LONDON – Today, 270 million people – equivalent to the combined population of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy – are on the brink of starvation. This number has doubled over the last 12 months. And it is the world’s children who are suffering most.
An estimated 11 million children under the age of five face extreme hunger or starvation in 11 countries in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Asia. Of these, 168,000 will die of malnutrition by the end of 2022 unless they receive emergency support. And a total of 73 million primary schoolchildren in 60 low-income countries are chronically hungry.
Hunger was already on the rise before the coronavirus pandemic, mostly as a result of war and conflict, and climate change exacerbated it. But the secondary effects of the pandemic have created a global hunger crisis.
One reason for this is that COVID-19 has broken the lifeline of school. More than 1.6 billion children have missed time in the classroom since the pandemic began, and nearly 200 million are still not back at school.
Previous crises have shown that school closures carry huge social and economic costs, including increases in child marriage and child labor. Some young people end up paying the ultimate price: complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 in low- and middle-income countries. Ultimately, crises reverse progress on ensuring that all girls have access to quality education.
Moreover, schools provide many poor children with their only nutritious meal of the day. School closures mean that millions of children have lost their opportunity not only to learn, but also to eat. Children have missed more than 39 billion school meals during the crisis. Women and girls are often the first to miss meals, and account for more than 70% of people facing chronic hunger.
The damage caused by just a few weeks of missed nutrition can stunt a hungry child for a lifetime, and malnutrition can stunt a country’s economic progress for a generation. So, getting children back into school where they can be educated and fed must be a high priority.
With relatively little money, the international humanitarian system has achieved much. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), for example, feeds around 100 million people per year. And when COVID-19 severely disrupted commercial airline services, the UN created a logistics system to transport health and humanitarian workers and vital supplies, including food. But a crisis on this scale requires an ambitious plan that involves more than just providing school meals. Humanitarian organizations can’t do it alone.
At their June summit, the wealthy G7 economies should commission a long-term plan to address rising global food needs. The plan should include provisions for pre-emptive action: building up food stocks, developing insurance as a protection, and supporting developing-country farmers and food growers with long-term investments to help them become self-sufficient.
Policymakers must also adopt innovative ways to generate financing, including guarantee-based facilities that can maximize the use of development aid and private-sector funding, which was at the heart of the 2015 Addis Ababa proposals for financing the Sustainable Development Goals. Another priority could be a closer partnership between the UN and the World Bank – the one wholly global organization capable of mobilizing substantial additional resources on a sustained basis.
But there is a very simple, common-sense solution to the immediate crisis: new international money. At least $600 billion in Special Drawing Rights (the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) can be allocated to poorer countries. Leaders and lenders can agree on up to $80 billion of debt relief on the condition that the money goes to education, health, and nutrition. And the World Bank and regional development banks can rapidly expand grants and loans.
With around $10 billion this year, the world could stave off famine in Yemen, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, and the Sahel. And it could prevent mass hunger – which immediately precedes famine – in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and other vulnerable places.
This may sound like a lot of money. But it’s the equivalent of a dollar a month from each person in the world’s richest economies, and represents a fraction of 1% of wealthy countries’ pandemic-related stimulus spending.
We need to move quickly. This means giving grants up front to the WFP and leading NGOs like Save the Children to feed hungry children and their families. With only 31% of refugee children enrolled at the secondary level, and just 27% of girls, Education Cannot Wait – which helps displaced children into school and has raised almost $1 billion in its short existence – needs to be fully funded. By directing additional resources to education, we can get 136 million children in some of the poorest and most conflict-affected countries back in school – and help them stay there.
COVID-19 has also exposed another educational divide: two thirds of the world’s school-age children lack internet access at home, which prevents them from online learning. Today, only 5% of children in low-income countries have such access, compared to 90% in high-income countries. A UNICEF-led project to connect the world could bridge this gaping digital divide.
The UK government has pledged to play a leading global role in getting all children into school and ensuring that girls receive 12 years of education. But we will not achieve that noble objective unless the G7 summit addresses this issue, in addition to food security.
Time and again, education has demonstrated its power to transform individuals, families, and entire countries. But chronic hunger can have devastating consequences: cruel and preventable deaths, violent conflict, and mass displacement.
Ignoring the global scourge of hunger is thus not an option. What happens in the world’s most fragile places has knock-on effects in the most stable countries.
The choice facing world leaders is simple: act now to tackle the hunger crisis, or pay a much higher price later. Immediate action will be cheaper and save more lives than responding only after multiple famines have taken hold and a generation’s missed education has exacted a terrible toll.