The human capacity to absorb horror is limited. In order to help us live, the mind must censor our senses. Add personal apprehension and fearfulness to unfolding misery, and our ability to empathise with more than one tragedy at a time is severely circumscribed.
Right now, it may seem we simply don’t have the compassionate bandwidth to deal with anything other than the awful plight of Ukrainian refugees. But it is absolutely crucial that more attention – and aid – be directed towards the global food crisis beyond Ukraine.
Almost 40 years ago, a televised report from famine-struck Ethiopia changed the way the world thinks about aiding those stricken by disaster.
In an age before crowdsourcing platforms had been defined, Band Aid and Live Aid were the music industry’s response to the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine. The global mega concert sparked a compassion and giving revolution, resulting in at least $530 million being raised in today’s money. Tens of millions of individuals were able to act to help Ethiopians and others.
A million people were kept alive. We saw this impact together in the 1980s when we worked together. Aid became resurgent in foreign policy because electorates increasingly demanded that wealthy governments act on their behalf. And just this week alone Band Aid has again given almost another million dollars to the abused and hungry of Tigray in northern Ethiopia.
Right now, a crisis of global importance is playing out on TV screens each night and once again the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has asked musicians to speak out. A quarter of Ukraine’s population have been uprooted, and thousands of Russians and Ukrainians are dead.
More than 5.5 million people have fled to neighbouring countries as their towns and cities are smashed by war. Almost 20 million people in Ukraine are unsure they’ll get enough to eat. And to cap it all, humanitarian agencies can’t even access besieged cities to bring food to families trapped there.
If our political will is relatively impotent, then our humanity must respond even more to this crisis – and keep doing so. We should not be obliged to take food from the hungry to feed the starving. Yet that is what this unprecedented crisis is forcing us to do. We have to find the compassion and creativity to ask those with means to give to those with none.
For what people cannot see so easily, as the media is barely reporting it, is the amplifying effects of this war on more than 800 million people who go hungry to bed every night around the globe a majority in countries mired in conflict such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan.
As Ukraine shows so visibly, war brings hunger because it destroys agricultural capacity, markets and the transportation infrastructure that moves food from farm to table.
This war is shaking the world’s food system. Together, Russia and Ukraine typically produce about a third of the world’s global wheat trade. Each year, Ukraine supplied food for about 400 million people around the world, and now millions of tons of that supply is off the table.
War has frozen the Black Sea food basket, has caused fuel and fertiliser prices to spike and has driven global food prices to their highest level in a decade.
Reliable food supplies are integral to stability. “Hungry people are angry people,” as Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, recently said – in turn quoting the great Bob Marley.
Close supermarkets in any prosperous city for just a few days and watch what happens. Lebanon, a politically unstable and impoverished country, buys about half its wheat from Ukraine alone.
Countries such as Egypt subsidise bread. When forced to reduce those subsidies, experience shows that popular anger boils over into the streets. Right now, these countries are struggling in bidding for food on an open, more competitive and yet shrinking market.
Millions of tons of grain are sitting in silos in Ukraine right now. But it might as well not be there. The war is preventing the southern Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk, Yuzhny and Mykolaiv from operating normally – so the grain stays where it is. Keeping those ports open, so the grain can flow out on to world markets, is one thing the world can do to stave off the approaching hunger crisis.
Stability and peace
Food builds stability and peace – and is the reason the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) was awarded to 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. It’s also why on March 24th this year G7 leaders made a commitment to ring-fence the WFP’s work, to ensure supplies reach the world’s poorest and most vulnerable families.
But it needs more than just ring-fencing. Without the WFP’s know-how and logistic heft, millions would simply starve. Last year, the WFP, the world’s largest humanitarian agency, reached 128 million people worldwide. These people are rarely on TV. They frequently inhabit hard-to-reach places and live day by day with endemic conflicts that never seem to go away.
Two years of Covid and a war in Ukraine mean the cost of delivering food into the mouths of starving children in dozens of countries has risen by a staggering 44 per cent.
That’s why we at the WFP and Band Aid are calling on corporations, the wealthy and individuals – as well as governments – to find the $18.9 billion (€17.9 billion) needed now to feed the world this year. All of our world. In a global economy worth trillions this is “nothing money”. When the G7 finance and development ministers meet next week in Germany this must be top of the agenda. Can we have it now, please?
Bob Geldof is a musician and a founder of the the Band Aid Trust. Amir Abdulla is the deputy executive director of the World Food Programme