Continuation of the war threatens a massive food crisis in Africa

Aid and expanded social protection are needed to prevent hunger

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated the food availability situation in many African countries, Human Rights Watch notes. Many states in East, West, Central and Southern Africa are covering much of their wheat, fertilizer and vegetable oil import needs at the expense of Russia and Ukraine, but the war is disrupting global commodity markets and supply chains in Africa, which has increased the continent’s already high food prices. Even countries with negligible imports from Russia and Ukraine are affected by the global rise in prices of key commodities. Governments and donors must provide affordable food to the people of Africa by increasing economic and emergency aid and strengthening social protection. Otherwise, millions of people across the continent could face starvation.

“Many African countries are already in a food crisis,” said Lena Saimet, senior researcher on poverty and inequality at Human Rights Watch. – Rising prices are exacerbating the situation of millions of people thrown into poverty by the Covid-19 pandemic, and this requires urgent action by both governments and the global community.”

Global and regional human rights standards recognize everyone’s right to adequate food, and in order to guarantee that right, governments have an obligation to put in place regulations and initiate programs to ensure that all people can afford safe and quality food. Social protection systems designed to ensure the right to social support for all can be a key tool in realizing the right to adequate food.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, East, West, Central, and Southern African states such as Angola, Cameroon, Kenya, and Nigeria had already experienced skyrocketing food prices due to both natural and climatic factors (floods, landslides, and droughts) as well as the effects of the pandemic, which disrupted production cycles and supply chains. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a new spike in global food inflation. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Food Price Index, a measure of monthly international price movements for a basket of commodities, rose 12.6 percent in March from February, reaching its highest level since the 1990s.

Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s top five exporters of barley, sunflower and corn, accounting for about a third of global wheat exports. Nigeria, which is the world’s fourth largest wheat importer, gets a quarter of that volume from Russia and Ukraine. Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan account for more than 40% of wheat imports from these two countries. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) buys half of the wheat it distributes globally from Ukraine. Warfare has reduced supplies and increased prices, including for fuel, which has increased transportation costs to and from the region.

Human Rights Watch studies of the food situation in Cameroon, Kenya, and Nigeria confirm that accelerated war-related increases in food prices are having a severe impact on living standards and food security in many African countries, especially where this is superimposed on a lack of workable social protection. The UN defines “moderate food insecurity” as “lack of consistent access to food, which forces people to reduce the quality of their diets, disrupts their normal eating patterns, and can have a negative impact on their nutritional status, health and well-being. Situations of “severe food insecurity” increase the likelihood of food depletion and periods of hunger, sometimes lasting more than a day.

In Cameroon, where more than half of the population was food insecure before the war in Ukraine, imported food prices have accelerated increases in domestic food prices, making bread and other staples increasingly unaffordable for low-income citizens. In Kenya, where by February 2022 nearly 70% of the population was in a food insecure situation and only 10% were covered by at least one type of social support, the price of cooking oil rose 6.5% in one month alone. In Nigeria, where food insecurity before the Ukrainian war affected nearly 60% of the population, food inflation was 17.2% year-over-year in March, with prices for bread, rice and yams rising more than 30%.

The WFP warned that if the war is not over by the end of April, the global increase in acute hunger could be 17%, primarily due to East, West, and Southern Africa. It is possible that the total number of people in these regions in a situation of severe food insecurity could increase by 20.8%, affecting 174 million people.

According to FAO estimates for 2020, the cost of food and high levels of poverty and inequality led to inaccessibility of quality food for 66.2% of the region’s population. Some 323.2 million people, or 29.5% of Africa’s population in 2020 were food insecure or doing without food at some point. In West and Central Africa, the proportion of the population in food insecure situations reaches 68.3% and 70%, respectively. The number of people affected by food insecurity continued to increase during the Covid-19 pandemic.

World Bank data shows that in Nigeria, the percentage of adults in moderate to severe food insecurity situations in 2021 rose from 48.5% in 2019 to 75.5%. Before the full-blown Russian invasion, the GallupWorld Poll found that 71% of the population in Nigeria did not have enough money for food; in Kenya, 69% did. At the same time, these countries imported about 31% and 34% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, respectively, so with war-induced supply disruptions, the situation could get even worse with the risks of consequences such as poverty, hunger and increased mortality.

Food inflation is particularly hard on the poorest people, who have a higher share of food expenses even if they make do with the cheapest products. According to the World Bank, in African cities the poorest 20 percent of households have a food share of 60 percent of total expenditures, and even the wealthiest have 35 percent, which does not allow them to adapt to the price hikes. With people forced to spend more on basic products, they have to compromise on quality and diet and cut back on basic non-food expenditures such as medicine and education.

A human rights-based approach should be a key element of strategies to prevent hunger, says Human Right Watch. Governments should take steps to ensure that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, by scaling up emergency food assistance and expanding social safety nets. Investing in the development of such systems can be challenging for many African governments facing high debt and budgetary problems in the wake of the pandemic. A global social protection fund is needed to increase support for low-income countries to help them establish and maintain levels of social protection through legislated benefits. Many national social protection systems in Africa are at least partially financed and supported by the World Bank, which must ensure that support reaches all those in need.

International financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank must refrain from demanding fiscal consolidation measures that could lead to even higher food prices or cuts in social spending.

International cooperation is needed to prevent the food crisis from worsening. Exporting countries must carefully weigh export restrictions, striking a balance between ensuring the right to adequate food at home and minimizing, as much as possible, the potential impact on the physical and financial availability of food in other countries. The World Trade Organization estimates that 40% of the increase in global wheat prices during the 2011 food crisis was due to sellers holding stocks.

Importing countries must strive to ensure that quality food is physically and financially accessible to all. In the long term, African exporting countries should strive to develop their own production capacities to increase food independence and greater sustainability of food systems. This includes regional support for adaptation and combating climate change.

“Because of the war in Ukraine, more people have gone hungry in Africa. Governments need to do everything they can to mitigate rising food prices and prevent an acute crisis,” says Lena Saimet. – Expanding social protection coverage and ensuring the availability of affordable food is critical to protecting the right to adequate food for all.”

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