Administrator Samantha Power on “The Line Between Crisis and Catastrophe”

Speeches Shim

Monday, July 18, 2022

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, so much, and a huge thanks to Mariama for her wonderful introduction, and for bringing it home. Bringing it from Niger to us here. If you know anything about USAID, you know that our local staff – which are more than two-thirds of our overseas presence – bring everything, they bring so much, they bring their context, they bring tremendous technical expertise, they bring vision and ambition to the work that they do everyday. We are so lucky at USAID. Mariama oversees, as she mentioned, the life-saving humanitarian assistance that far too many hungry people in Niger depend on. So, Mariama, thank you for your more than 11 years of service at USAID, and all the years of service you did for all the organizations beforehand and above all everything you’ve done for the people of your country. She’s a Fellow at USAID headquarters right now so we are really lucky.

Thank you also to CSIS for hosting us today and for their continuous thought leadership on strengthening food systems and nutrition, and to Caitlin who I look forward to speaking with later, and to my friend Henrietta Fore. Henrietta’s commitment to caring for individuals in need is the stuff of legend, and her pioneering legacy across decades of public service in development is unmatched. As the first woman Administrator at USAID, she certainly paved the way for me to be here today. She left incredibly big shoes to fill – something I know that Cathy Russell can relate to uniquely.

And Cathy, for 25 years now, the Eleanor Crook Foundation – with Will as its very first employee – has dedicated itself to combating global hunger. The Foundation has fought for the malnourished when the world’s attention was elsewhere. They’ve fought during the last global food price spike in 2008. They have fought with friends on both sides of the aisle, during Republican and Democratic administrations. And they have fought because they believe what Eleanor herself believes, that, in her words, “Our elected officials should all share a worldview of justice; a worldview where no one is hungry.”

That world once seemed so very near. In ten years, from 2005 to 2015, the number of people going to bed hungry each night fell by nearly 30 percent, from around 805 million down to still too many, but nonetheless down substantially, to 590 million. Think about what not going to bed hungry meant for those individuals involved.

Unfortunately, the UN two weeks ago shed light on just how much ground we have lost. Today, as many as 828 million people are hungry – a decade of progress, obliterated, with 238 million people newly hungry, 150 million of whom became hungry in just the past two years since the outbreak of COVID-19. 

And today, we are confronting something even more devastating, as not only are tens of millions more people facing that grave hunger; many of them are at risk of outright starvation.
 
The Richter Scale defines the severity of earthquakes, the Fujita Scale measures tornadoes. And to measure severe hunger, as many of you know, the world devised a new scale – in 2004, the IPC or Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. At phase one, a community is food secure – more than 80 percent of households can meet their basic food needs. At phase two, they are borderline – households are skipping meals or liquidating what little they have to feed their families. Malnutrition spikes. 

Phase three is crisis. Hunger prevails so intensely that lives and livelihoods are at risk. It’s at this stage that the world’s humanitarian relief organizations kick into overdrive, providing the kind of assistance that for most is the difference, quite simply, between life and death. That is where we find ourselves today: staring down a global food crisis. 

In 2021, a record 193 million people in 53 countries across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, faced at least this third crisis phase of hunger. That number reflected many things – job and income losses and supply chain disruptions from COVID-19, climate shocks, long-simmering conflicts, governments restricting humanitarian access to people in need. But, it didn’t account for the latest accelerant of human misery: Vladimir Putin’s unconscionable assault on Ukraine. We know that last year’s number of people in food crisis could grow now by as many as 40 million people. 

Putin’s war has already driven millions of Ukrainians from lives of relative prosperity to destitution and dependence on humanitarian aid. But through his actions, he is also waging a war on the world’s poor, spiking food, fertilizer, and fuel prices while taking Ukrainian grain off the market. 

So things are going to get worse. The next phase of severe hunger – phase four – is what we call Emergency. People, children especially, facing severe malnutrition. Their bodies beginning to consume themselves on what little stores of energy they have left. Many growing so weak that they are unable to eat food that is put in front of them. 

