The World Food Programme was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize as the fight against hunger takes on greater urgency in a world shaped by conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The organisation is being honoured “for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said on Friday.
It pointed to the threat of a “hunger crisis of inconceivable proportions”, unless the WFP and other groups with a similar focus get the financial backing they need to do their work.
Long forgotten during the 1990s and early 2000s as famine and hunger largely disappeared from news headlines, the WFP jumped into the spotlight again in 2007-08 as the world faced a food crisis.
As the price of staples like wheat and rice jumped to a record high, dozens of poor countries suffered food riots, triggering political unrest and prompting rich countries to worry about the impact of hunger. The WFP threw itself at the issue, almost running out of money at one point, as it worked to help countries dealing with rising food costs.
Since then, it has played a major role feeding refugees from recent conflicts, including in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
In acknowledgment of the group’s work, donor countries have increased their support. Last year, the WFP got roughly $8 billion from donor nations, up from $4.5 billion in 2015, according to its annual report. The US accounted for over 40 per cent of the total last year, followed by Germany, the UK, other European nations and Saudi Arabia.
The WFP, which was created in 1961 at the behest of American President Dwight Eisenhower as an experiment to provide food aid via the UN, hasn’t been immune to criticism. In 2005, Oxfam warned that while “food aid can sometimes be a crucial lifeline”, it can “also be used for less noble aims, including to dump surplus production and promote donor country exports”.
WFP bosses were known for using persuasive tactics to get donor governments to provide more money. They would often turn up to talks with the same small red cup that destitute children in some African countries used to collect porridge for their only daily meal. The “Fill the Cup” campaign became a symbol in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, reminding that millions of children and adults still don’t have enough to eat.
The Nobel Committee used the 2020 prize as an opportunity to point out that the need for international solidarity and multilateral cooperation is “more conspicuous than ever”. The WFP is the world’s biggest humanitarian group to specifically address hunger and to work toward food security. Last year, it provided assistance to almost 100 million in the face of acute food insecurity and hunger.
In 2019, 135 million people suffered from acute hunger, with most of the increase caused by war and armed conflict. The pandemic has only added to the challenges that victims face. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the WFP “has demonstrated an impressive ability to intensify its efforts,” the committee said. It cites the WFP as saying that “until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos”.