The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the most vulnerable populations the hardest, deepening existing inequalities.
In Eastern Africa, an estimated 3 million refugees are at risk of not having enough food, a deteriorating situation that has forced families to consider returning to the places from which they fled, according to the United Nations. The UN is calling for $266 million in additional funding over the next six months to help refugees get enough to eat, particularly children and pregnant women who especially need nutritious food for development.
The UN reports that emergency funding is needed for refugee programs in 11 countries including Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The pandemic has been devastating for everyone, but for refugees even more so,” Clementine Nkweta-Salami, UNHCR’s regional bureau director for the East, Horn of Africa, and the Great Lakes, said in a statement. “Unless more funds are made available, thousands of refugees including children will not have enough to eat.
“Protection concerns are growing,” she added. “Food ration or cash cuts are resulting in negative coping strategies to meet their basic food needs — such as skipping or reducing meals, taking loans with high interest, selling assets, child labor, and increased domestic violence. There is often a desperation and a feeling of no alternative.”
The growing food crisis in East Africa stems from disruptions to the food system, some of which happened because of COVID-19 pandemic and others because of long-standing trends.
Physical distancing mandates have disrupted local food production and distribution. Farmers have been less able to hire laborers to harvest and process their crops, which has often reduced the amount of food available in communities. Similarly, the markets where people buy food have been shuttered to prevent the spread of the virus, which has led to huge amounts of food waste.
This has led to both food shortages and spikes in the price of food in some areas, according to the Guardian.
Governments have been unable to provide adequate aid to farmers because of declining revenue, and because resources have been shifted to public health. As a result, many farmers and food producers have had to sell off assets to weather the crisis. There’s also the problem of people losing their incomes and not being able to afford food.
Some strains on the food system predate the pandemic.
In recent years, massive locust swarms have devoured tens of thousands of kilometers of cropland.
Extreme droughts have devastated crop yields and, at the other extreme, extreme storms and floods have displaced farmers. Scientists have noted that the severity of these events are likely due to climate change and that these phenomena will only increase in the years ahead.
As temperatures rise, many crops will be unable to grow and farmers will have to shift their methods of production. This gets to a broader problem: farmers in the region have been undermined by a lack of investment and government support.
Smallholder farmers struggle to boost their incomes and their yields without access to tools, technology, markets, roads, and more. Organizations like the International Fund for Agricultural Development help millions of farmers escape poverty and become climate resilient.
The consulting firm McKinsey notes that countries throughout Africa can triple their crop yields with greater agricultural investments. As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, however, simply restoring food production and distribution to previous levels will be a top priority for governments.
For the UN, the next six months will be focused on averting a hunger crisis in the region.
“We must start meeting the food and nutritional needs of refugees in the region now,” said Michael Dunford, the World Food Programme’s regional director for Eastern Africa, in a statement. “The immediate priority for us all must be to restore assistance to at least minimum levels for refugees, many of whom lost the lifeline of remittances due to the global impact of COVID-19.
“We’ve never had such a terrible funding situation for refugees,” he added. “We have a $266 million shortfall for the next six months for refugees’ minimum needs. We are deeply concerned that if cuts continue, they will be faced with a very difficult decision: stay in the camps where food and nutrition security is deteriorating or consider risking going back when it is unsafe.”