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‘Grain deal or not’, humanitarians call for more as hunger soars

‘We have never treated as many kids for critical malnutrition ever before.’

At the center of the frame we see a man walking away. Around him is a vast field of grain plantations. The sky is clear and blue. At a distance we see a line of trees. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
An agricultural worker checks the results of grain sowing in a field near Kyshchentsi, a village in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine on 1 May, 2023.

A UN-backed deal aiming to relieve a global food crisis by keeping Ukraine’s grain exports going is not enough for the world’s hungriest, according to several humanitarian groups.

 

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, aid groups responding to food crises told Geneva Solutions that the spoils of the agreement were simply not reaching the world’s gravest hunger hotspots.

 

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’s Joint Coordination Centre, which oversees operations from Istanbul.

 

Out of that total, 12.3 million metric tonnes of grain have been scooped by China and Spain alone, according to UN statistics. The amounts shipped into countries hit by acute hunger – a few hundred thousand tonnes for Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen, for example – pale in comparison.

 

Officials from Russia, Ukraine, Türkiye, and the UN are meeting this week to hash out a way forward for the deal, as concern grows over Russia’s threats to drop it. But humanitarian workers in the thick of emergencies say far more is needed to tackle a fast-evolving hunger crisis, which many say has been years in the making.

 

Hunger under the radar

For aid workers on the front lines of hunger crises, global food systems and priced-based interventions are just not cutting it, especially when it comes to 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”.

 

“What we are facing now is a situation of crisis… which is responded to by other means, by medical means.”

 

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 Black Sea grain 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 Middle East and North Africa region for ACF, 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 in humanitarian responses, Garella said the deal’s impact “had not been significant”. When buying food aid, both ACF and MSF said they favoured buying from regional markets to support the local economy.

 

Staff from the UN’s World Food Programme were not made 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 Türkiye.

 

The UN food aid agency’s purchases make up only 7% 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.

 

In a 3 May press conference in Nairobi, 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 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.

 

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 more than 20 years of humanitarian work. “The proportion of people affected is really too high,” he said.

 

Some 258 million people suffered from acute levels of food insecurity last year, according to the recently released Global Report on Food Crises, published yearly by a network of UN and government agencies.

 

This 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. More than 370,000 people face catastrophic levels of extreme hunger, food analysts say.

 

Phiri said that the grain deal was crucial to ensure 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 aid workers agreed that the hunger crises 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.

 

Angélica Castañeda Flores of FIAN International, a rights group advocating for the right to food, suggested that the grain deal could have incorporated a humanitarian mechanism that, 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. 

 

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 coordination 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.

 

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

 

A version of this article was first published by Geneva Solutions. It is republished here with permission and adapted for The New Humanitarian by Irwin Loy.

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