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INTERVIEW: ‘Famine is preventable, if there is political will’

In her role as WFP deputy chief, Valerie Guarnieri leads programme and policy developments towards ending hunger, including efforts to ensure protection and inclusion; expand school meals and nutrition programmes; empower women; build resilient food systems; and support cash transfers and social protection.

In this interview, part of an SDG Media Zone series, taking place during the high-level opening of the General Assembly, Ms. Guarnieri warned that billions are still needed to fund the agency’s projects, and explains why food systems urgently need to be transformed.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length

UN News: Why has COVID-19 dramatically increased the threat of hunger?

Valerie Guarnieri: Before COVID-19, we were already seeing a rise in hunger, after decades of having hunger on the run, because of conflict and because of climate change.

What we’re seeing is that that hunger is being taken to new levels. On the one hand, food prices are going go up and, at the same time, people are feeling the hit of the socio-economic crisis. So, families are struggling to afford the food they need, to survive and to thrive.

UN News: WFP is launching what is possibly the largest food aid operation in history. What does that look like?

Valerie Guarnieri: We’re scaling up to reach 138 million people this year. It’s a huge operation for us and means that we need to mobilize the resources that we need. We’re still $5 billion short of our target.

We need to be buying food, getting it ready to reach the people who have been affected, and then we need to ramp up our cash assistance for households, pump-priming our cash programmes to ensure that people can buy food in the market.

So, it’s a massive undertaking for which we need a lot more support. A few months ago, we called on donor governments to advance financing that they had already committed for the year. And many did that.

But what we’ve seen is that, with COVID, the impact on hunger is really growing, and so our programs have had to scale up even further.

Governments have also turned to WFP to assist them in buying the food that they need to keep their social protection systems going, or to help make those programs more effective. That’s why we need an additional $5 billion before the end of the year, so that we can deliver on those promises.

WFP/Ziad Rizkallah
WFP Assistance to Lebanon (file)

UN News: For many people, food systems just aren’t working. Two billion people are obese, a trillion dollars-worth of food is wasted every year, yet millions go hungry. What’s the answer?

Valerie Guarnieri: When we’re looking at food systems, we’re basically talking about everything from farm to fork, and here we need to make sure that those systems, and each step in that value chain, is delivering food security for all, in a sustainable way for the planet.

Food systems are also a huge contributor to climate change, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and in terms of deforestation. That’s why the UN Secretary-General has called for a Food Systems Summit next year. 

This is a great opportunity for us to align public sector, private sector, and everything that needs to come into place, to make sure that food systems really deliver for all.

UNOCHA/Giles Clarke
Cereal stored in Dhubab, Taiz Gobernorate, in Yemen. The World Food Programme (WFP) grain stored in Hudaydah’s Red Sea Mills has been inaccessible for over five months and is at risk of rotting.

UN News: David Beasley, the head of the World Food Programme, recently addressed the Security Council and raised the alarm of a “hunger pandemic”. Do you share his fears? 

Valerie Guarnieri: We are on the verge of famine in a number of countries. And this comes as a result of conflict. It comes as a result of climate shocks, but it’s also compounded and exacerbated by the effect of COVID-19.

And we’ve seen donor nations stepping up to provide resources, to support WFP programs and also partner programs that target the most vulnerable and seek to support them. But it’s not enough.

There’s a huge amount of wealth in the public sector and in the hands of very wealthy individuals. And it’s essential that it comes together, to prevent this from happening.

The famine is absolutely preventable, but it requires political, and financial innovation.

UN News: We’re speaking in the United States, the richest country in the world, but even here, there are many people who are suffering food insecurity and going to bed hungry.

Valerie Guarnieri: Well, countries like the United States have the wherewithal to ensure that no child goes to sleep hungry. And in situations like we have now, it’s absolutely imperative that the US matches the stimulus support that they’re providing, with efforts to ensure that it reaches, and targets, those who are most vulnerable.

But that’s not enough. It’s also essential that the U S and other rich nations reach out and support those around the world, whose governments don’t have the wherewithal to provide that support.

I think COVID-19 has shown us, almost more than anything else, how connected we all are. And it is incumbent on all to ensure that we reach those furthest behind.

UN News: for many vulnerable children, school may be their only chance of getting a meal. Are you in favour of reopening schools? 

School meals are the largest global safety net, and they provide a lifeline for children. You can’t learn on an empty stomach. Valerie Guarnieri, Assistant Executive-Director, World Food  Programme

Valerie Guarnieri: It’s absolutely essential to get children back to school, wherever it’s safe for them to do so, so that they can have access to the learning that comes through being in school, and engaging directly with their teachers and their peers, but also so that they can access a nutritious meal.

School meals are the largest global safety net, and they provide a lifeline for children both to ensure that their food needs are met, but also to help them benefit more from the learning. You can’t learn on an empty stomach.

UN News: You must often have to deal with some harrowing situations. Is the situation regarding hunger bleak, or are you seeing any positive signs?

Valerie Guarnieri: One of the really positive signs that we’ve been seeing at WFP is how nations are really stepping up to ensure that their systems are catering to the most vulnerable. 

Fifty nations have approached the WFP specifically for help to ensure that their systems are adapted, are more efficient, and more effective in reaching the most vulnerable.

At the end of the day, nations are on the frontline for addressing the problems for keeping hunger and the hunger pandemic at bay. And for me, it’s been really encouraging to see the number of nations who are really stepping up to do that.

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