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Millions starving in the 21st century

Charlotte Chelsom-Pill
October 16, 2017

Hunger levels are surging globally, with crises escalating in Yemen and South Sudan. As we mark World Food Day, DW learns how failing to tackle suffering today will leave a dangerous legacy for tomorrow.

Südsudan Kinder
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Moskwa

Today marks World Food Day - an annual reminder of the suffering still endured by so many millions around the world. It is also a chance to celebrate the measurable steps taken towards achieving a UN-led goal to eliminate hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

This year though, that celebration is distinctly muted. Hopes built up over years of progress in the fight against hunger have been dealt a cruel blow.

Read more: Millions on the brink of severe food crisis

A damning report released last month revealed that global hunger levels have increased for the first time in over a decade. It found that some 815 million people were suffering from hunger in 2016 — 38 million more than in the previous year.

The World Food Program (WFP) has called these figures an "indictment on humanity," while the United Nations has warned that surging hunger levels are the greatest humanitarian disaster since World War Two. The misery endured today by those in need is beyond comprehension. And yet, hunger and famine can also leave behind a dangerous legacy. A legacy that can be felt years after the worst of the crisis has subsided.

Hunger fanning flames of extremism

In an interview with DW, the World Food Program's chief economist has highlighted the potential that hunger has to fan the flames of extremism and conflict in crisis-hit areas. Arif Husain warned it can be a key ingredient in a combination of factors that can lead those most vulnerable towards radicalization.

A close-up photo of Arif Husain
Arif Husain, the World Food Programme’s chief economistImage: UN World Food Programme

"Together, poverty, hunger and illiteracy are a cocktail which gets exploited by external factors in terms of extremism," Husain said.

His warning has been echoed by Virginia Comolli. a Senior Fellow for Security and Development at The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). "Poverty, including food shortages, have been known as factors exploited by jihadi groups to attract more recruits," she told DW.

Comolli, whose recent book explores the rise of Nigeria-based Islamist group Boko Haram, said her research had recorded this phenomenon in the recruitment of some of the group's most vulnerable members.

A starving, crying child is held by its mother.
A mother waits for medical treatment for her starving child in Somalia.Image: picture-alliance/AA/A. Hudaverdi

"In its early days, Boko Haram's rhetoric appealed to local northern Nigerians, as well as nationals from other Lake Chad Basin countries who would happily leave their towns affected by desertification, a shrinking Lake Chad and resulting fishing shortages, to listen to Boko Haram's sermons and benefit from micro loans offered by its leader," she said. "Later on, group membership became an answer to unemployment for many of its followers."

UN hunger target in jeopardy

To mark World Food Day, the WFP is calling for urgent action to reverse the recent surge in hunger levels and to protect those most vulnerable to exploitation if there is to be any hope of stifling further suffering in years to come.

"If we want to curb the menace of extremism — whether it is in northeast Nigeria or South Sudan or Yemen or Syria or elsewhere — you have to invest in those kids before they lose hope," Husain told DW. "We live in a globalized world. It is no longer somebody else's problem. It is our collective problem."

The first step, the WFP says, is tackling a handful of the man-made root causes of hunger. Chief among them: conflict.

"Sixty percent of people who are hungry every day are living in countries suffering from conflict," Husain told DW.

Unless we resolve these conflicts, there is "no way" we can achieve our Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate hunger and malnutrition by 2030, he added. "This is a very solvable problem. We provide enough food and the economics of solving hunger makes sense, but we haven't done it. Why is that? Conflict?"

"I just can't believe that in the 21st century we are still talking about hunger."

Yemen on brink of mass starvation

Famine hit parts of South Sudan earlier this year, and near famine conditions continue to exist in an additional three countries affected by conflict — northeast Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen.

According to UN data, over a quarter of the population in Yemen is on the brink of famine. The country has been devastated by over two years of civil war.

Concern is also growing for refugees fleeing devastation in Myanmar. Aid organizations have issued urgent appeals to support some 700,000 people who have fled to Bangladesh and are in dire need of food.

Infografik Welthungerindex 2017 ENG ***SPERRFRIST BIS 12.10.2017 (10:00 Uhr CEST)***

To counter the surge in global hunger, the WFP is launching new funding initiatives, including a renewed push for Persian Gulf states to contribute more to fight famine in Yemen.

Hunger an 'indictment on humanity'

So far this year, Saudi Arabia — which is leading a coalition carrying out airstrikes in Yemen — has shelled out an estimated $12 million to the WFP's emergency operation there. That compares to about $260 million from the United States, a WFP spokeswoman told news agency Reuters.

WFP chief David Beasley spoke at the UN General Assembly last month, delivering a pointed message to nations in the Gulf: "What we're challenging are the Persian Gulf states to step up and do more, particularly when these conflicts are predominantly in your region."

While sustained humanitarian assistance is absolutely necessary to avert famine and saves lives, it is not sufficient to put an end to global hunger, Husain says. At least, not while ongoing and emerging conflicts show little sign of subsiding.

World Food Day falls annually on October 16. As in previous years, the day will be marked by a series of events in some 150 countries around the world. They include marathons, exhibitions, cultural performances, contests and concerts.