Hunger crisis: Red Cross tells world leaders to act ahead of UN meeting

Peter Maurer, left, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Francesco Rocca, right, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), made a joint call for urgent action to address growing hunger ahead of the UN General Assembly in New York, on Tuesday 13 September. (Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

“Urgent action” is needed to help millions of people in Africa on the brink of starvation as the continent faces its “worst food crisis in decades”, organisations have warned.

More than 140 million people across Africa face acute food insecurity due to conflict and instability combined with climate-related emergencies and economic hardship, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday. 

In addition, the war in Ukraine has compounded existing pressures on food systems and disrupted global supply chains, sending prices of agricultural products spiralling.

As world leaders prepare to meet in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement urged countries to act urgently to address the “catastrophic humanitarian crisis”.

“Two dozen countries across Africa are grappling with the worst food crisis in decades,” said Francesco Rocca, president of the IFRC, addressing journalists in Geneva. “Some 22 million people in the Horn of Africa are in the clutches of starvation due to such compounding crises as drought, flooding, Covid-19’s economic effects, conflict – even desert locusts.”

Years of insufficient rainfall across Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia have caused the worst drought in 40 years, with experts warning another failed rainy season will push millions into famine in the coming months. 

There has already been a five-fold increase in the number of malnourished children needing care in Somalia, with UNICEF warning on Tuesday that over half a million young children face acute malnutrition. 

Meanwhile, in Sub-Saharan Africa, one in three children under the age of five is stunted by chronic undernutrition, Rocca added, while two out of five women of childbearing age are anaemic due to poor diet. 

“Behind the staggeringly high numbers are real people – men, women and children battling death-level hunger every day,” he said. “The situation is expected to deteriorate into 2023. However, with swift action, many lives can be saved

“We need urgent and massive action to scale up life-saving assistance to millions of people in dire need of aid, but also to decisively address the root causes of this crisis through longer term commitments.”

Outgoing president of the IFRC Peter Maurer warned that extreme weather and protracted conflicts were deepening crises, disrupting harvests and cutting off supplies. 

“Hunger is a slow-moving crisis. Conflict, though, often propels what starts out as a dinner-table dilemma into an inescapable disaster,” he said. “In areas experiencing conflict, farming families may have to flee before crops are planted or harvested.”

“Just as bad, climate change may mean too little or too much rain. People turn to their reserves. With hungry children to feed, they may even eat the seeds meant for the next planting season. Conflicts cut off outside supplies, forcing markets to lie empty.”

The organisations noted that the food crisis was escalating in many other countries across the world including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen, where well over half of the population – some 19 million – are food insecure. 

As member states gathered in New York on Tuesday for the opening day of the General Assembly, Maurer and Rocca urged world leaders to address urgent needs while also investing in supporting food security long-term and building resiliency into humanitarian responses to stave off future crises. 

“If the international community wants to be serious about saving lives, we must have collective mobilisation and action—both in the immediate and long-term,” said Rocca.  

“We call on world leaders who will go to New York for the UN General Assembly next week to urgently act. Being late will mean immense suffering for millions of people. And this is just unacceptable and shameful.”

“Hunger is a very undignified crisis, and climate related emergencies, severe droughts, violence, economic hardship, are driving millions of people to hunger,” he added.  “Hunger is not just a food crisis, it leads to a health crisis and a livestock crisis. It means breaking up neighbours and disrupting local communities. It means population movement. An emergency response alone will not end this hunger crisis.”

“We must move beyond the reflex of emergency response and invest in fragile regions – health systems, water systems, and vital infrastructure,” said the ICRC’s Maurer. “When a child dies of hunger, it is the result of systemic failures. It’s a cycle of sadness we must escape.”