With seven countries on the brink of famine, the United Nations released $100 million of emergency funding on Tuesday in an effort to guard against the risk of a hunger epidemic.
The compounding impacts of conflict, economic decline, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic have led to increasingly fragile situations in multiple countries in Africa and Asia.
“The prospect of a return to a world in which famines are commonplace would be heartwrenching and obscene in a world where there is more than enough food for everyone,” Mark Lowcock, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in a statement.
“No one should view a slide into famine as an inevitable side effect of this pandemic,” he added. “If it happens it is because the world has allowed it to happen.”
Yemen, where roughly 80% of its population has a hard time getting enough food and water to survive, will receive the largest sum of $30 million.
The country had already been struggling before the pandemic, as a five-year civil war displaced millions and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Now as a result of COVID-19, 40% of the population could face a dire food crisis by the end of the year, according to the humanitarian nonprofit CARE.
“It’s an impossible situation,” Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said in a statement. “This is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, yet we don’t have the resources we need to save the people who are suffering and will die if we don’t help.”
This $30 million emergency funding comes two months after the UN was forced to shut down many critical food and health programs in Yemen as countries failed to deliver on their aid commitments.
Ethiopia, where the UN recently warned of a “full-scale” humanitarian crisis unfolding, will receive $20 million of the emergency funding. Thousands of Ethiopians have been fleeing the country every day due to ongoing violence in the Tigray region, and extreme droughts could worsen the already perilous situation.
The remaining $50 million of the emergency funding will be split among Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Northeast Nigeria, and South Sudan. Each of these countries is at risk of famine, especially if immediate action is not taken.
"The thing about famines is, by the time you see children dying on your TV screens, it is too late to act," Lowcock said. “You can’t stop it then.”
Now, with COVID-19 pushing more people into vulnerable situations, “the problem is growing faster than the money is growing,” Lowcock said. In fact, the number of people experiencing serious food insecurity could nearly double by the end of the year due to the repercussions of the virus, according to a recent CARE report.
“This is not a problem that one country can solve,” said Sarah Fuhrman, who authored the report. “It requires concerted effort from every donor in every country to refocus and reconsider what their priorities are for their money and how we want to deal with a crisis that we can see coming.”
Although the $100 million released this week will make a big difference for the most vulnerable, particularly women and girls and people with disabilities, Lowcock said that it is “absolutely not enough money to deal with the situation at hand.”
He hopes that major world powers including the United States, the European Commission, Germany, and the United Kingdom will step up to help.
“What we’re trying to do is send a signal to the world that if we’re not careful, in a year from now we will ask ourselves why we didn’t prevent a bunch of famines across the globe,” Lowcock said.