When prices for corn, wheat, and other food staples rise, as they have recently and dramatically, the world's poor suffer first—and usually most. Particularly vulnerable are refugees confined to camps and de facto ghettos who are at the mercy of foreign aid. Many depend upon the support of the United Nations, which, through the World Food Programme and the U.N. Refugee Agency, plans to provide food to 73 million people in 78 countries in 2008.
Soaring prices have clearly made that task more challenging. In 2007, the WFP estimated it would need $2.9 billion to cover its operations this year. In March, the organization revised its numbers upward, saying it would need an additional $755 million to buy the same amount of food. Appeals have since been issued to the international community, warning of hundreds of millions of people at risk of hunger and malnutrition and the possibility of political turmoil.
Worse still for humanitarian aid groups and their beneficiaries, the number of refugees worldwide is at an all-time high: A report released earlier this month found that 26 million people were displaced from their homes in 2007, "the highest number ever recorded," according to one official. Three countries riddled with internal conflict—Colombia, Sudan, and Iraq—accounted for roughly half of the total.
U.S. News recently spoke with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres to discuss the humanitarian impact of rising food prices. Excerpts:
Which refugee populations or regions are suffering most?
Obviously, Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan live in urban situations, and they are particularly vulnerable. Their living conditions have been deteriorating significantly in the recent past. Some locations in Africa— or instance, Eastern Chad, eastern Sudan—are particularly vulnerable because they are far from the source of supplies. Not only do we face very high food prices but also extremely dramatic logistical challenges.
Even more so than the poor, refugee populations are vulnerable to high prices and food shortages. What's uniquely difficult about their situation?
In young democracies and in countries that have emerged from conflict, it is essential to guarantee the security of returns of refugees and other displaced persons. The governments have very little capacity to cope with the challenges. The current situation is creating a huge stress in these societies. The most vulnerable people in today's world are the urban poor and those who no longer have connections with their communities, which means refugees and people internally displaced inside the borders of their own countries. I believe the massive support of the international community is necessary to make sure that democracy and peace can be sustained.
How is the UN responding?
In the present situation, the World Food Programme is having a huge stress over its resources. The levels of funds needed to provide support to refugees and other displaced persons have dramatically increased. At the same time, there are problems of availability, which, until now, the World Food Programme has been able to cope with but represent a major threat in the near future. I can only appeal to the international community to fully respond to what the WFP has asked for in the months to come in order for them to be able to fully deliver on their commitments and our common concerns.
How would you characterize the international cooperation so far?
There has been meaningful response but we are still far from what is necessary.
What happens if the calls for aid fall short? What gets cut?
There might be a moment in which we would have to reduce support, and this is the kind of situation we have to do everything we can to avoid. The first thing is to reduce the diversity of things that are provided. If food pipelines are broken, this can also mean the reduction of rations.
Refugee populations typically depend upon food from other countries. But lately we've been seeing a wave of trade restrictions, as worried countries try to keep their own prices down and supplies stable.
Yes. This is having a negative impact on the availability of food in the global markets. It is important to recognize this is not a crisis of the moment; this is a structural change in the food markets that requires a comprehensive response. That comprehensive response needs to make sure that we influence markets in order for more incentives to exist for farmers to produce and for food to be available at prices the poor can afford. That of course relates to the need to move ahead with trade, to move ahead with technology, to move ahead with incentives for farmers. It requires also the reconsideration of biofuels for some situations.
What types of incentives do you have in mind?
If, for instance, a country reduces exports, and reducing exports keeps artificially low the prices paid to farmers, as farmers try to cope with increasing input costs, obviously this will reduce areas that will be farmed in the following year. This is the kind of thing that needs to be avoided. Farmers need to have adequate [compensation] for their own costs, and it is important to have a positive influence in markets. It's not by disregarding the market economy that we'll be able to cope with this problem.
Have rising food prices caused existing refugee populations to grow—or perhaps created new ones altogether?
There is more and more interlinkage between war and conflict, extreme poverty, and environmental degradation and climate change. Poverty situations are enhanced by rising food prices, there is increased instability in societies, and that can trigger conflict, as dwindling water resources have helped to trigger conflict in a situation like Darfur. It is not the only reason, of course. The political dimension is extremely important in a place like Darfur. But all of these things contribute to displacement.
What needs to be done most in the next few weeks?
The single most important action today is to support the countries financially that are coping with this challenge in a more dramatic way, to make sure that social unrest will not jeopardize democratic development and will not have a negative impact on the sustainability of peace where peace has been reached in such difficult circumstances.