Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, remarks at Concern Worldwide 50th anniversary event: Conflict and Hunger - How can we reach those furthest behind?

Published Date

London, 17 October 2018

As delivered

Good afternoon everybody. I am really thrilled to be here.

Let me start by saying a very happy 50th birthday Concern Worldwide and congratulations.

Thank you, it is a pleasure to be here with you today to celebrate Concern Worldwide’s 50th anniversary.

And it does bear repeating, as Ciarán (Ciarán Cannon, Ireland’s Minister for the Diaspora and International Development) said, you started as a result of the famine in Biafra in 1968.

But one of the things that people need to be impressed by what you have done is not just the focus you have had on relieving people’s suffering in circumstances like that but the focus you have had on getting at the root causes and finding solutions and in particular, building resilience; and creating opportunities and thinking about livelihoods.

Lots of the things that you do in Concern Worldwide are a role model for lots of other organizations and certainly my organization continues to learn from you. So well done on 50 years. But please keep going.

I also want to say thank you very much to Ireland. As people have already observed, I am five-eighths Irish, which turns out is not Irish enough to qualify for Brexile, even if I were interested in that. But I am extremely grateful to the role Ireland plays and not just in the way Keiron has already described, but currently as chair of the OCHA Donor Support Group.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to say to you Ciarán what a fantastic job your team of officials have done in not just preparing to take over the chairmanship of my governing body and the discharge of those responsibilities and I am looking forward to continuing to work for them over the next 10 months while you retain the chairmanship role.

My Irish heritage has informed my interest in today’s topic.

I learnt as a small boy about the million people who lost their lives in the “potato famine” in the 1840s and the million more who fled.

I was then lucky as an undergraduate to be taught by Amartya Sen just at the time of his seminal contribution in this era, his book Poverty and Famines [: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation]. And then as a graduate student I wrote an extremely undistinguished dissertation on the use of food grain prices to forecast potential food crises in Ethiopia in the 1980s. So, this is a topic that has always interested me.

When I was young, many people – including researchers and scientists – thought famine, which has been a feature for human condition for essentially all our history, thought it would continue to be a big part of the human experience.

In the same year as Concern Worldwide was established, Paul Ehrlich, that researcher in 1968 wrote The Population Bomb in which he predicted that by the 1980s, 4 billion people would have been killed by famines. It is worth repeating to you the opening sentence of his book: “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines in which hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” In the same book, he predicted that England would cease to exist by 2000 because we would be consumed by hunger. Well, what has in fact happened in the 50 years since he published his book is of course, a bit different. Famine has become much rarer and much less lethal.

In fact, in the last 20 years, there have only been two certified famines: that in Somalia in 2011 that took the lives of a quarter million people; and then last year in South Sudan, where we declared famine conditions affecting tens of thousands of people, as we were staving off the rest of the catastrophe.

I think of myself as a cautious optimist, but I do believe in our lifetime, we can eradicate famine from the human condition. If we are going to do that we need to understand what accounts for the progress made over the last few decades and then understand the nature of the remaining problem.

There are three things basically that account for dramatic progress contrary to the best forecast of the pundits over the last 50 years. Firstly, an exponential expansion of agricultural output and productivity, improvements in plant breeding, protection, storage, irrigation, harvesting, transporting and marketing have contributed to a 300 per cent increase in food grain production, using only 12 per cent more agricultural land around the world.

Secondly, the spectacular reduction in poverty levels has increased people’s purchasing power over food. In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015 – which is the last year we have data for – the extreme poverty rate globally dropped from nearly 36 per cent to less than 10 percent, even while the global population was growing dramatically.

As Amartya Sen, told us: famines typically arise as a result of entitlement deficits.

Poverty reduction globally has been supported by safety net schemes with many poorer countries in the last 15 years learning from the experience of Mexico and Brazil with Oportunidades and Bolsa Familia. Food security has been enhanced by the entitlements created by the sort of safety net schemes that we have seen in dozens of the poorest countries put in place over the last 20 years, including ones I have seen myself in countries like Ethiopia and Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Pakistan, Yemen, Zambia, Uganda and India.

Thirdly, when famine does threaten, the response is now technically much better than it was 30 years ago. My first job was on the famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. Then the overwhelming focus was on food, water and shelter. Now we understand in a famine, it’s not starvation per se that kills most people, it is infection or the measles, diarrhoea or cholera or other health problems which a well-nourished person simply fights off but the starving one succumbs to. So, today’s responses include comprehensive immunisation programmes, primary healthcare and nutrition interventions like Plumpy’nut as well as the traditional responses.

Despite all this though, progress over the last few years to eliminate hunger has stalled. At the end of 2017, there were 821 million people who were hungry, about 15 million more than the previous year.

This regression is largely man-made. Conflict and violence now drive most of our hunger and food insecurity. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s hungry, and 80 per cent of the 155 million stunted children on the planet, live in countries affected by conflict. That was all brought into stark relief last year with the threat of four famines all at once in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan, where in total there were 32 million people food insecure and 20 million facing the risk of famine.

