New UN hunger chief enters the arena as famine looms

Cindy McCain speaking with supporters at the 2018 United States presidential election eve rally hosted by the Arizona Republican Party in Prescott, Arizona. (Flickr)

Cindy McCain, a well-connected US political figure and seasoned humanitarian, is taking over the fight against hunger at a make-or-break time for UN development goals.

Efforts to keep an acute global hunger crisis from spiralling out of control are in new hands as of this week, as former US ambassador to the United Nations Rome-based agencies, Cindy McCain, takes over the reins of the world’s largest food aid organisation at a time of unprecedented global hunger.

McCain, 68, arrives at the helm of the World Food Programme (WFP) at a make-or-break moment for the global fight against hunger, with humanitarian groups warning of dwindling resources as they man the frontlines of the worst food crisis in modern history.

Artur Andrzej Pollok, who heads the WFP’s executive board, said that the leadership role McCain is stepping into “has never been more important”.

The WFP itself says that as many as 350 million people across 82 countries are facing sharp levels of food insecurity in 2023 – out of which 900,000 are already suffering in famine-like conditions. The organisation qualified this as an “alarming” increase, with the number of hunger-stricken people jumping tenfold in the past five years alone.

Funding gap

A lack of funds has already forced the WFP to cut food aid rations in vulnerable hunger hotspots, such as in Rohingya refugee camps in Myanmar.

Even so, McCain’s predecessor, fellow American David Beasley, stressed recently that the organisation was still nowhere close to securing the $23 billion in funding needed this year.

Failure to meet those needs, Beasley warned recently, risks tipping the world into a full-blown hunger crisis that could trigger mass migration, political instability, and widespread famine in as little as 12 to 18 months.

As factors like eye-watering food inflation continue to compound the impacts of climate change, regional conflict, the pandemic’s aftershocks, and the destabilisation of food supplies sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the situation is fast outpacing the WFP and other aid groups’ capacity to respond.

“We have lost ten years in fighting malnutrition and hunger. There are no two ways about it,” Sadia Kaenzig, head of communications at Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) told Geneva Solutions. “The data is very clear. What is needed is that member states and donors are committed to pledges. With the economic situation and financing, everything is unpredictable, which will affect the most vulnerable people in a very compounded way.”

Other experts in food security warned that it would not be the time for donors to the Rome-based group to disengage:  "The food price crisis of last year has not gone away. This is no (…) time to underfund critical food security infrastructure like the WFP,” professor Jennifer Clap, a food security expert with IPES-food, a panel of experts on sustainable food systems, told Geneva Solutions. “The situation is urgent and requires action to provide hunger relief and comprehensive debt relief now.”

As the WFP relies only on donations for all its operations, McCain will face the double challenge of keeping contributions flowing in and squeezing the most out of them.

Change of tone

With Beasley’s departure, the WFP says goodbye to a charismatic leader, whose unorthodox, tell-it-like-it-is style of diplomacy captured global media attention and made him a highly effective fundraiser: last year, he raised $14.2bn – doubling the organisation’s budget from when he first joined in 2017.

During an aggressive fundraising tour in Brussels and across Europe last year, he got Germany to up its contributions, and, during his tenure, the WFP was also awarded the 2020 Nobel peace prize for its hunger-fighting efforts.

Despite these efforts leading to skyrocketing funding and increased engagement, the WFP said early this year that rapidly deteriorating conditions on the ground meant that it was grappling with the biggest operational needs deficit in its six decades of existence.

According to the latest contribution records, dated February of this year, out of the $23bn it needs this year, the WFP has so far raised $1.3bn.

To keep widespread famine at bay, McCain will need all the diplomatic and fundraising muscle she can muster to keep the momentum for the WFP from waning too fast, too soon.

A seasoned humanitarian and political campaigner abroad and at home, McCain is a well-connected figure in US politics: she’s a close ally of President Joe Biden and the widow of late Republican senator John McCain. This political clout will be crucial as she fights to maintain bipartisan support for ongoing WFP funding by the US, the organisation’s single-largest donor.

But she will also have to make sure that other partners step up.

While she conceded that Beasley’s fundraising efforts last year were “unprecedented” and likely to not repeat themselves, in the run-up to her arrival at the WFP, McCain has signalled that she won’t hesitate to go knocking on the doors of rich Middle Eastern economies, China and the US’ own private sector.

But beyond the immediate need for relief, McCain is also set to be sitting in the cockpit of global hunger-fighting efforts as the 2030 deadline for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which includes a zero hunger goal, draws nearer.

For food security experts like Clap and others, achieving zero hunger requires a transition towards local and more sustainable food production, something that Hanna Saarinen, food policy officer at Oxfam EU, says is long overdue.

“What the world is facing today is not a new crisis but an additional layer to existing, long-standing failures in the global food system,” Saarinen said in an email, adding: “A real, fundamental change must take place to move to a just food system – shifting from the industrial, exploitative and extractive model to a local and sustainable one.”