At the tail end of last month, world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. That agenda comprises 17 Sustainable Development Goals—also known as The Global Goals—that paint a roadmap for a better, brighter, and more humane future for life on planet Earth.
Now, these are big-picture ideas: the elimination of poverty and gender inequality, the development of affordable and clean energy, the promotion of just and inclusive societies.
That the UN hopes to accomplish all of this in a decade and a half seems both optimistic and impossible at once, considering that technological progress has done little to vanquish pervasive suffering on a global scale. (Pessimists will recall Schopenhauer's dreary summation of earthly existence: "The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don't believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other.")
But the World Food Programme—the food assistance wing of the UN—believes that the most critical of the Global Goals is also the most easily attainable: the elimination of hunger. With hunger comes strife, says the WFP. When people can't feed themselves, there will never be peace.
The WFP has one very significant hurdle to jump on its path to Zero Hunger, however: money.
In December, the organization announced that it would halt its operations feeding refugees in and around Syria due to a $64 million shortfall in its budget; after a successful social media campaign, however, it was able to resume its assistance programs. This year, the WFP was forced to cut rations in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon due to another funding shortage. It still needs $109 million simply to restore full rations in those areas by the end of 2015. The WFP further requires a staggering $1.25 billion to continue its operations at existing levels of assistance through the end of the 2016 fiscal year.
"In a sense, reducing rations has become the new normal," says Steve Taravella, a senior spokesperson for the WFP. "It's nothing we ever want to do, or expected to do, and we certainly don't like doing it. But given that so many of our operations are so strapped financially, it's just necessary that we stretch the dollars as much as we can."
Syria is not the only operation being affected by funding shortfalls. Just today, the WFP announced that it will slash food rations by 30 percent for many of the 19,000 Bhutanese refugees it feeds in Nepal next year. The cuts are intended to preserve the WFP's ability to provide full rations for the neediest among the refugees, which includes children aged six months to five years, people with disabilities, widows, women who do not have working-age men in their families, and children without parents or guardians. The WFP also plans to provide extra support to pregnant and nursing women, and people living with tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Everyone else will receive 70 percent of their current rations starting in early 2016.
In a sense, reducing rations has become the new normal.
In terms of the WFP's funding, the vast majority of contributions come from national governments, with the United States contributing the most each year. (As of this month,a total of $1.34 billion has come from the US for 2015. The UK is the next-largest contributor, at $294 million to date.) Last year, the WFP raised $5.4 billion—the most in the organization's history for a single year—with more than 70 percent of that being targeted for Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Ebola response in West Africa.
Clearly, it's not that individuals, governments, and the private sector aren't giving enough. The world's problems simply keep getting worse.
"I think it's fair to say a lot of the work we're doing in Syria … it's important work, it's essential, it's life-saving," says Taravella. "But it's not going to have much of an impact on reducing hunger or getting us to Zero Hunger. When our resources and human capacity are stretched to respond to emergency conflict situations, we're not devoting the same kind of resources in those areas to things like resilience building, so that crops can withstand severe weather situations, or any of the others things we would do to strengthen a community's ability to sustain itself. What we're trying to do in areas like Syria is just help people survive."
Taravella notes that most of the crises in which the WFP is currently embroiled are man-made. "In many countries, we don't see the political will the end the fighting. It's not as if these are naturally occurring disasters, where we often see dramatic contributions and responses by both governments and people. In Syria, we are in the fifth year of a man-made crisis, and until we see the political will to end the fighting and allow the people in these countries to rebuild their lives … the resources just aren't there."
As the WFP and other humanitarian organizations continue to staunch the bleeding of the Middle East and Africa, many other programs—the kinds that could ensure stability and eventually reduce if not eliminate global hunger—go largely unnoticed in the press.
"In many other countries, we're strengthening our school meal programs, where we provide school meals to 18 million children around the world," says Taravella, who notes that such meals are essential in preventing hunger. "Food-for-work programs exists in many countries where there is not necessarily conflict, but a need to strengthen agricultural investments."
Taravella highlights two initiatives that are extremely beneficial for local populations but that receive comparatively little attention. One is a pilot project in Eastern Zambia that is teaching schoolchildren to cook meals with methane gas produced by a biogas digester filled with cow dung, which in turn fertilizes a garden that is used to instruct locals how to grow the most climate-appropriate vegetables. For another school program, this time in Burkina Faso, nearly 200,000 students are now receiving locally produced yogurt as part of their daily lunches—a boon to a region beset by staggering rates of malnutrition.
"We're educating people in the developing world ... about nutrition, foods to grow, what kind of foods will benefit will benefit their families most, what kind of crops will flourish most," says Taravella. "We have a lot of programs with the goal to increase the status of women. Empowering women really is key to reducing hunger. Women are decision-makers in a lot of families, and when they have greater authority in their family structure and in their communities—when they have power to decide what kind of farming to engage in, to receive financing, to get tools for agriculture—all that goes toward reducing the conditions that cause hunger."
He adds, "The whole humanitarian effort succeeds when hungry people are fed and the local economy is aided at the same time."
To donate to the WFP, click here.
For more information on the Global Goals go to collectively.org.