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article imageNobel-winning UN food agency warns of 'hunger pandemic' worse than Covid

By Pierre-Henry DESHAYES (AFP)     Dec 9, 2020 in World

Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in a ceremony held online because of the coronavirus, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned Thursday of a "hunger pandemic" it said could be worse than Covid-19.

"Because of so many wars, climate change, the widespread use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and a global health pandemic that makes all of that exponentially worse, 270 million people are marching toward starvation," WFP executive director David Beasley said.

"Failure to address their needs will cause a hunger pandemic which will dwarf the impact of Covid," he said, removing his facemask to make his remarks broadcast from the WFP's headquarters in Rome.

The largest humanitarian organisation fighting famine, the UN agency founded in 1961 feeds tens of millions of people each year -- 97 million in 2019 -- across all continents.

The WFP was honoured with the Nobel for its efforts "to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict", committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said when she announced the winner on October 9.

World map showing numbers and percentages of people undernourished by world region since 2005
World map showing numbers and percentages of people undernourished by world region since 2005
Cléa PÉCULIER, AFP/File

With nationalist tendencies taking hold across the globe, the WFP "represents exactly the kind of international cooperation and commitment that the world is in dire need of today," Reiss-Andersen said Thursday, speaking from a deserted Nobel Institute in Oslo.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced Nobel officials to scale back the traditional festivities to a bare minimum, both in Oslo where the Peace Prize is announced and presented, and in Stockholm, which hosts the prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics.

Cancellations hit the lavish banquets and glittering ceremonies attended by distinguished guests and royals in tiaras, replaced by more austere events mostly online.

Because of the exceptional circumstances, the Nobel gold medal and diploma were sent to Rome in a diplomatic pouch.

- 'Call to action' -

"This Nobel Peace Prize is more than a thank you. It is a call to action," Beasley said.

"Famine is at humanity's doorstep", he said, and "food is the pathway to peace."

In recent weeks, the agency has expressed alarm about the risk of famine in Burkina Faso, South Sudan, northeastern Nigeria and Yemen.

Word Food Programme supplies have proven vital for people in countries like Somalia in recent years
Word Food Programme supplies have proven vital for people in countries like Somalia in recent years
Roberto SCHMIDT, AFP/File

Already at record levels, malnutrition in Yemen is expected to get even worse due to the pandemic and lack of funds.

"We stand at what may be the most ironic moment in modern history," Beasley said.

"On the one hand, after a century of massive strides in eliminating extreme poverty, today those 270 million of our neighbours are on the brink of starvation."

"On the other hand, there is 400 trillion dollars of wealth in our world today. Even at the height of the Covid pandemic, in just 90 days, an additional 2.7 trillion dollars of wealth was created. And we only need 5 billion dollars to save 30 million lives from famine," he added.

Nobel festivities in Stockholm have also been cancelled, replaced by events mostly pre-recorded for an online broadcast later Thursday.

"The pandemic has subjected us all to difficult obstacles," Nobel Foundation director Lars Heikensten said Thursday.

"We have been reminded of the importance of cross-border cooperation in resolving humanitarian crises and that, with the help of science, we can find solutions to the challenges we face," he added.

- 'Feed them all' -

The 2020 Nobel literature laureate, US poet Louise Gluck, was first to receive her medal and diploma in a private ceremony at her home in Massachusetts on Sunday, followed by separate events for the other winners in their cities of residence in recent days.

This year's laureates will be welcomed to Oslo and Stockholm at a later date, probably in 2021.

David Beasley has run the World Food Programme since 2017
David Beasley has run the World Food Programme since 2017
Fabrice COFFRINI, AFP/File

In order to receive the prize sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (975,000 euros, $1.18 million), Beasley must hold the traditional Nobel lecture within six months.

Saying he goes "to bed weeping over the children we could not save", Beasley concluded his remarks with a desperate appeal.

"When we don't have enough money and the access we need, we have to decide which children eat and which children do not eat, which children live, which children die," he said.

"Please don't ask us to choose who lives and who dies... Let's feed them all."

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