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There are a billion reasons Elon Musk is not going to end world hunger

‘There is no door number two for people who are living in poverty.’

(Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

The recent social media feud between tech billionaire Elon Musk and David Beasley of the UN World Food Programme has drawn attention to an important debate over the aid sector, and why, it seems, no matter how much money is spent, global hunger continues. In fact, the number of undernourished people in the world has risen consistently over the last three years.  

Musk is probably not going to sign that $6 billion cheque (though it would be great if he did), but he is not wrong about the aid sector being broken. He, like many others, just doesn’t seem to understand why; or perhaps he has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. 

Wealthy elites tend to think it’s a question of management strategies and transparent accounting – that surely the administrators of charities must be wasting money instead of running a lean and brutally efficient private sector industry. So, yes, the global aid sector is broken, but not because of management. It is broken because it has to pander to billionaire donors like Musk, while boardrooms of mostly Western white men make decisions based solely on the preferences of their billionaire donors. 

I’ve personally seen this play out countless times. The deeply entrenched disparities within the aid sector fall across lines of racial, gender, and power inequality, to the point that when a tenaciously successful charity organisation based in Bangalore, Kampala, Addis Ababa, or Tegucigalpa comes forward to seek grant funding, they find themselves having to shape their programming to fit the expectations of people like Musk. 

For many of the largest institutions and sources of financing, we are answering to the wrong stakeholders, judging by the wrong metrics, and ignoring equity as the centrepiece of aid financing, programming, and execution.

Yes, the global aid sector is broken, but not because of management. It is broken because it has to pander to billionaire donors like Musk.

I’m not suggesting Musk hand over $6 billion without questions – just that his questions could show a greater comprehension of the nuance and complexity of world crises. If he were truly interested in helping, he would reflect on hunger as a health equity issue. For example, why does hunger disproportionately affect women and girls? Why are lower-income countries hit hardest by famine? Why are Black families in the United States two to three times more likely to experience hunger than white families? If we ask the right questions, make a seat at the table for affected communities, and create spaces which foster empowered dialogue, we can get to the true core of the issues. 

In 2019, an estimated 650 million people were undernourished worldwide. As a result of the pandemic, that surged to 811 million, or about one in every nine people. Of that total, approximately 60 percent are women and girls. Unequal access to opportunities in education and careers, lower wages, laws that favour men, and cultural traditions are all contributing factors.

Cycles of disadvantage continue beyond the home.

Approximately 60 percent of the world's hunger pandemic can be found in just 10 countries: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

At its core, hunger is a health equity problem. Solutions won’t be found in the form of a cheque for $6 billion. They’ll require structural change and a multilateral approach. Elon Musk knows this. So does the World Food Programme, who didn’t say $6 billion would solve world hunger, but rather, that it would help to solve world hunger.

And money would go a long way towards helping.

But if Musk, who is currently living in Boca Chica, Texas, were to find himself at the other end of one of the climate-related events Texas has experienced in recent years: extreme cold leading to an energy grid failure for example, he could get to safety. He’d have the ability to check and track weather on his phone. He’d be able to buy a plane ticket or fly his private jet. He’d be able to relocate permanently if he wanted. There would be a door number two.

There is no door – let alone a door number two – for people who are living in poverty.

If Musk truly wants to help, he should stop centring himself in conversations about hunger for clickbait. It’s not about him.

World hunger and other humanitarian crises need a different generation of funders: funders who create spaces to have honest conversations about the real needs, while also understanding financial involvement doesn’t magically equate to expertise; funders who see it as their role to facilitate change rather than enforcing prescriptive “solutions”; and funders who are deeply committed to equity and recognise it as the baseline of a sustainable world.

At its core, hunger is a health equity problem.

All too often in the global aid sector, I have witnessed organisations try to fit into a prescriptive mould that funders have manufactured, without including the very people who are intimately involved in the work. They do this for a variety of reasons, ranging from meeting goals to showing board members there has been “progress”. But the result is that organisations doing the work won’t ask for what they really want, afraid of losing out on funds. 

When I was working on funding support for children’s programmes in India circa 2017, for example, the community identified a need for educational opportunities that would provide a roadmap out of abject poverty, at least for some. Instead, one wealthy individual donor thought it a good idea to fund a project to develop agricultural skills and grow healthy foods. The community, living in shanty houses built on heaps of garbage in the slums, was expected to grow gardens in recycled containers as a solution to malnutrition.

It was a ludicrous idea. And yet the implementing organisation accepted funds to prioritise growing vegetable gardens and to use only what was left over for a school under a lone tree. The extent to which this Western donor was out of touch would be laughable if it weren’t for the heartbreaking fact that the needs of the community were ignored while another billionaire could go on to boast about his charitable giving.   

All too often, implementing organisations shapeshift to meet the demands of donors. Then, once awarded funds, they attempt to shave off money here and there to funnel what they can towards the real problem. They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or they’re engaging in conversations with billionaires like Musk, who make attention-seeking statements about large-sum donations that may never come to fruition or address the real issue. In either case, it’s the same people who are always on the losing end. 

Meanwhile, Elon Musk just gained another billion dollars. 

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