World Food Programme’s Nobel Peace Prize award should make us think

World Food Programme’s Nobel Peace Prize award should make us think

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A child enjoying high-energy biscuits as part of WFP’s nutrition assistance in Batangafo town, northern Central African Republic. (Courtesy WFP)

A few weeks ago, on the back of the virtual UN General Assembly, I came up with a short list of those unsung UN agencies and their redoubtable leaders who did so much good work around the world, often unsung, while attention was paid to the politics in which the UN was embattled. I was therefore quite thrilled with the award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to one of them, the World Food Programme (WFP).
The scale of this organization’s work is deeply impressive. Founded in 1961, the WFP has been a lifeline for the world for almost 60 years. In 2019, it supported 97 million people in 88 countries, delivering 15 billion rations. The work done by its 17,000 staff has moved far beyond mere emergency relief, leading to sustainable long-term programs that contribute to repair and recovery.
The success of the WFP owes a great deal to its leadership, particularly in ensuring that the US, its major funder, stayed on board in 2017 at a time when the White House was questioning many multilateral agencies. Executive Director David Beasley took no prisoners in setting out to Washington the impossibility of dealing with a worsening global humanitarian crisis at a time of rising unrest should the US reduce its massive support. But he also did not shy away from being honest about UN deficiencies either. The combination of this trusted former South Carolina governor and the quality of the WFP element of the UN has proved remarkable, and a lesson into what can be achieved by working together.
Anyone could fill a column, and more, with a stream of WFP statistics, but I doubt Beasley and his team would much welcome that. While this piece is praise and support for them, it is not a pat on the back for a complacent world. Why is the WFP there? Why has it been honored and what has made it the standout organization it is?
As a child, I collected stamps, and I can still remember the pink 1963 “Freedom from Hunger” images, with their simple logo depicting families and stalks of wheat. Such stamps supported a worldwide campaign that was aimed, in the years following the Second World War, at supporting an international order determined to use the new-found peace to end hunger and poverty. I recall the efforts to deal predominantly with droughts, famines and natural disasters — humanity intervening to combat nature, which could not be held responsible for the power it was unleashing or its consequences.
This is no longer the case. Forgive a handful more statistics. Two-thirds of the WFP’s work is now in conflict-affected areas. Some 74 million people facing acute hunger live in 21 countries affected by conflict and insecurity, with 80 percent of their children threatened with being stunted through malnutrition. These are not people facing the wrath of an environment unleashing its forces, but families whose lives would be worth living but for those who have deliberately turned their worlds into hell.
It is even worse than this. Conflict has been an element in mankind’s history for centuries; virtually no state has clean hands, so no one can preach from a position of piety, and certainly not a former government minister from the UK. But we can at least learn from experience and seek a better way. Why have some conflicts returned to using starvation as a weapon of war, requiring UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2417 to be enacted in 2018 to seek to ensure warring parties offer the bare minimum of humanity to those in areas under their control?

Imagine if all its resources had been spent on development, improving nutrition, and reaching those in the emergencies that have no man-made cause.

Alistair Burt

The WFP has been given the Nobel Peace Prize for two-thirds of its work, which should not need to have been done. It has gone into the toughest of areas, pleading for those it cares for, negotiating for them, and losing heroes it should not. Its citation referred to its “contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas, and acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war.”
Imagine if all its resources had been spent on development, improving nutrition, and reaching those in the emergencies that have no man-made cause.
The sadness for those who love the Middle East and North Africa know that this means us. The length of the conflicts from Syria and Yemen to Libya and the Sahel cry out to the UNSC, and those member states with the required influence, to step up to the challenge currently being met by the WFP. Many of us know how difficult this is — there are no Pollyanna solutions, and there are many, many people trying.
But this award should make us think; then redouble our efforts. Let us make this the last time a UN agency wins the Nobel Peace Prize doing work it should not need to do.

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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