WFP Chief Economist: Gulf Countries Should Step Up

Arif Husain on how the global food crisis is connected to currency devaluation, conflict, and soaring energy costs.

By , the executive editor at Foreign Policy.
Rice bags are offloaded from a cargo vessel in Moroni, Comoros, on Oct. 3.
Rice bags are offloaded from a cargo vessel in Moroni, Comoros, on Oct. 3.
Rice bags are offloaded from a cargo vessel in Moroni, Comoros, on Oct. 3. IBRAHIM YOUSSOUF/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused the prices of fertilizer and food to skyrocket and supply chain issues to mushroom. According to the International Monetary Fund, the global community now faces the worst food crisis since the 2008 Great Recession, and the lives and livelihoods of 345 million people are in danger.

While the entire world is dealing with the ripple effects of the war and food shortages caused by the conflict, the worst impact is felt mostly in low-income countries that depend on imports from Ukraine and Russia. But the roots of this crisis extend back even further, and it’s not just low-income countries that are feeling the pressure.

To understand the depths and scale of the current global food crisis—and the ways to possibly fix it—Foreign Policy spoke with Arif Husain, the chief economist and the director of the United Nations World Food Program’s research, assessments, and monitoring division.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused the prices of fertilizer and food to skyrocket and supply chain issues to mushroom. According to the International Monetary Fund, the global community now faces the worst food crisis since the 2008 Great Recession, and the lives and livelihoods of 345 million people are in danger.

While the entire world is dealing with the ripple effects of the war and food shortages caused by the conflict, the worst impact is felt mostly in low-income countries that depend on imports from Ukraine and Russia. But the roots of this crisis extend back even further, and it’s not just low-income countries that are feeling the pressure.

To understand the depths and scale of the current global food crisis—and the ways to possibly fix it—Foreign Policy spoke with Arif Husain, the chief economist and the director of the United Nations World Food Program’s research, assessments, and monitoring division.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. I spoke with Husain as part of FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript.

Foreign Policy: Food and energy shocks have caused nations to turn inward. With the current food shortage pushing millions of people into hunger, more nations are realizing they must become more self-dependent. Give us the lay of the land, if you will, because it’s not just the war in Ukraine. How did we end up here?

Arif Husain: Let me just say that if it was just the war in Ukraine, it would be bad enough, but it came on top of COVID-19. Because of the three C’s—conflict, climate, and COVID—things have gone from bad to worse.

At the end of 2019, we had about 135 million people who were in hunger crisis or worse. During COVID, that number jumped to 276 million people in hunger crisis. And then because of the war in Ukraine, that number jumped to 345 million people in hunger crisis. Now, what’s worse is that out of this 345 million, there are about 50 million people in 45 countries who are in hunger emergencies, meaning one step away from famine. There are people in famine, as we speak, in places like Somalia and Yemen.

FP: When you think of those three C’s that contributed to the current shortage of food and you look back at the past seven-plus months, how much has the Russia-Ukraine conflict worsened the food crisis?

AH: Our export markets are very thin, meaning less than 10 countries account for 80-90 percent of exports of things like wheat, corn, soybean, and rice. So whenever there is a shock in any one of these countries, you see the repercussions of those shocks thousands of miles away.

If it was just about food, it would be one thing. But when it is about food and fuel and fertilizer, it is something out of this world. Right now, it is an affordability crisis, meaning the food is there but it’s not in the right place, nor is it affordable.

Right now, because of the combination of higher prices [of food, fuel, and fertilizer] and because of how much debt there is in the world—combined with the strong dollar—it is a toxic combination for these poor countries. If they are poor and under debt, and if they have to import their food, fertilizer, and their fuel, they’re in trouble. And it comes on top of COVID, and people have not recovered, economically speaking.

About $26 trillion was spent by governments big and small in less than 18 months, 10 percent of the global GDP, dealing with the disease and its economic consequences. That explains why left, right, and center, you are seeing devaluation of currencies. I think there are more than two dozen countries that have lost 15 percent or even 25 percent of their [currencies’] value. And frankly, these are not only the poorest of the poor—these are also middle-income countries that are going through this.

FP: In our fall print issue, one of the feature essays focused on the fertilizer war and how reduced access to fertilizer can dramatically cut food output and devastate economies further. How is the World Food Program involved in helping countries get more access to fertilizer?

AH: What we are worried about is that today’s affordability crisis does not turn into tomorrow’s availability crisis because we just didn’t have enough fertilizer to grow food. Because that would essentially mean prices going up further, and that would create actual shortages because it won’t just impact the breadbaskets—it would impact countries.

On the advocacy side, we are saying grain needs to come out of the Black Sea. We also need to see fertilizer coming out of Russia. We also need to see raw materials for fertilizer coming out.

There are three types of fertilizer—nitrogen is the biggest one. The vast majority of nitrogen fertilizer is produced in Europe, and [production] is not happening because natural gas prices are so high and the supplies are so limited. Plant after plant in Europe for natural gas has been closed. And it’s time-sensitive. So it’s not only a matter of getting the fertilizer. It is a matter of getting the fertilizer out on time. But it also has to be affordable.

If governments ask us to move fertilizer, as we have big supply chains, we try to find them a supplier as well as actually try to move those commodities.

FP: As the chief economist at the World Food Program, with things changing so quickly, in terms of the money, how do you plan for the remainder of this year and for 2023 and the years ahead? How do you make the decision of where to put money?

AH: That’s the million-dollar question. We are present in 120-plus countries. We have effective operations in about 80 countries. In each country, we know what is happening on the ground. We have a figure of people who will require assistance. But despite having record levels of money—this year we will cross over $12 billion, which only five, six years ago was half of that. Despite that, our funding gap is 50 percent. Why? Because our needs continue to balloon.

The United States has shown incredible leadership when it comes to global food security. There are other countries, like Germany, that have also stepped up. But then there are more countries that could but they haven’t yet.

FP: So, who needs to step up?

AH: Well, we are losing money on fertilizer. We are losing money on food. But there are windfalls on the oil side. So, wouldn’t it be great if Gulf countries stepped up? If they could only take care of their region—the Yemenis, the Syrians, the Sudanese, the Afghans—that would free up enough resources for the rest of the world. That is one of the messages my executive director, David Beasley, keeps on mentioning because it’s so very necessary.

FP: David Beasley’s term is coming to an end as the head of the World Food Program. Who is up to replace him, and I have to ask, isn’t this a precarious moment for the WFP to undergo these changes in its leadership?

AH: This question is way above my pay grade, but at the World Food Program, we are about 22,000 people, and the vast majority of them, nearly everybody, would like to see David Beasley continue. Why? Because he is an incredible leader and has led this organization ably.

At this point in time, when we are not out of the woods, changing leadership will have its consequences. I worry that at this time, when the world is in such turmoil, probably the best thing would be—or my appeal, if I can say it that way—is if he can continue.

Amelia Lester is the executive editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ThatAmelia

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