With 30 Million Facing Famine, Secretary-General Announces Prevention Task Force, Warns Security Council against Cutting Aid as Solution to Economic Woes

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council debate on conflict and food security, held today:

Thank you for this opportunity to brief you on the links between conflict and hunger — an urgent and important issue.  Today, I have one simple message:  If you don’t feed people, you feed conflict.  Conflict drives hunger and famine, and hunger and famine drive conflict.

When a country or region is gripped by conflict and hunger, they become mutually reinforcing.  They cannot be resolved separately.  Hunger and poverty combine with inequality, climate shocks, sectarian and ethnic tensions and grievances over land and resources, to spark and drive conflict.

At the same time, conflict forces people to leave their homes, land and jobs; disrupts agriculture and trade; reduces access to vital resources like water and electricity, and so drives hunger.  The Nobel Committee recognized this link when it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme (WFP) — a powerful call to action, recognizing the importance of food security to building peace and stability.

We have made enormous inroads into hunger over recent decades, thanks to improved productivity and reductions in global poverty.  Famine and hunger are no longer about lack of food.  They are now largely man-made — and I use the term deliberately.  They are concentrated in countries affected by large-scale, protracted conflict.  And they are rising.

At the end of 2020, more than 88 million people were suffering from acute hunger due to conflict and instability, a 20 per cent increase in one year.  Projections for 2021 point to a continuation of this frightening trend.

I must warn the Council that we face multiple conflict-driven famines around the world.  Climate shocks and the COVID-19 pandemic are adding fuel to the flames.  Without immediate action, millions of people will reach the brink of extreme hunger and death.

Projections show hunger crises escalating and spreading across the Sahel [region] and the Horn of Africa, and accelerating in South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan.  There are more than 30 million people in over three dozen countries, just one step away from a declaration of famine.

Women and girls face a double risk.  They are more likely to be forced from their homes by conflict, and they are more vulnerable to malnutrition, particularly when pregnant or breastfeeding.  Girls who are hungry are at increased risk of trafficking, forced marriage and other abuses.

Food insecurity is worsened by the reduction of humanitarian access.  I am deeply concerned about the situation in Tigray, Ethiopia, where the harvest season has been disrupted by insecurity and violence, and hundreds of thousands of people could be experiencing hunger.

In some countries, famine is already here.  People are dying from hunger and suffering critical rates of malnutrition.  Parts of Yemen, South Sudan and Burkina Faso are in the grip of famine or conditions akin to famine.  More than 150,000 people are at risk of starving.

In Yemen, five years of conflict have displaced 4 million people across the country.  Many Yemenis are facing a death sentence as widespread hunger stalks their nation.  Around half of all children under five — 2.3 million — are projected to face acute malnutrition in 2021.  Some 16 million people face food insecurity.

South Sudan is facing its highest levels of food insecurity since the country declared independence 10 years ago.  Sixty per cent of the population are increasingly hungry.  Food prices are so high that just one plate of rice and beans costs more than 180 per cent of the average daily salary — the equivalent of about $400 here in New York.

Chronic sporadic violence, extreme weather and the economic impact of COVID‑19 have pushed more than 7 million people into acute food insecurity.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced the world’s largest food crisis last year, with nearly 21.8 million people facing acute hunger between July and December 2020.  The targeting of WFP vehicles in the east of the country last month, and the tragic killing of our colleague Moustapha Milambo, as well as the Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio and his security officer Vittorio Iacovacci, are the starkest possible illustration of the dark alliance between hunger and conflict.

This is the devastating reality in conflict zones around the world.  We have a responsibility to do everything in our power to reverse these trends, starting by preventing famine.

Last September, the Secretariat provided a white paper outlining the risks of famine in four countries.  The situation has only grown more urgent.  Hunger and death begin long before the highest levels of food insecurity.  We must anticipate, and act now.

I have therefore decided to establish a High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine, led by my Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock.  This Task Force will include representatives from WFP and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  It will bring coordinated, high-level attention to famine prevention and mobilize support to the most affected countries.

I have also asked Under-Secretary-General Lowcock to draw on the support of other Inter-Agency Standing Committee members and obviously including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women).

The group will cooperate with the non-governmental organizations who are our vital partners in feeding the hungry around the world.  It will also work with international financial institutions and other specialized United Nations agencies, including the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).  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.

Our most serious concern must be the more than 34 million people who already face emergency levels of acute food insecurity.  WFP and FAO have appealed for the emergency mobilization of $5.5 billion in extraordinary resources to avert catastrophe for these 34 million women, men, girls and boys.

These resources are needed for a comprehensive package of life-saving aid, including the distribution of food, cash and vouchers; targeted support for agriculture; and medical treatment for people already suffering from acute malnutrition.  While all countries face some economic strain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the solution does not lie in cutting aid to starving children.

The disappointing outcome of last week’s High-Level Pledging Event on Yemen cannot become a pattern.  I ask all countries to reconsider their responsibilities and their capacities.  The relatively small amounts of money involved in humanitarian aid are an investment not only in people, but an investment in peace.

People facing acute hunger must be able to access food and life-saving assistance in safety, particularly during armed conflict.  In accordance with resolution 2417 (2018) of this Council, and underpinned by international humanitarian law, goods and supplies that are essential to civilians’ survival — including food, crops and livestock — must be protected in conflict.  Humanitarian access must be unimpeded, and the starvation of civilians as a method of war is prohibited.

Sadly, we have many recent examples of the use of starvation as a war tactic.  The conflict in Syria subjected millions of civilians to extreme conditions, in some cases amounting to starvation.  Famine was declared in some areas of South Sudan in 2017, when people were systematically denied access to humanitarian assistance.  And in Myanmar, there is evidence that starvation, through the destruction of farmland and villages together with restrictions on movement, was used against the Rohingya.

The intentional use of the starvation of civilians as a method of waging war is a war crime.  I urge members of this Council to take maximum action to seek accountability for these atrocious acts, and to remind parties to conflict of their obligations under international humanitarian law.

Addressing hunger is a foundation for stability and peace.  We need to tackle both hunger and conflict, if we are to solve either.  Our blueprint for reducing hunger is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and particularly [Sustainable Development Goal] 2 on Zero Hunger.

We need to transform our food systems to make them more inclusive, resilient and sustainable.  This will be one of the key issues of the Food Systems Summit that I will convene later this year.

At the same time, ending hunger requires us to find political solutions to conflict.  I urge all States to make ending conflict, not simply mitigating its impact, a key foreign policy priority.

I call on Council members to use your privileged position to do everything in your power to end violence, negotiate peace and alleviate the hunger and suffering that afflict so many millions of people around the world.  There is no place for famine and starvation in the twenty-first century.

For information media. Not an official record.