The head of the United Nations World Food Program says the world is facing an unprecedented challenge in its battle against global poverty — too much war in too many corners of the planet.
"In the post-war era, this is probably the most number of complex food emergency situations we, as an agency have responded to," Executive Director Ertharin Cousin told The Canadian Press in a wide-ranging interview while she was attending the Harper government's international summit on maternal and child health.
Cousin said her organization — the largest multilateral aid agency in the world charged with feeding the world's hungry — is dealing with four "Level 3" hunger emergencies, its highest designation for crisis.
She cited three global conflicts: the internal unrest in Central African Republic and South Sudan as well as the grinding civil war in Syria. Recently, the WFP added Cameroon as a fourth L3 because it faces a chronic refugee influx with serious underlying nutritional issues.
The result, she said, is that WFP has had to scale back programs in places such as Bangladesh, Kenya, Somalia, and even Haiti, following its devastating earthquake in 2010.
Despite the public outpouring of support for Haiti following the disaster, the agency has since had to cut its school feeding program in half, she said.
"Here's the reality of it: there are 842 million people who are chronically undernourished, and WFP fed, last year, directly, 80 million of them."
Inequity, poverty, racism and sexism are all underlying factors that contribute to poverty in various parts of the world, she said.
"The other issue that's overarching those is peace," she said.
"We can do all those things but if we don't have peace, we can't end hunger."
Cousin gave a spirited address on the merits of nutrition at Stephen Harper's international conference on driving down the deaths of young mothers and newborns in the developing world. Harper announced $3.5 billion over five years to 2020 for the initiative.
But the government also gave $98 million directly to WFP for nutrition programs. The money is to be targeted at mothers and children, as chronic malnutrition is one of the key causes of women and infant mortality that Harper's initiative seeks to address.
Cousin said those funds are invaluable on a broader level because they will be spent in places where WFP has had to cut back programs and services because of conflict elsewhere.
"It was the kind of contribution for where we are right now at WFP," she said.
Canada is recognizing "there are hunger challenges in other parts of the world," especially Syria, which costs $38- and $40-million a week as well as escalating costs in South Sudan and Central African Republic, she said.
Cousin was in Syria earlier this month to see for herself how the situation continues to deteriorate, and was impressed by local Syrian staff who are facing huge personal risks to keep the food flowing through an increasingly narrow corridor of safety.
One female employee told her, with tears in her eyes, that she sends her four children to separate schools.
"She said, 'you can't put all your eggs in one basket."'
"So I asked her, why do you stay? And she said, because we do important work a if we don't do the work, our neighbours won't have food."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the ongoing violence that young girls, in particular, continue to face across the globe. He highlighted the kidnapping of teenaged girls by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria that has become a symbol of the threats to girls' education.
Dr. Muhammed Lecky is a top Nigerian health official who has helped build his county's medical system.
In an interview at the Toronto summit, Lecky lamented the effect of the insurgency on the delivery of health care in his country.
"Boko Haram is a big obstacle," he said.
Public spending that could be going to health has been diverted to defence and security.
"I'm not discouraged because I know where he came from. A lot of progress has been made," he said.
"If we didn't have this problem we could do more."