A Twitter conversation between a UN official and one of the world’s richest people, Elon Musk, has helped amplify the desperate hunger faced by millions of people around the world, amid COVID-19, climate change, and conflict.

It has also helped shine a light on how significantly the world’s billionaires could help tackle global issues by donating just a small fraction of their wealth.

United Nations World Food Programme’s Executive Director David Beasley kicked off the discussion by speaking to CNN for an article that ran with the headline "2% of Elon Musk’s wealth could help solve world hunger."

In the article, Beasley says: “$6 billion to help 42 million people that are literally going to die if we don't reach them. It's not complicated.” He called on the world’s richest men, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, for support. Musk has a net worth of $326 billion, according to Bloomberg's Billionaire Index, meaning that Beasley is asking for a donation of less than 2% of his wealth.

Musk responded on Twitter, saying that if Beasley could prove on the thread that $6 billion could solve world hunger he would “sell Tesla stock right now and do it.” 

While Beasley highlighted the headline “solve world hunger” was not strictly accurate, he reiterated that the $6 billion in question would “prevent geopolitical instability, mass migration, and save 42 million people on the brink of starvation.”

He added the situation was “an unprecedented crisis” due to a “perfect storm” created by COVID-19, conflicts, and the climate crisis, before telling Musk that they should talk instead of tweet, and highlighting that, with his help, “we can bring hope, build stability, and change the future.”

The World Food Programme, a Global Citizen partner, shared interesting statistics on the current global hunger crisis and the impact this kind of additional funding could have. 

  • The number of people worldwide facing famine increased by 56% from 27 million in 2019. 
  • There are four countries currently facing famine-like conditions: Ethiopia, Yemen, South Sudan, and Madagascar.
  • In Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Yemen, 21 million people are facing food emergencies. 
  • In 2020, 40 million people were forced to flee their homes — 30 million due to climate change and 10 million due to conflict. 
  • WFP food costs have risen by 21% and container transport costs went up by 300%. 
  • The average cost of assistance per day amounts to 43 cents.
  • With $6 billion, the WFP could supply 42 million people with one meal a day — the basic need to stay alive — for 12 months. 
  • With this funding, WFP plans to allocate $3.5 billion for food and its delivery; $2 billion for cash and food vouchers; $700 million for country-specific costs to design, scale up, and manage food, cash transfers, and vouchers in 43 countries; and $400 million for global and regional operations management, administration, and accountability. You can read WFP's full plan here
  • An estimated 80% of WFP spending goes toward emergency food assistance. 
  • In 2020, the organization also fed 15 million children in schools, helped people facing food insecurity grow their own food, and provided 17 million women and children with specialized nutritional support to treat and prevent malnutrition. 

In 2020 the $8.4 billion the WFP received in funding helped 115.5 million people in 80 countries, distributed $2.4 billion worth of food, and put $2.1 billion directly in the hands of families to buy food from local markets. That same year, the WFP once again received the highest scores for transparency from the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATA), which publishes open-source accounting and results of more than 1,360 organizations, donor governments, financial institutions, NGOs, and foundations. All of the WFP’s financial statements, audits, and individual evaluation reports are public documents and can be accessed here.

Beasely was interviewed again on Tuesday and further highlighted the impact billionaires could have on solving global issues — and said he would be glad to answer any more questions Musk has. 

“This is fantastic news because Elon is a very smart guy,” he said when asked about the interaction they pair had on Twitter. “Because for him to even enter into this conversation is a game changer, because simply put we can answer his questions, we can put forward a plan,” Beasely continued.

“We can show him, we have all the costs accounted for and public transparency, any and everything that he can ask, we would be glad to answer, because lives are at stake,” he added.

Beasley further underlined that due to the unprecedented situation caused by the pandemic, organizations like the World Food Programme that feed millions of people need help as a “one-time ask.” 

“I’m not picking on Elon Musk, I’m so happy that he’s making money,” he continued. “But as you know, during the height of COVID-19 billionaires made an extraordinary amount of money, governments are tapped out, we’ve got people dying and we’ve got an answer to this, so please help us on this one-time ask.”

Musk has not responded since on the Twitter thread — but we’ll be watching this space.

The latest conversation between Beasley and Musk comes after Beasley called out Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos in June this year — amid the billionaires’ “race to space,” asking them instead to “team up together to save the 41 million people who are about to starve this year on Earth."

In October last year it was reported that billionaires' wealth grew by 27.5% at the height of the crisis between April and July 2020, while at the same the overall global poverty level rose for the first time in 20 years.

Meanwhile, Musk added $10 billion to his worth in a single day last month. That’s more funding than the WFP received last year and more than it has received this year so far. The $6 billion the WFP is asking for doesn’t even make up for the full amount of its 2021 funding shortfall, which stands at $8.7 billion still needed — but it could provide 42 million people with the bare minimum aid needed for survival.

Global Citizen launched the “Give While You Live” campaign in 2020, calling on billionaires to pledge 5% of their wealth every year to an important cause, and calling on billionaires especially to step up as the world grapples with the economic shocks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. You can call on the world’s billionaires to join the fight to end world hunger and ensure that no one is left behind by taking action here.

Disclosure: The World Food Programme is a funding partner of Global Citizen. 

Editor's note: This piece was updated on Thursday, Nov. 18, to include more details on WFP's plan regarding how it would allocate this funding.  

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Defeat Poverty

Will $6 Billion End World Hunger? No — But It Could Save 42 Million People From Starvation

By Helen Lock