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Get ready for ‘hell,’ UN food chief warns amid Ukraine shockwaves

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The head of the world’s biggest food aid agency has a stark warning for European leaders: Pay more now to stave off global hunger or suffer a migration crisis later. 

Russia’s war in Ukraine has sent a shockwave through international food markets, worsening the already dire problem of global hunger by disrupting supply and inflating prices. That risks tipping the poorest, most famine-ravaged regions of the planet into political chaos and creating an unprecedented migration crisis, according to David Beasley, the World Food Programme’s executive director. 

In an interview with POLITICO, Beasley warned that Europe must donate more funding urgently or it will bear the brunt of the fallout. 

“We’re billions short,” he said. “Failure to provide this year a few extra billion dollars means you’re going to have famine, destabilization and mass migration.”

Beasley’s intervention will sharpen minds as EU governments draw up plans to address the food crisis resulting from the war, with a proposal expected as early as Wednesday.

Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s biggest producers and exporters of grain. The disruption caused by the war has a direct impact on countries that rely on these supplies in the Middle East and Africa. 

Half of Africa’s wheat imports come from Ukraine and Russia, which is also a major fertilizer exporter. As for Ukraine, its exports have ground to a halt and its capacity to keep growing food this year is hanging by a thread. The crunch point will come in the fall, Beasley said, when the full impact of the war’s disruption is likely to be felt. 

“If you think we’ve got hell on earth now, you just get ready,” Beasley warned. “If we neglect northern Africa, northern Africa’s coming to Europe. If we neglect the Middle East, [the] Middle East is coming to Europe.”

The economic conditions facing these parts of the world are now worse than they were in the run-up to the Arab Spring, he said. And it’s not just the populations of Middle Eastern and North African countries who will feel the squeeze. 

The WFP is already feeding millions of people further south in Sahel countries like Niger and Burkina Faso, where problems will worsen if global food prices stay sky high. “I’ve been warning our developed nations for several years now that the Sahel is going to collapse if we’re not careful,” he said.  

Beasley is on an urgent fundraising mission to Brussels, where he held talks with two EU commissioners on Tuesday. If the food crisis spins out of control and the world faces critical supply shortages, the rich West will not be spared from political unrest.

“What do you think is going to happen in Paris and Chicago and Brussels when there’s not enough food?” he said, speaking in the sumptuous surroundings of Belgium’s Royal Fine Arts Museum, where the EU held a major humanitarian conference this week. “It’s easy to sit on your high horse in your ivory tower when you’re not the one starving.”

Untapped trillions

The WFP has an $8 billion shortfall because of what Beasley called the “perfect storm” of COVID inflation, climate shocks and unresolved wars. The conflict in Yemen means 13 million people depend on the U.N. agency to eat. The Ukraine war threatens to make the hunger crisis dramatically worse. 

In 2021, the WFP bought most of its food from Ukraine. But Beasley said the immediate problem with its reliance on Ukraine wasn’t a supply issue but one about broader cost inflation. Global wheat prices have risen by 19 percent since Russia invaded Ukraine, according to data from Business Insider.

With money buying less than before, the brutal reality is that unless the WFP gets more cash soon it may have to cut food rations in places like Yemen, Chad and Niger, in order to feed the 3 million hungry people in or around Ukraine whom the agency is helping through humanitarian routes.

The WFP, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020, depends on donations from governments or private donors who earmark the funding for specific purposes. Germany is its second biggest single donor after the U.S., with the European Commission in third spot, with around $500 million. But not all EU countries pull the same weight individually: France donated less than half of what Russia contributed in 2020.

It’s not only the EU’s responsibility to increase donations, but Beasley, who has done the job since 2017, has learned to be savvy about which doors to knock on.

A 65-year-old American, Beasley is a Republican former governor of South Carolina, who makes his points with a southern twang. He’s used to picking public battles with the rich and powerful when arguing his case. 

Last year he got into a back and forth on Twitter with Tesla boss Elon Musk, who pledged to donate if Beasley could say in detail how he would end world hunger. “He’s given me a lot of feedback but I haven’t got any funds,” Beasley said. 

Now he wants the world’s richest people, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, to help the WFP out in this crisis. He said it was a “shame on humanity” that “we’re begging for a few billion dollars” when there’s trillions of dollars of wealth washing around planet Earth, and tech CEOs increased their personal wealth during the pandemic.

“I need their help financially just for a short term. This is what I’m begging them.”

There are reasons to hope his trip to Brussels could pay off, at least. Janez Lenarčič, the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid, tweeted after meeting Beasley on Tuesday that the EU will “do its part.” Jutta Urpilainen, the commissioner for international partnerships, wrote that the bloc is “proud” to support the agency. An EU official said some EU humanitarian funds would be redirected to fighting food insecurity because of the crisis.

But the details have yet to be announced and nothing is certain. As EU leaders weigh up how to tackle the hunger emergency, Beasley’s warning is clear: “You’ll pay for it a hundredfold if you don’t.”

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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