Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, livelihoods have been disrupted, agricultural production has faltered, and whole economies have cratered. As a result, hunger levels have surged

More than 768 million around the world struggled with hunger in 2020, an increase of more than 100 million compared to the year before. In more than 43 countries, the threat of famine could cause 41 million people to starve. The World Food Programme is calling for $6 billion to address this dire situation.

Preventing famine should be a top priority for donor nations. But to end hunger once and for all, they need to do more than react to the latest humanitarian crisis. Further funds need to be raised in a sustained and well-coordinated way to ensure farmers can grow enough food for a growing population amid the intensifying climate crisis.  

A new report by Donor Tracker maps funding levels for food security, nutrition, and agriculture and offers various recommendations for transforming the global food system.

Global Citizen spoke with the team at Donor Tracker to learn more about the report and to better understand the growing hunger crisis. 

Global Citizen: Can you provide a bit of context for this report: What is the Donor Tracker and why did you write this publication on ODA for food and nutrition security? 

Donor Tracker: Of course. So first of all, the Donor Tracker is an online platform that provides freely available evidence-based analysis of OECD development assistance committee (DAC) donors’ development policy and financing. It is one of the flagship initiatives of SEEK Development, which is a strategic and organizational consultancy focused on global development impact and based in Berlin. 

The story behind Donor Tracker is that through SEEK’s work in the global development space, our team noticed a major gap in the landscape of available resources: There was no single source providing comprehensive information on donors' ODA, their development strategies, priorities, and decision-making processes. We saw that our colleagues at our peer organizations — many of whom are overworked and under-resourced – were forced to spend valuable time hunting for and piecing together information. And so, SEEK started the Donor Tracker.

Donor Tracker focuses on ODA of the 14 largest OECD DAC donors. We produce what we call "donor profiles," publish weekly policy updates covering news from our donors, and also write "Insights" reports that highlight key issues and trends in the development finance world; for example, this report on donor financing for food and nutrition security.

Because our aim is to elevate and support the work of advocates for global development (and of course, researchers, policy-makers, think-tank analysts, etc.) we try to time our analyses so that they can feed into important global conversations or decision-moments — so that advocates can go into these important discussions armed with the best and most up-to date information on the issues that matter to them. We decided to conduct this analysis of global food and nutrition security both because of the upcoming events and replenishments — for example, UNFSS and Nutrition for Growth Summit, and IFAD replenishment — and because of the intersection of food and nutrition security with other pressing issues of today, such as climate change and COVID-19. 

What are some of the key financing trends around food security, nutrition, and agriculture? What areas need improvement and what countries can play a bigger role going forward?

Bilateral financing has actually gone up since 2015, but the number of hungry people has also gone up. You’d expect that as the financing goes up, the amount of hungry people would go down. One of the reasons that didn’t happen is because the global population is growing so fast.

In the last year, the number of hungry people has gone up to 768 million in 2020 from about 650 million in 2019. We’re at risk of losing all this great work that we’ve done over the past 10 years — that's one of the key insights of the report.

Bilateral financing has gone up but it doesn't even begin to meet the needs that we have now, let alone those going forward particularly when you take into consideration the effects of climate change, COVID-19, and conflicts. That’s something we really need to take into consideration when budgeting for alleviating poverty and hunger. 

In terms of multilateral funding, we would have expected it to increase like bilateral funding, but it decreased by 9% from 2017 to 2019. It’s really important to flip that curve to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

We’re seeing investments in humanitarian assistance at the moment, and it's important to have that same urgency when investing in agriculture, nutrition, and food security. If we don’t invest in those aspects we may see a higher risk of famines in the future that may be more costly. It makes so much more sense to invest now than it does later. 

How can investing in Global Goal 2: Zero Hunger impact other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

It's one of the goals that’s intricately linked to all of the other SDGs. If you take the example of a young child, if you don’t invest in nutrition for that child, you’ll see knock-on effects in terms of performance at school, their health, and their economic prospects. That’s something we have to think of. Eating is such an emotive experience, we all have to eat, it’s so important. Yet when you don’t have food it will affect every aspect of your life, and therefore every SDG.

There’s wasting and stunting, but if children are not being fed and nourished adequately, they also run the risk of becoming more obese later in life. That speaks to the double burden of malnutrition. We’ve primarily talked about it in terms of wasting and stunting but there’s another aspect, which is the risk of obesity in low- and middle-income countries.

