© Helvetas/Christian Bobst

Ukraine War Exacerbates Famine in the Global South

BY: Patrik Berlinger - 01. April 2022
© Helvetas/Christian Bobst

Once again, war shows us that its effects cause suffering far beyond the battlefield. Russia's war of aggression on Ukraine is exacerbating the food crisis in many countries in Africa and the Middle East. While humanitarian aid is key to tackle this crisis, attempts to improve food and nutrition security are also needed to prevent social conflict and new wars.

After years of decline, hunger is on the rise again globally. There are numerous reasons why the world is at a critical stage, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): In many places, violent conflicts make it impossible to grow and harvest, process and transport, and supply and market food.

Added to this are the increasingly dramatic consequences of climate change: higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and more frequent extreme weather events such as droughts and flash floods are making the food situation ever more precarious. The coronavirus crisis has also caused global hunger to rise yet again. And as if that wasn't bad enough, now the Russian attack on Ukraine, which violates international law, has been added to the mix.

Ukraine and Russia are considered the "granaries of Europe," indeed of the world: together, the two countries supply about 30 percent of the world's wheat needs. For years, Russia and Ukraine have ranked among the largest exporters of wheat, corn, rapeseed, sunflower seed and sunflower oil.

Since the war began, Russia has severely curtailed its wheat exports; Ukraine no longer exports anything at all to secure supplies at home. Agriculture has collapsed, especially in the north of the country. Farmers can no longer reach their fields, there is a shortage of fertilizer and fuel, and farm workers are fleeing to other parts of the country or are being drafted into the military. It remains to be seen whether the wheat already sown can be harvested in the summer. In addition, summer cereals and corn should have been sown in March. It remains to be seen how things will look next year.

What is clear, however, is that many developing countries are highly dependent on Russian and Ukrainian wheat. According to the FAO, export restrictions could increase the price of food and feed on the world market by up to 22 percent, reaching their highest level ever. Memories of the Arab Spring come to mind, when rising food prices, especially for bread, led to widespread protests in North African countries.

UN Secretary-General warns of "hurricane of hunger"

UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned urgently of the global consequences of the war as early as mid-March. The breadbasket is being bombed and a "hurricane of hunger" is threatening, he stated. Given Ukraine's great importance as a food exporter, the invasion was "also an attack on the world's most vulnerable people and countries. In countries of the Global North, rising food prices do not fall as heavily as in countries of the Global South, where the largest portion of people’s income is spent on daily meals.

The world's 45 least developed countries import at least one-third of their wheat from Ukraine or Russia, and 18 countries among them import more than 50 percent. These include Egypt, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. These are all countries that are already dependent on humanitarian aid and food supplies because millions of people are currently suffering from massive hunger.

The war is also affecting countries where Helvetas is active. Madagascar, for example, imports 75 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. The food situation is visibly deteriorating. The population is already suffering severely from prolonged droughts and climate-related extreme weather events: At the beginning of the year, four hurricanes swept across the island within four weeks.

In Tunisia, which buys almost 40 percent of its wheat from Ukraine, wheat prices are soaring. The Tunisian president blames the bad situation on the war in Ukraine and the food speculation that accompanies it. Because the country’s debt is rising ever more sharply, the Tunisian government requested financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) before the war even broke out.

Lebanon, which obtains 75 percent of its wheat from Russia and especially Ukraine, is also desperately seeking other wheat exporters, but so far without success. The government turned to the international community with a call for help. There are now fears of rationing and sharp price increases, which will hit the already hard-pressed population hard.

Burkina Faso and Mali, which buy over 30 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of their wheat from Russia, are also feeling the effects of the war. Due to climate change and Covid-19, in 2022 the number of hungry people in countries in the Sahel region is already 10 times higher before the outbreak of war in Ukraine than it was in 2019, according to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP). Due to falling imports and rising prices, the situation in these countries will get even worse.

Finally, in the Horn of Africa 13 million people are already suffering from hunger. Ethiopia imports around 40 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, Kenya 30 percent, and Somalia over 90 percent. By 2022, up to 20 million people in this region of the world will be at risk, warns the FAO. Responsibility for this lies with climate change and more frequent extreme weather such as droughts, locust swarms and the destruction of pastureland, economic slumps as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic — and and the Russian government.

Switzerland's levers

Switzerland has political levers and various possibilities to support affected people and countries. It can — as an alternative to increasing the army budget — expand its humanitarian engagement on the ground and in the region. Thanks to its extensive experience, Switzerland can strengthen development and peace policy efforts and intensify those aimed at protecting human rights.

In order to avert the foreseeable famines, trade in foodstuffs must be regulated internationally. It is not acceptable that speculation with scarce foodstuffs exacerbates hunger crises. Because 80 percent of Russian raw materials are traded through Geneva, Lugano, Zurich and Zug, Switzerland has a responsibility here.

Finally, Switzerland can implement sanctions more rigorously: Unlike other countries, the Federal Council and politicians, banks and trustees are taking a hesitant approach. Of an estimated CHF 200 billion in Russian assets, less than six billion have been frozen so far. Politicians, including those in the bourgeois camp, are now demanding that more be done to track down funds belonging to sanctioned Putin associates.

About the Author

Swiss Development Policy

Switzerland’s international policies must be aimed at achieving global justice, equal opportunity, and decent living and working conditions.

Humanitarian Response

In recent years there has been a global rise in disasters. Earthquakes, droughts, floods and cyclones turn years of development progress to dust overnight.

UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals set forth in 2015 in the UN 2030 Agenda are guidelines for international cooperation. You can find out more about those goals here.