António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, issued a call for action and a global effort was successfully mobilized and the worst was successfully averted. I have been in all four of those countries and a few other places over the last 12 months. So, I wanted to offer you a few thoughts of my own on where things stand now in those countries. Not least because I think some of the issues we are facing in those places are some of the ones blocking progress elsewhere.

In two countries - Nigeria and Somalia - there has been good progress and potential for further improvement. In the others - South Sudan and Yemen - while catastrophe has so far been averted, the underlying problems have, in fact, become worse over the last year.

Let’s start with the good news. In north-eastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram insurgency and now also the Islamic State terrorist insurgency continue to cause chaos and destruction in parts of Borno State. Ten days ago, in the town of Bama, on the Cameroon border, I met some of the hundreds of people arriving every day, fleeing from the atrocities of Boko Haram, from the gender-based violence, from the attacks on women and girls, from the brutality.

Overall though, despite that continuing problem, the insurgency has been pushed back. Millions of displaced people have been able to go home. And efforts have begun to stabilize their localities and to get back into recovery and development.

The same day we went to Bama, Achim Steiner and I – Achim is the head of the UN Development Programme – visited the village of Ngwom, about half-an-hour outside the Borno state capital, Maiduguri. There, the UNDP and the World Health Organization, have rebuilt the homes of hundreds of families forced to flee by the insurgents, rebuilt the clinic, rebuilt the school – that is a model that needs to happen on a much larger scale across the rest of north-eastern Nigeria and the other countries affected by the crisis. And international support is arriving in a larger and much better way than previously. For, – the World Bank is providing over $700 million for recovery and development to replicate exactly the sort of things we saw in Ngwom.

That recovery needs to happen at the same time as further progress is made against the insurgency. The need for that we have all just seen in a horrible, horrible way, when a couple of days ago, insurgents cruelly and brutally executed a young Nigerian midwife, who they kidnapped, while she was on duty with the Red Cross. The fact that this murder was perpetrated despite many appeals for mercy inside Nigeria and around the world tells us a lot about the evil [of] this insurgency. The fact is that they are losing.

In Somalia too, where I have been three times since I started in this role last year, there is a recovery from drought underway supported by this year’s better rains. Somalia remains exceptionally vulnerable, but climate change I am afraid is going to make it more so. But the prospect of building resilience and accelerating development is enhanced by the progress that Somalia is making in normalizing their position to international financial institutions. Debt relief is now a prospect for Somalia. The World Bank for the first time in decades was able, this summer, to make a grant to the authorities in recognition of the progress made in improving economic management. I would like to thank my former colleagues in DFID, who have really played the leading financial role in enabling Somalia to make that progress over recent years.

So much for good news.

In South Sudan, conflict, and specially the way conflict is conducted, has left huge swathes of the country basically in a vacuum populated by hundreds of groups of 25 or 30 armed men each with a Kalashnikov, who are permitted and often instructed by all parties or their leadership to pillage, rob and rape their way around. That conflict means that the underlying position has progressively worsened even as wide-scale famine has even just about been kept at bay.

More than six million people, that is 60 per cent of the population are just about surviving but suffering crisis-level food insecurity. When I went there in May, I went down to what was previously the bread basket – Equatoria in the south-west of the country. People there told me how they have been cut off from their livelihoods, their fields, their livestock and other food sources by the men with guns.

When land and livestock come under attack, access to fields is obstructed, food stocks and essential infrastructure are looted, damaged or destroyed, or populations are forced to flee, there is always one consequence – massive food insecurity.

The aid operation in South Sudan is reaching more than five million people. Thanks to exceptional courage and determination and resilience of thousands of aid workers - most of them South Sudanese - helping South Sudanese.

And despite them coming under frequent attacks themselves from the marauding bands of men with Kalashnikovs. But only the silencing of the guns will improve the situation. The best news in a bad situation - over recent months - therefore is on the peace agreements just signed by all the key actors. But they will only help if they are acted on.

As already been alluded to - the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is still the one in Yemen. There is now a clear and present danger of the biggest famine any of us has ever seen in our working lives playing out across Yemen.

The fighting and the economic stranglehold which has gone alongside three-and-a-half years has destroyed an already feeble economy and with it the livelihoods of many millions of people.

At the beginning of the year, we, at the UN projected eight million people would need humanitarian assistance if they were to have any chance of survival. There has been a dramatic deterioration since then.

Now we fear that up to 13 or 14 million people – essentially half the population - are in that position. And that is despite the fact that since last year the reach of the UN coordinated response plan has expanded from three million people a month to eight million a month.

This is an expansion possible only because we have been generously financed including from the countries of the Gulf region but also including from the US, the EU and the UK.

For 2019, my assessment is that total catastrophe for the people of Yemen will only be avoided if three things happen.

First, an expansion of the UN coordinated response to reach those 12 or 13 million people. That requires money and building further the delivering capability of our operation.