And after that? The final phase we call Catastrophe. A phase in which families eat less than half of the food that they need to survive. They have exhausted all means to cope with hunger. A phase in which thirty percent of children face the deadliest form of malnutrition, as we’ve heard, a condition called wasting. 

There’s a word for when catastrophic hunger is widespread: and that word is famine. The Russian scholar Pitrim Sorokin survived a famine in the early 1920s following the Revolution. The starvation he witnessed was so severe, he wrote, it reduced a man to “a naked animal upon the naked earth.” The UN Secretary General has said multiple famines may be declared this year and 2023 may be even worse. 

So the question before the world – the question that brings you all here today and causes so many of you to do the work you do every day – the question for the world is simple: Today, we are in a global food crisis. What can we do together to avert a global food catastrophe?

To start, we have to understand the forces that have led us to this current precipice – the most existential of which is climate change.

Each day seems to bring a new report of climate catastrophes, like the brutal heat waves we’re seeing in Texas, the wildfires tearing through Europe, or the parts of the United Kingdom receiving red alert heat warnings for the first time in their history. But it turns out the biggest threat climate change poses to the world’s hungry isn’t a sudden shock, it is a long, sustained onslaught. Droughts that don’t just last for a season, but for years. 

And extreme temperatures and abnormal rainfall patterns have affected the crops of breadbaskets like the United States, France, India, Brazil, and China in profound ways. But nowhere is the pain of drought being felt more acutely than in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Countries that are part of a region known as the Horn of Africa. 

The Horn region has two rainy seasons per year. These are the times when farmers sow their seeds and fatten their livestock on new pasture. Since the year 1900, when people began recording these things, on seven separate occasions, this region – the Horn – has experienced three drought seasons in a row. However, never – not once before – has the region experienced four consecutive failed rainy seasons until right now. And our best forecasts tell us that the next rainy season, which usually begins in October, will bring poor rains as well, one record shattered immediately after another.

And this is all coming of course, on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has deepened economic downturns within countries, decimated national finances, ballooned public debt, and weakened currencies used to import food, fuel, and fertilizer – leading – as we know, to spiraling prices. 

There’s a saying in the Horn: “The animals die first.” And today, pasture lands are turning to dust, and in near-biblical scenes, weakened farm animals are dying of disease. To date, at least seven million livestock have already died in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. There just isn’t enough water to quench their thirst or enough grass to feed them. 

We know that children – those least equipped to deal with a lack of food – are also beginning to suffer. At least 1,103 children have already died in these three countries and without a massive infusion of resources from around the world, UNICEF has predicted “an explosion of child deaths.”

In February, weaker harvests and COVID-19 induced swings in demand led to a new record high in the FAO Global Food Price Index. At that point, prices were 40 percent higher than they were before the pandemic began. That was bad.

And then Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine and hold food hostage, breaking the Global Food Price Index record yet again. 

Since the war began, the Russian military has destroyed and mined Ukrainian farmland, bombed agricultural storage and processing facilities, and effectively blockaded Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, leaving 20 million tons of corn and wheat locked in silos and shipyards. Trillions of calories are literally sitting in storage while people go without food. With storage facilities still full, this year’s summer harvests – an expected 50 million tons of grain sowed by courageous Ukrainian farmers wearing flak jackets and wielding demining equipment – those tons of grain have nowhere to be stockpiled.

Ukraine and the European Union have hustled to enable the export of at least some of the trapped grain and we are working side-by-side with them – about 2 million tons a month – through a patchwork of routes and a lot of ingenuity. And while Putin’s fleet maintains its blockade, the United Nations and Turkey have been working for weeks to try to secure diplomatic agreement to reopen the Black Sea ports and let the food go.

But just as sinister as Putin’s stranglehold on Ukraine’s grain is, are the less noticed bans on the export of Russian fertilizers. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertilizer, but starting in November last year, Russia began to restrict some of its supply to global markets, contributing to a near tripling of fertilizer prices over the past year. 

With higher fertilizer prices, farmers can only afford to buy less fertilizer, meaning that they plant less, meaning smaller harvests and smaller future incomes. Farmers in Africa, especially, will be forced to cut back on fertilizer at the worst possible time, leading to a predicted shortfall in their harvests of 20 percent – worth some $11 billion. 

