Sir Mark Lowcock, former UN Relief Chief, has worked for nearly 40 years in international development policy and global humanitarian issues.
Today, around 50 million people in 45 countries
are facing the threat of famine.
War and conflicts across the world,
rising food, fuel and fertiliser costs,
as well as droughts and flooding
caused by climate change
are adding to the risk of
more famines into the future.
Particularly in parts of the Middle East
and some countries in Africa.
Sir Mark Lowcock is
often called "The Relief Chief"
because for four years - till 2021 -
he served at United Nations as
for Humanitarian Affairs
and Emergency Relief Coordinator
After a long career
as a British civil servant,
specialising in international development
and humanitarian issues,
he took up this leading role at the UN in 2017.
And it was in this
four-year period of his career
that he was witness to the biggest explosion
in humanitarian need in modern history.
Direct Talk met him at his home in London,
to hear what his decades on the front line
have taught him about famine
and the current global food crisis.
So what we have now is the worst food crisis
globally the world has seen for many decades.
It predates the Ukraine war,
we had very high food prices,
coming into the beginning of 2022,
we had the effects of conflict,
particularly the Horn of Africa,
the Sahel, parts of the Middle East,
we had drought -
Somalia, to give one example,
is in its fourth or fifth year of drought,
that comes from climate change,
and we had the fact that these poor countries
were dragged down by the covid pandemic,
so their economies contracted,
people didn't have incomes,
there was less food available,
but they had less money to access it as well,
so for the first time now
for many, many years, decades,
we face a threat of famines
re-emerging in multiple countries:
part of the Sahel,
if we're not careful,
we could see mass starvation with
millions of people starving to death
in those countries and other places too.
All of human history
has been characterized by famines
in different countries across the world.
But in recent years, famines had decreased
due to better living standards
new technologies, and
more help from aid agencies.
So, when I was born, in 1962,
the majority of human beings on the planet,
more than 50% of them,
were in the most extreme poverty, living on
the equivalent of less than a dollar a day,
so all those people were basically hungry...
most of the time.
They watched their children die in infancy,
they were unable to send
their children to school,
many women died in childbirth,
and life expectancy was much, much lower.
And then there was a huge burst of progress,
largely to do with science and technology
developed in North America and Europe
spreading round the world,
countries adopting almost universally
market-based economic systems,
the end of the cold war,
and what all that produced
was higher living standards
and fewer numbers of people
who couldn't get enough food to eat.
So we moved from a position where
more than half of humanity
was at risk of starvation
to a position where less than 10% were.
But today the world risks losing all the
progress it has made in preventing famines.
As over the last five to six years,
a perfect storm of catastrophic events
has taken place.
Most devastating has been
the war between Russia and Ukraine
which between them supplies
almost a third of the world's wheat.
According to the World Food Programme,
in the past two years,
the number of people facing food insecurity
around the world has more than doubled
to 276 million.
So we made that enormous progress in the yeas
basically from 1960 to 2010 or 2015,
but what's happened in the
last six or seven or eight years
is it's started to unravel and
things have started to go backwards.
And there's three main reasons for that.
The first is the spread, again, of conflict,
particularly in Africa and the Middle East
and now we see in Ukraine.
The second reason is the
growing impact of climate change,
we're seeing more droughts and
longer droughts and more severe droughts,
but also at the same time we're seeing
very violent and vicious storms.
And then the third thing has been
the effects of the pandemic.
The pandemic writ its destruction
above all in the very poorest countries.
Where rich countries were able to
pump money into their economies
to keep everybody with an income
and to enable everybody to survive,
the poorest countries couldn't do that,
and so people who were already poor
were dragged right down
to the verge of starvation.
And because we've seen
food prices go right up
because droughts have reduced harvests
and because conflict,
as we've seen in Ukraine, has stopped some,
grain production coming onto the market,
food prices go up,
people are very poor, they can't afford food,
and that's what's created this risk of
a resumption, a return to that
horrible terrible scourge of famine,
which we'd almost got rid of
from the human condition.
Having spent so many years meeting people
on the front line of disasters,
Mark has learned ways to cope with the misery
that he comes face to face with in his work
travelling to the most desperate
parts of the world.
Knowing that he could be useful,
that things can improve,
really helped him deal with his own feelings.
Well, you do meet people in really
desperate situations when you travel,
you know, through war zones
or in famine zones
or places destroyed by storms
and you listen to people.
People weep and shake
as they tell their stories
and they are quite emotional encounters
you have with people,
and unforgettable, really.
But you also see
some really inspiring things,
you see the power of hope in humanity,
you see generosity and kindness,
and you see the possibility
that things can improve.
And what I try to do is
hold onto the thing I've learnt
over 40 years doing this kind of work,
that yes, there is often a lot of suffering
and it's extreme and brutal and painful,
but also there is kindness
and also things can get better.
This year, Mark published a book
about his experiences called
"The Relief Chief."
One of the themes in the book is
about the need for more forward thinking,
and different types of financial planning
to avoid the return of famines.
I'd had this experience
of trying to coordinate
all this work to save
people's lives and so on
and what I'd seen is the
aid agencies do a fantastic job,
they reach 100 million people a year,
they certainly save millions of lives a year,
but through this period of
mounting crisis and problems
they were increasingly overwhelmed.
