OTTAWA — The head of the World Food Program is urging countries to follow Canada in trying to avert a looming famine in East Africa, which he warns could get even worse due to sanctions against Russia.
David Beasley, the American who leads the United Nations agency, said the number of people in acute need of food has multiplied by four since 2017.
"The world is in a very fragile state. We can't, in my opinion, take much more," he said in an interview.
"If we have a massive earthquake, or a volcano, or something in the next six months? Holy mackerel, all the fire trucks are out."
His gravest concern is for the Horn of Africa, a region that spans all of Somalia and large swaths of Ethiopia and Kenya. The past five consecutive growing seasons have all had a drought, and armed conflict has emboldened some militias to withhold access to food.
On a visit to the region last month, Beasley was taken aback to learn that food aid is now reaching farmers and ranchers, he said. Before, they occasionally got equipment to help with farming, but they hardly ever needed actual food.
"The amount of dead animals that I saw was extraordinary," he said. "The Horn of Africa is a picture-perfect scenario of a catastrophe."
With nearly half Somalia's population experiencing drought, the government has dispatched a senior official to lobby countries and diaspora groups for more aid.
"The situation is critical, and that's why we must all come together and prevent a famine," said Abdirahman Abdishakur, Somalia's special envoy for drought response, in a Wednesday interview during a visit to Ottawa.
He has met elderly and blind compatriots who have walked hundreds of kilometres to find food.
"We are the least contributing to the climate-change problem, and at the same time we are the most affected people on earth."
Beasley started his job as UN food chief in March 2017, overseeing an organization that provides everything from school meals to farming machines to the world’s poorest.
At that time, 80 million people were in acute food insecurity, meaning they are either malnourished or cutting back on essentials to feed themselves.
That number rose to 135 million by the time the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020, due to wars and climate change.
At the start of this year, 276 million people were in need, in part due to supply-chain shocks and drought in Afghanistan, where the Taliban takeover has plunged the country into an economic crisis.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the number of people in acute need has risen to an unprecedented 345 million.
The invasion has drastically reduced grain exports from Europe’s breadbasket and caused a jump in oil prices, which Beasley said is costing his organization an extra US$75 million each month.
"Right now in our operations, we're having to take food from hungry children to give to starving children, because of a lack of funding," he said during a Tuesday visit to Ottawa.
Food prices dropped this year when grain gradually started to leave Ukraine’s main port, Odesa, but they remain the highest in a decade.
Western sanctions on Russia include some exemptions for certain types of food and fertilizer, but Beasley said global powers need to further compromise. If regions that are not facing climate woes don't receive enough fertilizer, they won't be able to ramp up their production, he said, and millions will die.
"Regardless of whether you love or hate Russia, you've got to get these fertilizers out," he said.
"We very well could go from a food-pricing problem right now to a food availability problem in 2023, and that's my grave concern."
Beasley said Canadian governments under Liberal and Conservative leaders have been "a great voice for food security globally," as have the U.S., Germany and France.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited global food security as a priority going into the United Nations General Assembly last week, but the New York meetings were dominated by news of Russia ramping up its war in Ukraine.
Canada has long been among the top five donors to the World Food Program, with Ottawa pledging US$360 million this year and earmarking funding for future years so officials can plan ahead.
"It's huge; it's a godsend. But other countries, like the Gulf states, have got to step up," he said.
"I'm jumping up and down, trying to get the world leaders to recognize (that) everyone's got to engage."
Abdishakur struck the same tone.
He urged International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan this week to boost Canada's aid for Somalia and push allies to do the same. Abdishakur is also hoping Sajjan will fund projects to help Somalia cope with future droughts.
"He showed me some commitment and a willingness to support the drought situation, but he didn't specifically promise or pledge funding," Abdishakur said.
Beasley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina, said people should see development aid as a hedge against more expensive crises.
He said challenges such as COVID-19 and inflation have the developed world questioning the virtue of helping foreigners, but he argued that not intervening will drive conflict and mass migration that will only end up being more expensive for the west.
"I've seen it firsthand; it will cost a thousand times more if we don't go down and help people where they are."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2022.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press