Now, Putin will tell you that Western sanctions are to blame, even though we purposefully created carve outs for Russian fertilizer and food. But the truth never deters Putin from espousing its opposite. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once put it in his Nobel Prize speech: “Anyone who has proclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose falsehood as his principle.” 

Today, faced with what may be the most alarming global food crisis of our lifetimes, the United States and our allies choose a different principle. 

While Putin bombs grain silos and seizes produce from hardworking farmers, we are working to bring Ukrainian grains and oils to market. The Ukrainian Minister of Agriculture and I will have more to say on this tomorrow. But, we know that these efforts will not be enough to avert a catastrophe. 

To do that, we must battle together on three fronts, providing immediate humanitarian aid to the severely hungry and malnourished, providing sustained investment in global agriculture that will help farmers boost their harvests, and undertaking concerted diplomacy so that we mobilize more resources from donors, avoid export restrictions that can exacerbate the crisis, and lessen the burden on poor countries. 

Aid, investment, diplomacy – three areas where the United States is leading, but where others must urgently step up. Let’s start with the humanitarian aid that the United States is providing to those in the most dire conditions.  

The Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust is an emergency reserve shared by USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is designed to be used when extraordinary food needs arise in the world. 

After Putin began his war, for the first time ever, we drew down this trust fund entirely – all $282 million of it – to purchase American food aid and to send that food aid to countries facing the most severe food insecurity, including many in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. 

At the G7, President Biden and our allies announced contributions of more than $4.5 billion to address global food security with more than half of those commitments coming from the United States. 

Today, I am announcing here a surge of nearly $1.2 billion in funding that will be dispatched to meet the immediate needs faced by the people of Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. This is on top of the more than $507 million we’ve already given to the Horn response. Later this week, I’ll be traveling to the region to see up close, how we can better help those weathering this historic crisis. 

Some of this assistance is going to take the form of food aid – staples like sorghum and split peas, and enriched cooking oil that can help sustain those who lack access to food. But as the global community has long realized, hunger cannot be fought with food alone. 

Even in very difficult situations, markets that sell food still function. Immediate cash assistance can be faster and more effective at staving off hunger, while also boosting local economies that need all the support that they can get. Some countries already have social safety nets in place that can quickly send money to people’s mobile phones. Here too we are supporting efforts to quickly get cash into people’s hands.

We also know that in severe food crises, more people die from disease than hunger. They become so weak from a lack of food that their immune systems can’t fight off diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, cholera, measles. So as part of our assistance, mobile health and nutrition teams will rapidly expand access to vaccines and treat the severely ill – and they’ll also provide clean water and sanitation kits to stop deadly waterborne diseases that are more likely to spread when sources of freshwater dry up as in droughts like the ones these countries and these communities are confronting.

We also know that when food is scarce, women and girls are going to be hit hardest. They will be the first to go hungry and often the last able to access assistance. Many are at risk for sexual violence as they search for food and water for their families; many already have been subjected to such violence. That’s why our assistance also includes child protection and family reunification services, as well as training for healthcare workers, and counseling and medical support to survivors of sexual violence. 

But perhaps the most immediate, life-saving humanitarian aid we can provide is assistance to revive severely malnourished children. 

In my hand, and in all of your seats today, is something called a MUAC band, which stands for Middle Upper Arm Circumference. When a child is malnourished and they appear ill, we measure the severity of their condition by placing this band around their arm. At a certain point, the range marked in red, we know that the child is severely malnourished. Their arm in fact becomes so reedy and thin, that it measures just 11.5 centimeters in circumference. This is the size of the face on a man’s wristwatch. 

As Cathy mentioned, visiting a clinic that treats severely malnourished children is an experience that stays with you. As Will mentioned, one can barely hold it together. It is to see children on the edge of death. Many lie still, barely breathing, too weak even to eat or drink. In some beds, the children have already succumbed, their bodies covered only in shrouds. Voices in these places rarely rise above a whisper. The children are just not strong enough. The parents struggle to overcome their horror and grief. It is to visit a nursery filled with silent screams. 

