World Food Programme fights hunger in crises and war zones

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The World Food Programme’s Nobel Peace Prize award shines a light on vulnerable communities across the Middle East and Africa that the UN agency seeks to help, those starving and living in war zones that rarely get the world’s attention.

From Yemen to South Sudan, food insecurity is a growing scourge, made worse by a mixture of military conflict, environmental disaster and the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year alone, the Rome-based organisation provided aid to almost 100 million people in 88 countries.

– Yemen

In war-torn Yemen, described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, millions of people depend each month on the WFP for survival.

Over the course of nearly six years of conflict between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led military coalition, the agency has faced major challenges in getting relief to Yemenis in need. Violence rages and many aid recipients live in notoriously remote regions.

Rival armed groups divert food aid to frontline combatants or sell it for profit on the black market. Last year, the WFP partially suspended its operations in the rebel-held capital Sanaa over accusations that the Houthis were stealing the food aid.

The WFP’s large-scale operations are considered indispensable in the Arab world’s poorest country, where 20 million people are suffering from a hunger crisis and another three million face starvation due to the knock-on effects of the pandemic. The agency helped avert famine two years ago.

Food supplies arrive at a school in Sanaa, Yemen
Food supplies arrive at a school in Sanaa, Yemen (Hani Mohammed/AP)

The Houthi-run health ministry criticised the agency on the occasion of its Nobel Prize, with spokesman Youssef al-Hadhari telling the Associated Press its aid “fails to solve the root problems that we suffer from”, including the “siege” by the Saudi-led coalition.

– South Sudan

Few places in the world are as ravaged as South Sudan, where more than half the population is still hungry, two years after the official end of a civil war that killed nearly 400,000 people and sent more than two million fleeing the country.

Now widespread flooding has displaced well over half a million people, further complicating the efforts of the WFP and aid partners in reaching hard-hit areas with assistance as food prices rise amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The threat of deadly violence remains a daily concern in what remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries for humanitarian workers. Just this week, gunmen fired on a WFP boat convoy carrying food aid to flood-stricken communities. The WFP said three crew members were wounded and another was missing and likely to be dead.

A woman scoops up fallen grain after an aerial food drop in Kandak, South Sudan
A woman scoops up fallen grain after an aerial food drop in Kandak, South Sudan (Sam Mednick/AP)

In Sudan, where inflation has soared to 166% amid the pandemic, an unprecedented 9.6 million people are facing potentially life-threatening levels of food insecurity.

The cash-strapped transitional government that took power after the removal of long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir is struggling to stop the tailspin. During the pandemic, the number of children going hungry has doubled to 1.1 million.

From the war-ravaged region of Darfur, Ibrahim Yousef, director of the largest displacement camp, welcomed the news of the WFP’s Nobel award as a bright spot in a desperate time.

“We have been counting on WFP for decades,” said Mr Yousef, director of the Kalma displacement camp in South Darfur, noting that the agency’s food aid has most recently helped fend off malnutrition for those in camps suffering from the fallout of virus-induced lockdowns, severe floods and bouts of ethnic violence.

“Without their grain many people here would have nothing at all to eat. We want this award to send a message to the world that we need even more help now than before.”

– Syria

Rival groups and government forces have imposed months-long sieges as a weapon of war, leading to major shortages of food in civilian areas.

Syria Children
Syrian children displaced from eastern Aleppo (Hassan Ammar/AP)

During truces, the WFP occasionally managed to get limited amounts of food into besieged towns, where dozens have died of malnutrition and hunger-related illnesses.

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