Saving the poor and vulnerable

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Science  23 Oct 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6515, pp. 383
DOI: 10.1126/science.abf2694

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Right now, warm surface water is moving into the western Pacific Ocean in the form of a “La Niña.” It is a sentinel for a complex set of connections that drive weather patterns from the Horn of Africa to Botswana and normally presages drought in East Africa. This event soon will be ringing alarm bells within the World Food Programme (WFP). Even as this United Nations–led agency celebrates its well-deserved award of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, the relentless challenge of preventing hunger marches on.

Why a Nobel Prize for the WFP, and why now? Last year, the WFP assisted nearly 100 million people in 88 countries. It is the safety net for those who fall off the edge of existence. It is the humanitarian end of the response to solving the problem of food insecurity. Its Nobel Prize reminds us all of the moral hazard in imagining that the poor and vulnerable are somebody else's problem.

The work of the WFP is the consequence of failure. It has been around since 1961 and has been the global coordinator of nationally based efforts to avert catastrophes with food aid. If it has struggled at times, this is largely because of the debilitating nexus of war, corruption, climate change, and famine. Despite decades of effort to alleviate hunger, the latest estimate is that about 11% of people on the planet (about 820 million people) are suffering chronic undernourishment. This rises to nearly a quarter of all people in sub-Saharan Africa, and hunger is on the rise in Africa. Progress at reducing undernourishment has stalled despite gains through the 1990s and 2000s.

At this time, when a global pandemic is forcing the rich of the world to adjust their lives—often in minor ways compared with the starving and dispossessed—the Nobel Committee is challenging humanity to act with moral courage and selflessness. Even in good times, the richest of the world are hardly overflowing with generosity. The Group of Seven (G7) nations typically spend less than $8 per person per year to support the work of the WFP (the annual WFP contribution from a country divided by the population of that country). When we think of all the other things that nations spend money on—from defense to their own social welfare—do we really get our priorities right? Added to this, many of the countries with the greatest food security problems are debt peons of wealthier nations, often generating the cash to pay off some of these debts in food exports. What is given in generosity in one hand is taken back with the other and, in some places, wealthy nations even supply the weapons to perpetuate wars, which undermine the work of the WFP. Climate change, a product largely of the accrual of capital wealth by rich nations, just adds to the asymmetry of stress. The developing world suffers the most from the negative impacts of climate change.

American philosopher John Rawls saw that addressing the needs of the poor and vulnerable is about more than money—it is mostly about creating conditions under which liberty and opportunity can thrive. Under Rawls's schema, the “America First” slogan of today seems particularly aversive. Aid that promotes the gap between rich and poor and sustains a “know thy place” message to the recipients is aid with heavy conditions. It was U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower who asked for the WFP to be established, but the current incumbent of that office has hardly shown such leadership. Nations must act together and act globally. Perhaps the Nobel Committee's choice was also a poke in the eye for Donald Trump and his tribe.

At least within the scientific community, there is a helping hand because of rapid progress in embedding expertise in fields such as agro-climatology within countries most vulnerable to poverty and hunger. By making its voice heard, science can lead by example. The various national food aid agencies that are coordinated through the WFP are increasingly informed by forecasting of climatic challenges to food production, for instance. The resilience that must be built into some of the poorest countries will not come from loans from wealthy and populous countries, which may have a food deficit of their own, or institutions like the International Monetary Fund. It will be built upon self-confident people using open and shared scientific knowledge to pull themselves out of their misery.

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