But as others have mentioned, we do have a solution so that these children might avoid ever having to enter such a clinic. The solution is a packet of highly-enriched paste that can reverse child wasting within weeks. With three packets of so-called Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic Food, or RUTF, a day for roughly six weeks, the vast majority of severely malnourished children – some 90 percent are able to recover, as opposed to the some 90 percent who now perish. 

Despite the power of this incredible tool in the fight against child wasting, it is drastically underutilized. Most parents who are able to bring their children to clinics to seek treatment are met with a lack of supply. Today, together, we are addressing that. 

The United States will provide $200 million to UNICEF to maximize the procurement of RUTFs, and distribute them to the areas that most need them, including countries in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. With this commitment, we will help get this lifesaving care into the mouths of an additional 2.4 million children – the largest leap in coverage on record. 

And while this is the most significant commitment that has ever been made to treat severely malnourished children, there is still more that can be done, and there are others who can chip in to help. 

Today, I’m pleased to share that several private partners—the Eleanor Crook Foundation, our co-hosts, the CRI Foundation, the ELMA Relief Foundation, and the philanthropist Sir Chris Hohn – are joining us today to contribute an additional $50 million toward this effort. 

Given the gap between global need and public sector resources, we are working tirelessly at USAID to leverage each of the investments that we make in this manner to mobilize more from foundations, high net worth individuals, bilateral donors, partner governments, and other stakeholders. We, at USAID, know we need to see progress beyond what our own programs can deliver.

And when it comes to leveraging our investments, we are not done, nor is the Eleanor Crook Foundation. Between now and September, when the world gathers for the UN General Assembly, we together, working with UNICEF, are going to leverage the shared investment we are making today to raise an additional $250 million. This is the target we are setting here today.

No child should die from malnutrition when we have the tools to stop it. It’s that simple. But reaching that goal will require others to step up. This is one of the best investments, one of the best bargains that we have in our toolkit for dealing with hunger, and for dealing with the need for more nutrition, and for ultimately, for development. 

Those are just some of the vital steps we’re taking to provide immediate relief to the severely malnourished. But to prevent, not just this catastrophe, but those yet to come, we have to go beyond emergency assistance and make substantial investments in agricultural productivity, and this is the second front in our response.

That is a hard won insight. For decades, the world turned to humanitarian aid as its main weapon in the fight against hunger, as such aid went from constituting a relatively marginal share of total development assistance – less than one percent of total foreign aid back in 1970 – to more than 20 percent today. 

Unfortunately, as global support for life-saving humanitarian aid, which is so important, but as global support for that increased, investments in long-term agricultural productivity – the kind needed to turn poor countries from food importers to exporters – dried up. Agricultural development assistance dropped from an average $20 billion in the 1980s each year to less than $5 billion in 2006. Woah. That is a major drop. And the problem with this trend is that while humanitarian aid saves lives, it doesn’t generally leave countries, communities, or farmers better able to weather the next failed harvest.

Because it was clear now during the last global food price spike that the urgent had crowded out the important, President Obama launched an ambitious new food security initiative: Feed the Future. Feed the Future was designed to give countries with real agricultural potential the chance to become agricultural powers – not just to manage the next food emergency but to contribute to preventing it. Each year, the United States invests nearly $2 billion toward this aim of strengthening global food security, beyond humanitarian assistance. 

Much of this money goes into investments that are decidedly long-term. Research to develop new seeds that will allow farmers to grow nutritious foods, even in the midst of the highest temperatures and longest droughts ever faced by modern agriculture. Private sector partnerships that create new markets and demand for the crops that smallholder farmers previously sold only locally. 

All of these measures can add up. In the 12 countries where Feed the Future is active, we see stronger food systems. We see better nutrition. We see more resilience to shocks. And because agricultural development is the most effective way to raise the incomes of the very poor, some 23 million people have been lifted out of poverty. Countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, and Bangladesh that prioritized investments in agricultural productivity saw accelerated reductions in both poverty and malnutrition – putting them in a better position to deal with today’s crisis.