What does it say about the global food system that so many people are denied nutritious food?

It’s completely broken. There’s another aspect that we haven’t discussed yet, which is the issue of food loss and food waste. Up to 40% of our food isn’t even eaten. It’s thrown out. It’s lost in transport. Let’s say you’re in Morocco, my parent’s country, you will see these big trucks with tomatoes. I will tell you that the tomatoes at the bottom of the truck will be mush by the time they arrive.

The global food system needs a complete overhaul if we want to provide people with the right calories, vitamins, and minerals. We’re going to have approximately 10 billion people in 2050. Production in developing countries would need to almost double. When we grow crops and they experience stress, they’re less likely to produce the nutrition we need, so the nutritional value of foods will be lower because of climate change.

It's a vicious cycle that's really hard to fix. We have to come together and really, piece by piece, unravel the complexity of this problem.

How has the pandemic affected financing for Global Goal 2?

There may have been an increase in ODA, but a large part went to health matters, humanitarian assistance, and, to a limited extent, agriculture and rural development.

A lot of the ODA that was provided by some donors has been in loans and not grants. ODA can be provided in different shapes and forms. Usually when it’s humanitarian assistance, it will be in grants, and longer-term investments are at times provided in loans. By sending loans instead of grants, you may be indebting countries that can't afford it. 

The international community tends to have a reactive approach to food security, meaning funds often get deployed to deal with crises after they happen rather than to prevent crises in the first place. What would happen if we moved to a more proactive approach?

Ideally, the chances of famine would drop and we would see knock-on effects in terms of avoiding political instability and emerging conflicts. I remember many years ago when the Arab Spring happened, the last straw that broke the camel’s back was the price of grain going up. That’s the truth of the matter: People need to eat.

This report is ultimately a cry for help to please invest in sustainable agriculture, not only for food security but also for climate change. Around 21% to 34% of greenhouse gases come from the agriculture and food sectors. You cannot imagine solving climate change without looking at agriculture.

You also can’t just say we’re not going to do the reactive approach anymore because these emergencies need funding. The only way to be proactive is to scale up funding overall for ODA so we have more and better funding. 

The World Food Programme has requested $5.5 billion to deal with the ongoing famine. If that humanitarian assistance isn’t provided it could lead to armed conflict that could take years to resolve. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the global food system in significant and long-lasting ways. How does this compare to the current and anticipated disruptions caused by climate change?

It's such a complicated question, because what is the cause and what is the effect? When it comes to agriculture, everything is the cause and everything is the effect. They’re constantly interacting with each other

The extreme weather events are going to be disastrous for people growing their crops. This has happened in countries like Haiti, where IFAD investments were wiped out after the hurricane.

Then there’s the losses due to the level of pests. The IPCC report has a relatively nuanced point on this that some crops will benefit from more CO2, but due to pests there is a higher risk of harvest loss. In addition to that, the nutrition of vegetables and fruit will be less because of the extremes in climate.

According to IFAD, there are three aspects to transforming the food system — resilience, diversified livelihoods, and system change. 

When talking about resilience, how can we change crops or seeds to grow for the climate we are going to have? And then there’s the livelihoods of small farmers. Despite them growing most of the food in low-income countries, they’re disproportionately at risk of suffering from hunger. If we want to have farmers in the future, it has to become a sector where you can earn a livelihood.

We also need social protections to make sure that people don’t fall behind certain incomes and inclusive markets that allow more farmers to sell their crops at competitive prices, While farmers’ organizations can speak on their behalf and potentially provide loans where banks may not, it’s important to have a governance system that supports you when you need to be supported.

What can Global Citizens around the world do to support the effort to end hunger?

The most important thing is to get to know the issue. There are different ways to get to know the issue. You can read the research at the Donor Tracker and the insights we deliver and join seminars to get to know the issues and the people behind the issues so you know who you can support. 

Don’t underestimate the power you have as a consumer and as a voter. Every time we purchase something in the supermarket, we may be voting for agriculture that isn’t kind to the environment and laborers who grow our food. Make sure your vote counts. Get to know the issues and hold your political party accountable. Sometimes as an individual, it’s a bit of a daunting experience, but doing something is better than doing nothing at all.

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defend the planet and defeat poverty by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

Global Citizen Asks

Defeat Poverty

Why Do We Need Better Funding to End Global Hunger?

By Joe McCarthy