A family in Syria impacted by the drawn-out civil war picks up their monthly food allowance. Photo: WFP/Ali Habib

Fresh off its Nobel Peace Prize win, the World Food Programme is seeing a wave of public interest that has boosted donations and shone sorely needed limelight on its activities.

But with a global pandemic exacerbating an active hunger crisis, now is not the time to cut away from an issue that has become too easy to ignore in an era of seeming abundance, leaders from the nonprofit and its U.S. affiliate said during a World Affairs Council of Atlanta discussion Tuesday.

The United Nations agency marshals resources to meet the nutrition needs of the most vulnerable. So far this year it has reached 138 million people in more than 80 countries, in spite of the pandemic. 

But the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 has made the world’s hunger problem twice as bad, at least when it comes to the number of people for whom access to food is a matter of survival.

“It’s a lot worse, I hate to say it,” Alex Marianelli, who heads up supply chain operations for the Rome-based organization, told Council President Charles Shapiro during a conversation over Zoom. “The impact of 2020, the lockdowns, the socioeconomic impacts of COVID, have increased that number to what we’re estimating now to be 270 million people.”

Watch the full World Affairs Council of Atlanta conversation with Alex Marianelli and other panelists here: The Hunger Crisis feat. 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate UN World Food Programme

Even in a normal year, about 690 million people globally — a little less than a tenth of the world’s population — face the prospect of “food insecurity,” he said.

But now, full-blown famine — a word that “should not belong to the 21st century” — stalks at least four regions of the world, including West Africa‘s Sahel region, Yemen and South Sudan.

Of course, the pandemic is not solely to blame. Poverty is a main contributor. Drought and crop failure occur. Sometimes the problem is one of distribution rather than supply, as in landlocked nations like the Central African Republic. Natural disasters like the recent flooding in South Sudan and 2019 cyclone in Mozambique require emergency response to meet acute needs.

But ultimately, conflict is often the underlying cause, forcing displacement that sets in motion a domino effect of challenges.

“The main cause of hunger is conflict; there is no doubt about that. That is well established. Most of the people that are acutely food insecure live in conflict areas,” Mr. Marianelli said. “When we’re talking conflict, the movement that it causes, the disruptions that it causes, this is fundamentally the main issue that needs to be tackled. There will not be an end to hunger without peace, and vice versa.”

Indeed, the Nobel Peace Prize committee awarded the honor to the WFP specifically for its “for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

But in the absence of a quick fix in the meantime, the WFP is focusing on the tactics to tackle its Herculean task.

That’s where partnerships with governments, policy makers, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and the private sector come in, said Barron Segar, president and CEO of World Food Program USA, the fundraising nonprofit affiliate of the U.N. organization in the U.S.

Mr. Segar has been focused on capitalizing on the unprecedented attention the Nobel Prize has generated for the World Food Program USA, driving record traffic to its website and boosting individual donors from 25,000 to 77,000. Revenues are up 40 percent in the recently concluded fiscal year.

But he’s also wary that the spotlight can just as easily fade.

“It’s hard getting the message out today, particularly when there is so much competition,” Mr. Segar said, noting that election season has diverted editorial attention and raised advertising prices, causing the WFP to pull back on some of its traditional ad spend.

Joe Ruiz, vice president of social impact for the UPS Foundation, said private companies can contribute to the fight by donating their expertise in addition to their cash. 

The Atlanta-based package delivery giant has a long history of engaging in “humanitarian logistics,” using its knowhow to help aid agencies distribute food, medicine and other resources.

Among its recent projects: compiling a database of cargo and passenger flights to pinpoint unused space that can be donated, contributing amphibious vehicles and portable warehouses in disaster areas, and training more than 100 “UPSers” as emerging team responders since 2004. The company also helps countries with “logistics capacity assessments” to evaluate their readiness for impending shocks to their distribution infrastructure, Mr. Ruiz said.

UPS even “lends” executives to the World Food Programme for six- to nine-month stints, helping them gain experience while getting crucial enterprise systems running and improving processes like fleet maintenance and spare parts storage.

“It’s a life-changing experience for them and they absolutely want to leverage their skillset,” Mr. Ruiz said, adding that he encourages companies in the private sector to lend their “superpowers” to nonprofits worldwide.

Mr. Segar said UPS is an exemplary partner, but it’s not alone. Food giant Cargill, for instance, stepped up and donated $1 million to match the Nobel Peace Prize award. Bank of America is another partner, along with retailers like Michael Kors and Coach, faith groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and health nonprofits like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

With these kinds of stakeholders, Mr. Marianelli said one of the WFP’s top five priorities is efficiency: transferring as much of each donation to the field as possible. At this moment, 85-87 cents of every dollar goes directly toward food for the needy, with the rest covering agency overhead. For perspective, Mr. Segar said it costs about 50 cents to save a life with a package of essentials like beans, wheat, rice and oil.

Meanwhile, the WFP has to reckon with the effects of bringing in large amounts of free food on the local economy. Though it’s a major buyer of U.S. grains, its standard policy except in the most extreme cases is to source food as close to the end destination as possible, while using local trucking companies and contractors to boost the local economy.

Learn more about the World Food Programme here and see the Nobel Prize announcement here.

Find out about the U.S. arm at www.wfpusa.org.

Join the World Affairs Council of Atlanta at www.wacatlanta.org.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...