But it turns out also, that many of the steps designed to boost agricultural productivity over time can also prove critical right now. Recognizing this, President Biden and our allies in Congress approved $760 million to expand and scale agricultural programs that can help combat the effects of high food, high fuel, and high fertilizer prices today – $90 million of which, with support from Congress, will be spent in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. 

A key part of this effort will be expanding, financing, and distribution to get higher-quality seeds. The seeds that can withstand drought, extreme heat, and even floods into the hands of farmers who currently can’t afford those seeds or can't find a way to access them. This year alone, we’re expanding the coverage of drought-tolerant maize for example, from 13 million acres in southern Africa to 17 million acres – an addition that’s equivalent to all of the farmland in Rwanda. 

We are also using new technologies to help poor farmers waste less fertilizer. In Ethiopia, we used satellite mapping to help farmers fine-tune their fertilizer application. The result: Fertilizer waste dropped by 40-to-80 percent, while yields grew by as much as 200 percent. And we’re now working to spread this kind of precision agriculture approach throughout the continent, starting with Niger, Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia. 

We’re also working with fertilizer companies to increase distribution in Africa. Today, I am pleased to announce that Yara, one of the world’s largest fertilizer companies, has offered to provide $20 million of free fertilizer that USAID will then help distribute – enough to support 100,000 farmers. And we need other fertilizer companies benefitting from high prices to join them. 

We’re also helping tackle the nearly 25-to-30 percent of global food production that is lost or goes to waste – one of the most important steps we can take to both boost available food and lower agricultural emissions. In Nigeria, where 40 percent of the country’s food production is lost, we have partnered for example, with a local business that installs solar-powered, walk-in cold storage rooms in markets, giving farmers space they can rent to store their produce and prevent spoilage. And in Ghana, we have partnered with Vestergaard, the same company that pioneered some of the first long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets, to create airtight grain storage bags that prevent pests and mold from spoiling harvests. 

Recognizing the significance of the benefits of sustained investment in long-term agricultural productivity, last month, President Biden announced we would expand Feed the Future’s reach to eight additional countries, bringing us to 20 Feed the Future target countries in total.

So here we are. Aid – thank you. [applause] Thanks to President Biden. Aid, this longer term investment that can pay returns right now – these are critical tools in our fight against global hunger. But they will not succeed without collective action, unless countries around the world, especially those that have the means to help, do their part. 

Secretary Blinken and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield have been hard at work, engaged in concerted diplomacy to rally other governments. In May, at the United Nations, the United States introduced a Roadmap for Global Food Security which called on UN member states to contribute to humanitarian organizations, to keep their food and agricultural markets open, and avoid export bans on food and fertilizer, to increase domestic fertilizer production, to share market data, and to increase investments in long-term agricultural productivity. That was the roadmap.

Already, more than 100 countries have signed on to this roadmap. But we need additional signatories to join the world at the table. 

One country in particular stands out right now for its absence: the People’s Republic of China. Even before the war in Ukraine began, Beijing’s trade restrictions on fertilizer and hoarding of grain was inflating prices. While at the same time, the government offered little of the transparency into its stocks and production that might have soothed markets. Signing on to the roadmap, removing export restrictions in its fertilizer exports, and releasing some of its grain reserves either to the global market or to humanitarian entities like the World Food Programme, would significantly relieve pressure on food and fertilizer prices and powerfully demonstrate the country’s desire to be a global leader and a friend to the world’s least-developed economies. 

In 2017, the last time the Horn of Africa faced a severe drought, the PRC donated $34 million to the World Food Programme’s response. Thus far in 2022, they’ve contributed $3 million to WFP and that’s for global response. The United States has provided $3.9 billion so far this fiscal year.

The United States has long been the leader in responding to humanitarian crises, and we are proud of that leadership and incredibly grateful to Congress and the American people for their compassion and generosity. But the world has always benefited from the generosity of other nations. It was the speedy mobilization of resources by wealthy countries that helped avert a famine in 2017. 

Unfortunately, today, when the needs are greatest, assistance budgets are either stagnating or they are being cut. And some countries are rewriting the rules on what counts as development spending, to shield themselves from criticism as they cut funding. 