Second, an urgent injection of foreign exchange into the Central Bank [of Yemen] and the economy. For example, through the payment of salaries to teachers, health workers and other public-sector workers who have gone unpaid in some cases for years. That’s necessary to preserve the livelihoods of those still able to obtain an income and to avoid that figure of 13 million or 14 million becoming 20 million or more.

Thirdly, there needs to be a change in the behaviour of the belligerents in all sides to permit easier access for and operation of the aid effort.

In all the cases I have talked about how disaster can be averted, and I have said progress is still possible. There are two main strands of activity globally on which I think we need to focus on if we want to regain the recently lost initiative in reducing the number of people across the planet at risk of hunger and famine.

First, we need to build a system that is designed to take earlier action based on early warning. And I gave quite a long speech in Dublin in March setting out the details of it. And I want to provide a brief update on a couple of central elements.

The core point is the humanitarian sector needs to shift its approach from crisis response to anticipation and prevention.

Early action based on early warning actually only requires three things: better data; pre-agreed and pre-negotiated ready-to-go financing released as soon as the trigger is pulled; and affected delivery systems which are resilient to conflict and insecurity.

Last month, at the UN General Assembly, the World Bank and we in the UN, together with the others including Google, Microsoft and Amazon launched the Famine Action Mechanism (FAM), which will use predictive data analytics to trigger financing for early action when the risk of famine emerges.

The initiative came out of a commitment last year, by the UN Secretary-General and the President of the World Bank Group to a “zero-tolerance” for famine.

By adopting an anticipatory approach, we can leverage financing and swift action based on pre-agreed plans to avert famine and food insecurity rather than our traditional approach of launching appeals and resource-heavy post-fact activity when crisis is already upon us and when for too many people it’s too late.

So, the FAM draws on the knowledge accrued through famine early warning systems like FEWSNET, and the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) platform, which have been key in building an objective evidence-based consensus on when to pull the trigger for action.

Studies show that investing in prevention and early action could save lives and but also save a lot of money - reduce costs to the international community by as much as 30 per cent.

There is also a compelling long-term economic rationale: famine raises child mortality, increases stunting, and impairs cognitive development, and all those things have far-reaching development repercussions.

Initially, the FAM will roll out in five high-risk countries: Afghanistan, Chad, and - again where I was ten days ago- in Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

We, in OCHA, thanks to the support we get including from Ireland and Ciarán, thank you for what you said on this earlier, will use the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) - the fund I manage – to try to build a capability for more action based on forecasts rather than the crisis in our faces on the TV screens.

The second stream of activity needs to be about preventing and tackling conflict and specially for ensuring respect for international humanitarian law.

International humanitarian law acts as a line of defence against food insecurity.

The Geneva Conventions and additional protocols are worth repeating here – as they actually prohibit the use of starvation of a civilian population as a method of warfare. Doing that is a violation.

They prohibit attacking, destroying, removing or rendering useless, objects that are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.

They require that humanitarian personnel and assets be respected and protected.

And they require that all parties to conflict allow and facilitate impartial humanitarian relief for civilians and they ensure that humanitarian personnel have the freedom of movement to carry out life-saving work.

If we can find more effective ways to change the behaviour of belligerents in conflict so that they respect international humanitarian law, that would have an immediate impact on food security for affected people.

That’s why as Ciarán already touched upon, the adoption of Resolution 2417 (2018) by the Security Council in May marks an important step.

All 15 members of the Security Council voted in favour of that resolution.

This is the first thematic resolution establishing a direct link between armed conflict and food insecurity, and it signals the Council’s willingness to address conflict-induced food insecurity.

Well, the resolution requires that when the Secretary-General thinks that there is a situation in which conflict is going to promote massive food insecurity, we in the Secretariat are obliged to report on that to the Security Council and they are obliged to have a discussion on it. The Secretary-General, will every year brief the Council on how this resolution is being implemented.

And just two months after it was passed, in July, I concluded it was necessary for me to trigger that mechanism because of the rapid deterioration of the food security situation in South Sudan. Well, that led to a briefing we gave to the Security Council in August at which I called on the Council to support efforts to facilitate access and to get behind the peace process and to put greater pressure on the parties to take care and avoid civilian harm resulting from hostilities.

I will use those powers again, when I think is necessary. It will then be up to the Council to decide what to do.

The last point I want to make is that if we are going to take prevention to the next level we have to tackle the root causes of conflict, and of vulnerability and of risk that allow crisis to occur in the first place. Humanitarian agencies will continue to focus on saving lives. And every year – in the humanitarian system – the brilliant NGOs, the Red Cross and the UN agencies reach tens of millions of people and unquestionably we save millions of lives but there need to be parallel activities which deal with the root causes.

So, one of our commitments in the United Nations is to join up better with the development system and the peace and security system so that collectively we do better in tackling the root causes and that will be a priority for us in 2019 and beyond.

I started by reminding you what the doom-mongers said 50 years ago about the imminence of famine engulfing billions of people and by observing how wrong they were. Some people these days think the idea of ending famine is pie-eyed, rose-tinted piffle. Well, those people are wrong too. Eliminating famine from the human condition and achieving zero-hunger are attainable goals. But we do have to choose to achieve them.