Well, there's many, many ideas in the book,
but they fall into a few categories.
The first category is,
lots of these crises,
you get some notice of.
So if you act before they arrive
you can have a much cheaper response,
reduce suffering, and save lives and so on,
and there's lots of technologies
and lots of financial instruments now,
like insurance and contingency financing
which you can use much better than
agencies use them at the moment.
The second thing is
we know the kinds of people who will
always be most vulnerable in these crises,
so women and girls,
people with disabilities,
but we haven't systematically made sure
we always focus on those kinds of people
right from the outset.
So we'd do a much better job if we would
use the knowledge we have
about who is going to be vulnerable.
And the third thing we can do is
the very simple thing of
asking people caught up in crises
what help you actually want,
and then giving people
what they say they want.
And unfortunately that happens very rarely,
most of the conversations on what to do
happens between the aid agencies
and the people who give them money.
So, you know, people get provided with
commodities or food or shelter or something
and if it's not what they want
they then go and sell it in the market
and buy things they do want,
In the short term
Mark would like to see some immediate rapid
responses from governments around the world
to address the current
food crisis that is escalating.
So, what do we do to deal with
this huge food crisis?
There are basically four things
we need to do straight away.
The first is to get more grain
onto the markets,
this deal that's been done recently
to allow 20 million tons of grain,
enough for 400 million people,
out from the silos of the Ukrainian cities
on the Black Sea – Odesa and so on –
that can make a big difference
if that deal is stuck to.
Probably we should do
some other things as well, though,
the US, China, India, which have
big strategic grain reserves,
should allow some of that grain
onto the market,
and the effect of that would be
to allow prices to come down.
because fertiliser markets
have also been affected by the war,
we need to access from other places
the raw materials for fertiliser.
So that the second thing, increase supply.
The third thing is to
recognise that some countries,
simply don't have access to enough money,
enough financial resources,
to go onto the grain markets,
they don't produce enough food
to feed their populations themselves,
so they have to import,
if they don't have any money
they can't import the food necessary,
so they need more help,
financial help of the sort that was
provided in the 2007-8 financial crisis,
from the International Monetary Fund,
the World Bank, other kinds of
organizations like that.
And then fourthly,
there's a group of countries
where the risk is highest of
millions of people starving to death,
and those are countries which are
entirely reliant, to avoid that problem,
on the aid agencies,
the World Food Programme,
the Red Cross,
the international NGOs and so on,
and what needs to happen there is these
aid agencies need to be given more money
so that they can afford to buy enough grain,
ship it to these countries,
and give it out in the way
that they traditionally have done
to avoid these terrible famines,
to people who are
literally starving to death.
Mark also believes that
in some developing countries,
their economies which are
based on agriculture
will have to adapt to the changes
created by climate change.
The world does need to
make better progress on
reducing the rate at
which the climate is changing,
reducing global warming,
at the same time, though,
countries are going to need to adapt
and evolve their economies
so that those countries,
for example in the Sahel in Africa,
which are very reliant
on rain-fed agriculture
or on pasture for their animals,
livelihoods which probably won't be viable
given the way the climate is
definitely going to change now,
people will need other forms of livelihood.
Now, the good news is
from one form of livelihood to another has
happened almost everywhere across the world
in the last 100 or 150 or 200 years,
starting here in the UK
with the agricultural revolution.
There is no reason why
the same transition can't happen
in those few places where
it hasn't happened so far,
like the Sahel and other parts of Africa,
and it needs to.
Mark believes that as most of the
problems in many countries today
have an international dimension to them,
whether it's climate change,
or even how the international economy works,
it is in everyone's interest to co-operate
in this current global food crisis
Well, I think climate change is a
big driver of problems into the future,
but in a way the bigger question is
how are countries going to
collaborate with each other,
in other words, the bigger question is global
governance and collaboration between leaders.
unfortunately, we're entering a period
where the big powerful countries,
the US, China, Russia,
some European countries,
are finding it more difficult to collaborate
with each other in their own interests,
there's more arguments,
we see what's happening in Ukraine,
we see all the tensions over Taiwan,
ultimately countries are going to need to
work out a way to manage their differences
and find common approaches to deal with
the things that they're all threatened by,
climate change being the biggest example.
And one of the things about
the United Nations is that
it provides a forum in which people
can at least have the discussions
and find out the things
that they are able to agree on,
even if there are some
other things they disagree on.
There is no question that
we're in a more tense phase now,
but the only way out of that phase
is by dialogue, discussion, collaboration.
Mark remains an optimist
in spite of the desperate hardship he has
witnessed across the world's trouble spots.
He has seen at first hand,
the good outcomes that can be achieved,
when the right solutions are offered
to people facing hardship and hunger.
My observation is that we've made
huge progress over the last 60 years,
more than at any other time in the
150,000 years of human experience,
and although we face big challenges now,
we should take confidence from the fact
that we have made this enormous progress
and redouble our efforts
to solve these problems
because things can improve
if we only pay attention and
focus and do the right things.
The people caught up in these crises are
exactly the same as all the rest of us,
they have the same hopes,
aspirations, fears, suffering,
they're just like us,
the only difference is
life's lottery has been cruel to them,
has been kinder to us,
so we should offer a
helping hand to them in this
extreme moment of crisis.
Work together to fight famine.