Some countries that stepped up before have provided only eight percent of what they contributed five years ago to the humanitarian response in the Horn. And with our announcements today, we are covering 86 percent of the World Food Programme’s current funding appeal for the Horn of Africa.

To be clear, many of the countries whose funding to meet food insecurity in Africa has dropped off, have generously opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees, and supplied direct support to Ukraine in its hour of desperate need, while dealing with the same economic blows and inflationary pressures that we are here at home. No one can question their spirit of sacrifice to be clear. 

But these are extraordinary times and they do call for extraordinary measures. The generosity marshaled toward the people of Ukraine must also be directed to the less visible victims of Putin’s war – to those bearing the brunt of the cascading effects of his terror. In the United States, we have twice now worked with Congress to obtain emergency funding – over and above our pre-existing approved budgets – to support both Ukrainians and those hit hardest by this global food crisis. We need other countries to look beyond their approved budgets to address the current gaps in assistance, especially those countries who might have more space to do so given the returns they are receiving from high commodity prices. 

Regardless of a country’s ability to make additional financial contributions, it is also critical that all nations stop issuing new export restrictions on food and fertilizer and reverse existing ones on agricultural commodities. Since the invasion of Ukraine began, 24 countries have introduced such bans, restricting roughly 16 percent of all total calories traded in the world. These policies have blown back on the countries that imposed them. When export food bans go into place, local prices in the ban-imposing countries collapse, punishing poor farmers who now earn less from their harvests and have less incentive to plant more. Poverty grows in food exporting countries, and more people go hungry in importing countries. It’s the ultimate lose-lose. Now, in an extremely encouraging recent development, Indonesia recently lifted its short-lived export restrictions on palm oil and we encourage other nations to make similar moves. 

Especially since several of the countries instituting such bans have been unwilling to criticize the Russian government’s belligerence. Countries that have sat out this war must not sit out this global food crisis. 

And crucially, we must move urgently with other bilateral creditors to provide debt relief for countries on a scale beyond what we’ve seen before. Some 60 percent of low-income countries are facing or already experiencing debt distress – their public finances wiped away by their responses to the pandemic. If we are to give these countries the fiscal space they need to respond to mounting challenges and to prevent broader economic and political collapse, we need relevant creditors, including non-Paris Club countries such as China, to provide debt relief and restructuring in support of a program from the IMF.

There is so much at stake. There is a long history of evidence tying rising food prices to global instability. We have already seen protests against high food prices in at least seventeen countries, across nearly every continent. Just last week, unrest fueled by an awful mix of corruption and inflation led the President of Sri Lanka to resign and flee. If history is any guide, we know it won’t be the last government to fall. 

Yet, even though this food crisis is global in scale, there are steps the rest of us can take, too. We’ve seen the generosity of diaspora communities, private companies, and individuals. We have seen them marshal billions of dollars in resources in response to past emergencies. 

Diplomacy can’t just occur in foreign capitals. We have to make the case to every citizen that they have a stake in mitigating this crisis and in saving lives, as well. We have to make it easier for everyone to support efforts to tackle this current emergency. And in that spirit, we have partnered with GoFundMe to launch today, the Global Food Fund – an online donation platform for anyone who is able to contribute to the cause. The money that this fund raises will go directly to nonprofit organizations providing humanitarian relief on the ground where hunger and malnutrition are at their worst. It is accepting donations now at Gofundme.org.

So there we have it. Aid, investment, diplomacy – if we don’t urgently pursue action on all three fronts, catastrophe surely awaits those least able to confront it. 

The United States has boldly led, from contributing record amounts to emergency assistance, to doubling down on agricultural development investments that will stave off the next food crisis, to using both international and public diplomacy to marshall a truly global response. Now, we need others to do more before a famine strikes, before millions more children find themselves on the knife’s edge. 

Recall that saying: “The animals die first.” If the world does not do more, if we do not rally together, we all know what will come next. 

Thank you so much. Thank you.

Center for Strategic and International Development, Washington, DC

Last updated: September 21, 2022

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