Asharq Al-Awsat has asked Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths about the three biggest threats the world’s poorest collectively face. His answer was: “Climate, conflict and cost-of-living. And they’re all connected.”
When asked about double standards in refugee treatment, the UN official told the newspaper in an interview conducted via email that “the United Nations welcomed the swift and generous European response to the plight of Ukrainian refugees. This is how it should be for all refugees, all of whom need access to asylum, without discrimination. As UNHCR has repeatedly stressed, respecting refugee rights is a legal and moral obligation, and it should never be contingent on nationality.”
On fighting poverty, he said: “It is becoming more expensive to buy and transport the assistance, meaning our aid reach fewer people, or people get less aid, or both.”
Here’s the full text of the interview:
The UN has issued repeated warnings of food shortages. What countries are most at risk of rising levels of hunger?
This year, food security prospects are alarmingly bad and getting worse in many parts of the world. In the highest-alert countries – Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen – three quarters of a million people are just one step away from the ultimate catastrophic situation, a famine.
They are not the only ones at risk. The number of acutely food insecure people has jumped to a new high of 345 million people in 82 countries this year, according to the World Food Programme.
The causes of hunger are many and often intertwined.
Conflict and displacement are the biggest problem. Sixty percent of under-nourished people live in conflict-affected countries.
Extreme weather due to the climate crisis is also a major driver of hunger. Parts of the Horn of Africa have experienced four consecutive failed rainy seasons and are now confronting a fifth, creating the worst drought situation in 40 years. In Afghanistan, people are experiencing the worst drought in 30 years.
The conflict in Ukraine has led to a global cost-of-living crisis, with disrupted supplies and high prices of food, fuel and fertilizers.
And all these things are happening at a time when the pandemic had already made the world’s poor more vulnerable.
Is the war in Ukraine causing the food shortages? If so, what can be done to protect the most vulnerable?
The war is leading to pressure on an already highly stressed global food system by pushing up the price of wheat, maize, fuel and fertilizer and disrupting supply systems.
The countries that are hit the hardest are those heavily dependent on imported grain, for example Yemen, where 19 million people are food insecure. Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territory are also facing mounting humanitarian crises. In Africa, Cameroon, Somalia and Sudan are also very severely affected and in some of these countries, families spend up to 80 percent of their daily income on food.
In all countries where we have humanitarian programs, it is becoming more expensive to buy and transport the assistance, meaning our aid reach fewer people, or people get less aid, or both.
Despite these mounting challenges, humanitarians have this year provided food aid to about 6.5 million people across Africa’s Horn, to 19 million in Afghanistan and to 11 million each month in Yemen, among many other places.
We call for Governments to support the free flow of food and energy in open markets. That includes releasing surplus supplies and lifting any impediments to exporting food and fertilizer from Ukraine and Russia.
But in a hunger crisis, people need more than food aid. They need a comprehensive assistance package, including healthcare, clean water, education, protection and livelihoods support.
The response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis was extraordinarily generous and efficient. However, it did raise questions about double standards in refugee treatment. How do you view this issue?
The United Nations welcomed the swift and generous European response to the plight of Ukrainian refugees. This is how it should be for all refugees, all of whom need access to asylum, without discrimination. As UNHCR has repeatedly stressed, respecting refugee rights is a legal and moral obligation, and it should never be contingent on nationality.
Neighboring countries are usually the ones to step up most generously to host refugees – think of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq hosting Syrian refugees, Kenya hosting Somalis and South Sudanese, Bangladesh hosting Rohingya refugees from Myanmar
What would you say are the three biggest threats the world’s poorest collectively face?
Climate, conflict and cost-of-living. And they’re all connected.
The climate crisis is an existential threat to the whole of humanity but is disproportionately hitting vulnerable countries.
We are increasingly seeing the damage caused by the combination of climate change and conflict. Last year for instance, 10 of the 15 countries considered most vulnerable and least ready to adapt to climate change were experiencing some form of conflict. Rich countries, whose emissions have contributed most to the climate crisis, must live up to their climate financing commitments of $100 billion annually to developing countries for climate action.
The global cost-of-living crisis is already causing more poverty, hunger and malnutrition, threatening lives. We urgently need to see the kinds of social protection solutions that many Governments implemented during the pandemic, combined with debt relief for at-risk countries, and far greater investment in basic services, which are key to resilient communities.
Could you describe the most pressing humanitarian needs in the MENA region? What is the most important role that the UN is playing in this part of the world that is plagued with conflicts?
Yemen is at a critical juncture, with the truce offering a real chance to resume political discussions and end the war. It is extremely important to maintain and accelerate the momentum behind it. But even with this truce, we cannot lose sight of the enormous economic and humanitarian crisis that persists. More than 19 million people are hungry and aid agencies are only 25 percent funded. We also need to leverage funds to contain the threat of a catastrophic oil spill from the SAFER oil tanker, which is becoming more dangerous by the hour.
Second, in Syria we see with devastating clarity what 11 years of war will do to a country. The Syrian people need a way out of this war so they can start to rebuild their lives and futures, yet they’re still stuck in a cycle of humanitarian suffering, with 90 percent of the population now below the poverty line. Recovery and rebuilding are well overdue.
The financial and economic crisis in Lebanon is causing hunger and suffering to mount, raising great concern across the international community. Rising food and fuel prices are also slamming the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which is straining both UNRWA and WFP.
To sustain current operations until the end of the year, WFP requires an additional $36 million. Facing similar constraints across the OPT and the region, UNRWA’s shortfall remains at $100 million. The alarming levels of violence are also a huge cause of concern, including the use of lethal force by Israeli security forces against Palestinians, resulting in a significant number of Palestinians killed and injured.
As Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, you have a large portfolio on your hands. What are your priorities?
First, we need better accountability to the people we set out to serve – this needs to be the central prism of humanitarian action. Accountability involves getting better at understanding people’s needs and being far more flexible to shift course when needs change, to meet those needs.
Second and linked to this, we need to make the humanitarian enterprise less Northern, and more local. We need to work with a new generation of local and national NGOs by giving them more direct support and making space for them at the table where decisions are made.
Third, we need to fully finance humanitarian action and protect development assistance to meet mounting needs. Humanitarians have prevented famine from taking hold in South Sudan, Yemen and Somalia over recent years and we can do it again if we have the resources. But the Humanitarian Response Plans we coordinate, and are our main fundraising tool, currently face an 80 percent funding gap overall. That translates into delays, cuts in assistance and needless suffering.
The entire humanitarian system, including donor countries, needs to be better prepared and resourced to take anticipatory and early action to stave off mass crisis and suffering before they get severe. This of course saves lives but it also cuts costs.
Finally, allowing civilians access to the help they need must be a priority. It is becoming harder to reach people in conflicts. Humanitarian organizations must devote more time and resources to attaining humanitarian access – through building trust and acceptance and negotiating with parties to conflict. This work takes persistence and patience.