22nd Mar 2023


Global hunger crisis requires more than just the Odessa deal

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The departure of a first ship carrying much-needed grain from Odessa to Lebanon is good news for an increasingly food insecure world.

Moving existing grain and foodstuffs from Ukraine to global markets as quickly as possible will help ease crippling food shortages in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

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  • Policymakers can take heart from the fact that humanitarian aid is popular at home — with over 80 percent of Europeans saying they feel 'pride, enthusiasm, or satisfaction' at the EU's international humanitarian role

Much depends, however, on how quickly and effectively the breakthrough deal, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, is implemented over the next 120 days.

To get the desired results, other ships stuck in Ukraine's Black Sea ports must be allowed similar safe passage and applications for new vessels to pick up grain should be processed quickly.

Above all, Russia must stick to its promise not to attack merchant ships and other civilian vessels and port facilities covered by the agreement.

Let's not fool ourselves, however.

Tackling the global food and humanitarian emergency will require more funds, more political will and more difficult geopolitical compromises, not just one valuable breakthrough.

Fuelled by the pandemic, climate change and myriad conflicts, the world's humanitarian needs were already at an all-time high before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Today, the spike in food, fuel and fertiliser prices sparked by the war is threatening to push countries around the world into famine, bringing "global destabilisation, starvation and mass migration on an unprecedented scale", according to the World Food Programme.

The agency has warned that a record 345 million acutely-hungry people are "marching to the brink of starvation", representing a 25 percent increase from 276 million at the start of 2022.


Yet international donors are playing hide and seek. The gap between available funds and humanitarian needs stands at an all-time historical high of $36.9bn [€36.3]. To date, the donor community has funded only 20 percent of the world's humanitarian needs.

That's because despite urgent fundraising campaigns for countries on the brink of disaster, world attention, resources, and expertise are being diverted to Ukraine.

The UN's appeal for Ukraine is more than 80 percent funded for this year. That's in contrast to around 38 percent for Afghanistan, 27 percent for Yemen and about 20 percent for Sudan.

Instead of stepping up their assistance programmes, richer nations are cutting overseas aid or reallocating funds from other parts of the world towards the Ukraine crisis, says the Norwegian Refugee Council's Jan Egeland.

Britain's international development programmes are expected to be slashed for the third time in three years, as the government suspends "non-essential" aid spending, a change attributed to rising Home Office costs for refugees.

Sweden, Denmark and Norway, all major aid actors, are spending hefty chunks of their aid budgets on welcoming Ukrainian refugees. Many of these cutbacks will result in international back-sliding on earlier comments made to help other nations, including Afghanistan.

Gulf states and China

Meanwhile other donors, including oil-rich Gulf states, are not stepping up to the plate while China, an important source of funds for many developing countries, largely acts outside globally-agreed humanitarian assistance rules.

Which puts the focus on the EU — both as a top international humanitarian aid donor and catalyst for encouraging others — including many of its own under-performing "Team Europe" members — to up their game.

As illustrated by the just-announced €1bn in macro-financial assistance, part of the up to €9bn emergency MFA package agreed last June, the EU continues to be fast and furious in providing aid to Ukraine.

EU humanitarian assistance to other nations has also been growing, reaching €2.2bn last year, instead of the €1.5bn initially foreseen. Given current trends, this year's spending will certainly be higher.

As in the past, additional amounts needed for humanitarian action in 2022 are likely to be secured through intra-Commission financial transfers, a system which seems to work, despite its complexities.

The European Parliament rightly insists, however, that in order to cope with the rising number of humanitarian crisis, the EU needs a "robust annual budget" which guarantees that its humanitarian assistance is timely, predictable and flexible at the start of each financial year.

That means a decision on setting a more realistic humanitarian budget for 2023 and an increase in humanitarian spending at next year's mid-term review of the Multiannual Financial Framework.

Policymakers can take heart from the fact that humanitarian aid is in fact popular at home with over 80 percent of Europeans saying they feel "pride, enthusiasm, or satisfaction" at the EU's international humanitarian role.

Public opinion can be volatile, however, and taking such decisions at a time of increased pressure on the EU's financial resources will not be easy.

Faced with slowing economic growth, higher inflation and rising fuel prices and living costs at home, EU governments are likely to look at ways of cutting foreign expenditure, not increasing it.

There must be no backsliding, however. The EU must live up to its commitments to global solidarity, not just because it is morality correct to do so but because humanitarian aid is a core element of Europe's geopolitical profile and ambitions.

That's why there must be no waivering in EU financial assistance and solidarity for Ukraine and Ukrainians — and why humanitarian crisis elsewhere must not be forgotten.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the editor of the EUobserver magazine.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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