as well. The third thing strategically that needs to happen is to provide access to more generous financing on a bigger scale to those countries which have got that huge fiscal and financing problem that you’re asking me about. And then the fourth thing and this fourth thing is urgent and well is the only way actually in which people threatened right now by famine will be saved is for there to be enough in emergency humanitarian aid, enough money, in other words, in the hands of organizations like the World Food Program, the Red Cross, international NGOs and so on, so that they can put a combination of food, physical commodities and purchasing power into the hands, if you like, of the people who, without it, will simply starve.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:07] You’ve listed four steps that could be taken to support a reduction of suffering from this crisis. Are there any particular indicators or inflection points in the coming days, weeks or months that will suggest to you whether or not the international community is indeed taking those steps?
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:22:30] Well, to start with, the last one: we have very good, real time data on how much aid is going through the emergency response plans that are the work of the United Nations system and all the international NGOs because they are coordinated and the office I used to run, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs produces real time daily updated information on every country where there’s a big crisis on what resource level is available, what’s being provided by the donors to deal with that problem. And likewise, there’s a running commentary provided by food security experts in organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Program, and other places on where the food security problems are worst and where they’re improving and where they’re getting worse. So, we will see quite a lot of what’s happening. It will obviously be highly visible to everybody if it proves possible to extract some of those 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine’s silos. That would be a powerful signal of lots of things. It would also be quite visible whether the international financial institutions are instructed and enabled by their powerful shareholders to provide more financing for the countries who are constrained mostly by fiscal problems. So, it will be quite visible whether we’re making progress on all this or not and most visible of all, there will be footage of large numbers of starving children and babies from countries like Somalia if enough of the right things in the right places at the right scale are not done, so we will see what’s happening.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:30] Well, Mark, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time.
Sir Mark Lowcock [00:24:35] It’s an absolute pleasure. Thanks for covering it.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:39] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Mark Lowcock for coming back on the show. I had him last on the show when he was still serving in that top U.N. post, but it’s nice to reconnect with him and I just started his book. It’s an interesting read on global humanitarian issues and an inside account of how U.N. response to those humanitarian crises work. I will see you next time. Thanks, bye!