July 2005

Greatest humanitarian crisis today, WFP tells UN Security Council

The greatest humanitarian crisis today was not in Darfur, Afghanistan or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but in Southern Africa, where a lethal mix of AIDS, recurring drought and failing governance was eroding social and political stability, James T. Morris, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) told the UN Security Council in New York on Friday, July 1.
In a briefing on Africa’s food crisis as a threat to peace and security, Mr. Morris, who is also the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in the subregion, said that hunger was playing a critical part in the gradual disintegration of Southern Africa’s social structures. Last year alone, AIDS had killed a million people there and on average, life expectancy had plummeted by 20 years. Children in North America, Europe and Japan could expect to live twice as long as those in Malawi, Zambia or Zimbabwe. In fact, life expectancy in much of Southern Africa was barely more than it had been in Europe during the Middle Ages.
HIV prevalence ranged from a low of 12 per cent in Mozambique to 42 per cent in Swaziland, he said, and in 2003 alone, Lesotho had lost a third of its health workers and 15 per cent of its teachers. In Zambia, AIDS killed teachers twice as fast as replacements could be trained. The disease had killed nearly 8 million African farmers -- more than the number of farmers in North America and the European Union combined. If every American living in a city from Boston to Washington suddenly vanished, they could all be replaced with Africa’s orphans.
He said the prevalence of HIV was not only taking a toll in lost lives and reduced life expectancy, but also directly undermining the capacity of communities to produce enough food. The impact of that catastrophe on food production was enormous. An estimate earlier this year that 3.5 million people would need emergency food aid had more than doubled to 8.3 million with the return of drought conditions to some areas. More than 4 million people were at risk in Zimbabwe, 1.6 million in Malawi, 1.2 million in Zambia and 900,000 in Mozambique.
Sadly, the use of food as a weapon persisted in Africa, he said, adding that starvation had been used as a weapon in Darfur, southern Sudan, Somalia, Angola, northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and West Africa over the last decade. The most egregious example of that tactic today was in Darfur, where the situation continued to deteriorate. In much of Africa the prevalence of hunger was an accurate barometer for the level of social instability. Whatever the cause of that instability -- civil conflict, drought, AIDS, poor governance or any combination of those factors -- hunger almost always came with it. Hunger was both a cause and an effect of poverty and of political conflict.
There were few phenomena in modern life as political as humanitarian aid, he said. The major donors all made clearly political choices on which humanitarian aid projects to fund. In 2003, only 23 per cent of total official development assistance (ODA) had gone to the least developed countries, and 24 per cent to Africa. Few consolidated appeals in Africa were well-funded: Somalia was at 39 per cent; Congo at 30 per cent; the Democratic Republic of the Congo at 35 per cent; Côte d’Ivoire at 30 per cent; and Sudan at 33 per cent. Those were the fortunate countries. Niger had received only 11 per cent of its flash appeal, the Central African Republic just 17 per cent and Djibouti only 5 per cent.
He said WFP’s portfolio was heavily emergency-oriented and heavily African in focus. Yet, neither Africa nor the least developed nations had been the priority in ODA to date. While overall ODA commitments were climbing, food aid, critically important in Africa, was in sharp decline. Globally, it had dropped by more than 1.8 million metric tons last year (excluding Iraq) despite the fact that the number of hungry people worldwide had actually risen from 790 million in the mid-1990s to 852 million today. The WFP was trying to be more creative in its approach. It was looking at a famine insurance scheme in Ethiopia, as well as ways to maximize the impact of donations by changing their business processes. Globally, the agency had phased out food aid in 25 countries since the mid-1990s and hoped, one day, to phase out Africa too.
The representative of the United States expressed concern about the ongoing campaign to demolish low-income housing and informal businesses in Zimbabwe, which had left at least 420,000 people homeless, many of them children. Depriving them of shelter and income had aggravated that country’s already serious humanitarian situation. The United States stood ready to assist Zimbabwe with large-scale food assistance, as it had done from 2002 to 2004, but it was disheartened that Government policies were making the problem worse. Zimbabwe’s ‘meltdown’ affected trade, investment and food security throughout Africa.
Echoing that sentiment, the representative of the United Kingdom said Zimbabwe’s economic collapse was clearly the result of bad policies and bad governance, which was itself a cause of food insecurity. The international community was responding to the crisis caused by the Government’s crackdown on the poorest communities, as up to 300,000 people had been made homeless and thousands of children forced to abandon school.
The representative of the United Republic of Tanzania said he shared the international community’s concern over the dislocation of people in Zimbabwe and welcomed the Secretary-General’s appointment of a Special Envoy to evaluate the humanitarian impact of the evictions. However, the Council had just heard conflicting figures regarding the number of people affected and should reserve judgment until the actual numbers were confirmed.
Following the briefing, the Council also heard statements by the representatives of Denmark, Russian Federation, Brazil, Romania, Philippines, Argentina, Japan, China, Greece, Benin, Algeria and France. (United Nations Information Service, Vienna)

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