ROME – Despite an alleged global commitment made in 2015 to end global hunger by the year 2030, the latest report from the United Nations shows that the number of people who don’t have access to enough to eat has grown for the first time in a decade.
According to the “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” 2017 report, 815 million people didn’t have enough food in 2016. That number represents 11 percent of the global population, many of them children.
The report was produced by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the organization’s main offices, located in Rome, on Oct. 16, on the occasion of the UN-sponsored “World Food Day.”
The last time Francis dropped in on FAO, back in 2015, he blasted what he called the “paradox” of a world in which weapons circulate freely, yet humanitarian aid such as food for starving people is blocked by politics, self-interest, and petty bureaucratic considerations.
Earlier this year, in a message read by his Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Francis told FAO that the reason hunger and malnutrition still exist is because of a “lack of a culture of solidarity,” and countries are not doing enough to tackle the issue.
The increase noted in the report published on Friday, representing some 38 million more people than in 2015, is largely due to the proliferation of violent conflicts and climate-related shocks, such as extreme floods and drought.
The report also estimates that 155 million children under five are too short for their age, while 52 million have a weight that is too low for their height.
This is the first report of its kind to be released following the adoption in 2015 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which put ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition by that year as a top international policy priority.
Observers have flagged the report as a “particular wake-up call,” considering that goals 1 and 2 of the SDGs are attacking poverty and hunger.
In regions where hunger has increased as the result of war and conflict, the challenge is even greater because charitable agencies such as Caritas, Catholic Relief Services and Cafod, or governmental aid agencies can’t provide assistance without minimal safety guaranteed and without distribution systems that can safely bring food to the destinations.
Additionally, in countries facing a state of crisis but no actual war, such as Venezuela or North Korea, people are starving due to failed policies and priorities.
Speaking on background, a Church official reacting to the FAO report noted that international commitment and adequate humanitarian supply is not enough to fight hunger: Situations of armed conflict and failed leadership can thwart the best intentions and the best networks.
The report was presented in Rome on Friday by FAO, the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Spaniard Monsignor Fernando Chica, the Holy See’s observer to FAO, called the findings of the report a “defeat of mankind.”
“Behind these numbers there are people, children who cry, who are desperate, and for whom the future is running out,” he told Cope, the radio network of the Spanish bishops.
The increase in the number of people who are hungry, he said, is a call for international solidarity.
“We’re going far in our exploration of space, but together with this progress, there are brothers of our same flesh and blood who are dying every day as a result of hunger,” Chica said. “We have the means to end hunger, but there’s no political will. We want hunger to become a museum piece.”
Among the international charities fighting hunger is Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops. CRS’s Vice President for Government Relations, Bill O’Keefe, called the rise in global hunger an “unacceptable set-back” and said the warning signs detailed in the report cannot be ignored.
He agrees with Chica, saying that the means to end hunger are there, but there’s a lack of political will.
“The international community, with U.S. leadership, needs to address the underlying causes of this increase – violence and climate change – now,” he said. “With 65 million people on the move around the world, many because of conflict, and 20 million people on the verge of famine, we can’t just treat the short-term humanitarian symptoms and ignore long-term solutions.”
In late August, the UN warned that Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and northeast Nigeria are all on the brink of famine, calling this the largest humanitarian crisis in the 70 years of its existence. Civil wars and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, as well as the lack of infrastructure and isolation from the rest of the world have all exacerbated drought and food shortages to create a catastrophic situation for millions of people.
In a statement released on Saturday, O’Keefe said that climate change impacts millions, and that there’s a moral responsibility to help those affected adapt so that small-holder farms can grow more food and become resilient to severe floods and droughts. He also called for new public-private partnerships that bring innovative solutions to hunger, combining efforts of government, academia, the private sector and NGOs.
“Foreign aid, though necessary, is insufficient to end the violence and conflict driving so much of the hunger and poverty today,” he said. “U.S. diplomatic leadership to prevent and resolve conflict is critical. With funding, groups like Catholic Relief Services can feed many hungry people and help them grow more food, but only governments like ours can prevent and end conflict.”
One concrete case of Catholic response
The Kingdom of Swaziland is a landlocked country, almost entirely contained within the northeast corner of South Africa. It faces numerous challenges including poverty, chronic food insecurity and HIV/AIDS. In addition, it was severely affected by two years of drought caused by the recent El Niño phenomenon.
With a little over one million inhabitants, the country ranks 150 out of 188 in the 2015 Human Development Index. Despite being considered a lower middle-income country, 63 percent of Swazis live below the national poverty line.
According to the Vatican’s 2016 yearbook, there are 15 parishes in the country, attended by some 30 priests and close to 50 nuns. The total number of Catholics in Swaziland is not very large: Close to 60,000 people, representing a little over five percent of the total population.
“The last few years our diocese and country has been particularly affected by food insecurity due to climate change that brought one of the worst droughts in history,” Bishop Jose Luis Ponce de Leon told Crux.
“That, together with poverty and problems in the distribution of food to the schools has made the situation very difficult,” he added.
Born in Argentina, this 56-year old bishop today is the country’s lone bishop, heading the diocese of Manzini.
As is usually the case, he said, the most affected by the extreme conditions are the most vulnerable: Children, the disabled and the poor.
Not long ago, he had a meeting with the diocese’s finance committee, in which he asked what the Catholic Church could do, and how. The response was clear: “The children are hungry. That’s the bottom line. In these circumstances, they can’t study, because they arrive at school and fall asleep.”
After this, Caritas Swaziland took the lead at the diocesan level, contacting local and international organizations and benefactors that “always come to our rescue.”
Among other things, Ponce de Leon said, for the past four years benefactors have donated funds for food parcels. They also donate water tanks for families affected by the drought, though they hope and pray for a normal rainy season this coming summer, which would allow them to develop their own small vegetable gardens.
“The name ‘Caritas’ in Swaziland, and in many places all over the world, is the expression of not only the immediate response to those who cannot wait until tomorrow, but also of long-term projects trying to address the causes and offer long term solutions,” Ponce de Leon said.