Where the grain deal can’t reach: humanitarians need more as hunger soars

A Yemeni elderly man walks by graffiti showing "Stop Hunger" on a wall in Sanaa, Yemen, 21 February, 2019. A graffiti campaign by Yemeni artists was staged to call for the world's attention on the country’s humanitarian crisis. (Keystone/Xinhua/Mohammed Mohammed)

Humanitarian groups fighting the worst of the global food crisis say Ukraine’s grains won’t save the world’s hungriest.

A UN-backed deal aiming to relieve a global food crisis by keeping Ukraine’s grain exports going is failing to help the world’s hungriest, according to several humanitarian groups on the ground.

Signed under the auspices of the UN, the Black Sea grain deal was designed to plug Ukraine, a leading agricultural producer, back into global food markets even as it fought back Russia’s invasion. Keeping Ukraine’s exports rolling, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) said, was vital to avert the worst aspects of a brewing global food crisis.

But as the UN’s top tier beavers away at ensuring the deal survives beyond the 18 May deadline, food aid groups responding to the crisis on the ground told Geneva Solutions that the spoils of the agreement were simply not reaching the world’s gravest hunger hotspots. Beyond the spotlight, the situation is quickly spiralling out of control, they said.

Some 29 million metric tonnes of cereals and oilseeds, used in everything from food processing to livestock feed, have been shipped since the initiative was agreed between Russia and Ukraine last July, according to the UN Joint Coordination Centre, which oversees operations from Istanbul.

Read more: Where are Ukraine’s grains going?

Out of that total, 12.3 million metric tonnes of grain have been scooped by China and Spain alone. The amounts shipped into hunger-hit countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia or Yemen pale in comparison to that figure.

In a press conference in Nairobi last week, UN secretary general António Guterres conceded that the bulk of corn shipped under the deal was “essentially” going to livestock farms in rich countries but countered that poorer countries were also receiving shipments via the World Food Programme (WFP).

Overall, Guterres said that “all countries” benefited from the deal’s impact on food prices. “When you bring prices down, everybody benefits, and mainly the least developed countries are the ones that benefit the most,” he said.

While food prices, which peaked at a record-high last March following Russia’s invasion, have deflated significantly since the deal was signed, the fluctuations are largely the result of the price-bloating activities that food traders engage in when supplies run short.

Amir Abdulla, the UN’s coordinator for the grain deal, said last September that prices had dropped in part because “those who had been hoarding grain, in the hope of selling at greater profit, were now selling”.

Hunger under the radar

But for aid workers manning the crisis’ deadliest frontline, priced-based interventions are just not cutting it, especially when it comes to the smallest children, who bear the brunt of hunger in the hardest-hit areas.

“We have never treated as many kids for critical malnutrition ever before,” Tarak Bach-Baouab, head of advocacy with Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) operations unit, said in a video interview. The situation was especially dire across the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions, where he said the number of children under five years old being clinically treated had “never been higher”.

MSF and other humanitarian groups like Action Against Hunger (ACF) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said that while the deal was important for countries facing a cost-of-living crisis, global food markets don’t offer many solutions to those already in the grips of full-blown hunger.

“To really respond to malnutrition, you don’t need wheat and cereals. What we are facing now is a situation of crisis (…) which is responded to by other means, by medical means,” Bach-Baouab said. He said ready-to-use therapeutic foods, or RUTFS, a fortified peanut paste used to treat the most acute malnutrition cases, were vital in many of their operations. But as hunger numbers balloon at breakneck speed, RUTF availability in many areas is struggling to keep up with demand.

Others like ACF and IFRC prioritise cash vouchers over food aid handouts where possible, which they say let households decide for themselves what to spend the money on.

Anne Garella, operations director for Ukraine and the Mena region for ACF, another major food aid group, said that the deal’s importance, from a humanitarian perspective, was in creating a vital space for dialogue between Russia and Ukraine. But when it came to fighting hunger, Garella said the deal’s impact “had not been significant”, including because, when buying food aid, both ACF and MSF said they favoured buying from regional markets to support the local economy.

WFP, which runs the world’s largest food aid network, was not available for an interview. In an emailed statement, a WFP spokesperson said around 570,000 metric tonnes of wheat had been purchased for emergency operations in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia and that WFP-chartered vessels were also involved in re-exporting milled flour from Turkey.

The UN food aid agency’s purchases make up only seven per cent of the total volumes traded under the deal so far. And the organisation, the only humanitarian group competing with food traders for grain under the deal, has warned that its dwindling cash and resources are stretching its purchasing and response capacities in many of the dire hunger spots where it is active.

As uncertainty over the deal’s fate grows, kicking diplomats and global leaders into high gear, humanitarian workers in the thick of it are asking for a serious rethink on how to tackle a fast-evolving hunger crisis, which many say has been years in the making.

By the numbers

Gilbert Phiri, senior coordinator of the IFRC’s Africa Zero Hunger Initiative, said that the current situation was “the worst” he had seen in over 20 years of humanitarian work. “The proportion of people affected is really too high,” he said.

In its latest iteration, the Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) said that 258 million people suffered from acute levels of food insecurity last year. These ranged from households that could only afford food by cutting back on other basic needs to those already suffering from “large food gaps”, which could lead to deadly levels of acute malnutrition.

Out of these, over 350,000 people, a majority in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan, were ranked as being in the catastrophic Phase 5 – the most severe famine-like category, where an extreme lack of food can lead to death by starvation.

While the authors said that last year’s numbers were the highest since their first edition seven years ago, they warned that a combination of escalating conflicts, extreme weather events and growing financial hardships painted just as grim a picture for 2023. In a tally drawn up in March, the report said it expected 153 million people to face “high levels of acute food insecurity” this year.

Phiri, who coordinates IFRC operations out of Pretoria, said that the deal was crucial to ensure their cash-voucher recipients could continue to afford enough food but noted that the little aid that did come in via the deal was not being evenly distributed.

All three humanitarian officials agreed that the hunger crisis they had been fighting for years was suffering, above all, from a global attention deficit, with Phiri noting that warning signs were “there since the year 2000”.

Bach-Baouab of MSF, which is largely privately funded, said that resources to fight the staggering levels of global hunger today were there and that global and humanitarian leaders needed to funnel those resources into crisis-hit areas in a more efficient manner.

Bach-Baouab and Garella said that crucial funding flows were also quick to dry out when and if the UN declared any given situation as no longer being in a humanitarian crisis, even if some concerning pockets remained.

Read more: As famine looms over horn of Africa, calls for help fall on deaf ears

Angélica Castañeda Flores of FIAN International, a humanitarian group advocating for the right to food, suggested that the grain deal could have incorporated a humanitarian mechanism which, for example, diverted “a substantial proportion of these grains to the countries most in need”.

But facilitating exports from Ukraine alone, she said, would not address the growing problems of food insecurity, food inflation or hunger, but rather boost the role of “large-scale industrial food production” in food security strategies and keep import-dependent countries vulnerable to shocks.

Castañeda Flores also slammed current global responses to the growing hunger crisis as “uncoordinated initiatives [that] overlap and compete for visibility and resources”. “This hinders urgently needed coordinated actions to respond to the crisis and avoid future food crises,” she added.

The UN’s humanitarian relief agency, Ocha, declined to be interviewed, and Guterres’s office did not reply to detailed questions about the UN’s actions on critical hunger levels.

Officials from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN are set to meet this week to hash out a way forward for the deal as concern grows over Russia’s threats to drop it.

But Garella of ACF said that “grain deal or not”, severe global hunger risked getting out of hand so long as the international community failed to collectively address its “much more diverse, complex, and numerous” drivers.