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A woman walks past a sign at the entrance of the United Nations World Food Program in Rome on Friday. The WFP has won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to combat hunger and food insecurity around the globe.The Associated Press

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the United Nations food agency, calling attention to a worsening hunger crisis that threatens to double the number of acutely hungry people around the world by next year, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UN agency, the World Food Program, is estimating that 270 million people could suffer from acute food insecurity by the end of next year, compared with 135 million last year. Last year’s number was already the worst in many years, primarily because of escalating wars and climate change.

“The world is in danger of experiencing a hunger crisis of inconceivable proportions if the World Food Program and other food assistance organizations do not receive the financial support they have requested,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said as it announced the winner on Friday.

“The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to a strong upsurge in the number of victims of hunger in the world. In countries such as Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan and Burkina Faso, the combination of violent conflict and the pandemic has led to a dramatic rise in the number of people living on the brink of starvation.”

The committee quoted the words of WFP itself on the pandemic: “Until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos.”

Evidence from a range of aid agencies has revealed the extent of the hunger crisis this year. Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, recently warned that the current food crisis is the biggest the world has endured for 50 years.

The Global Network Against Food Crises, an alliance of humanitarian and development agencies, has detailed the drastic deterioration of food security in many countries over the past year. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, now suffers from the world’s biggest food crisis in absolute numbers, with an estimated 21.8 million people experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity. That number is 33 per cent of the surveyed population in Congo, compared with 26 per cent last year.

“The impacts of COVID-19-related control measures [in Congo] aggravated pre-existing hunger drivers in the country: insecurity and armed conflict, an extended economic slump, and heavy rains and flooding,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a member of the global network, said last month.

Another African country, Burkina Faso, has had a nearly 300-per-cent increase in the number of people with acute hunger since the beginning of this year, the network said.

There has also been a 73-per-cent surge in acute hunger in northern Nigeria this year, a 67-per-cent increase in Somalia and a 64-per-cent rise in Sudan, it said.

“The knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are driving up acute hunger in vulnerable countries that were already wracked by food crises even before the novel coronavirus arrived on the scene,” the FAO said.

In the face of this crisis, the WFP is providing help to more than 100 million people in about 88 countries. During the pandemic, with commercial flights largely shut down, the WFP sustained its flights and at one point became the biggest airline in the world.

But at a time when one in nine people worldwide do not have enough to eat, the WFP’s global appeals have failed to raise enough money.

“At the very time that food needs are growing, WFP’s annual funding shortfall is widening to close to US$5-billion,” said Julie Marshall, the WFP’s Canadian spokesperson, in an e-mail on Friday.

The Nobel committee, in awarding the peace prize to the food agency, emphasized the need for greater global efforts. “The need for international solidarity and multilateral co-operation is more conspicuous than ever,” the committee said.

The prize, worth about US$1.1-million, will be formally presented to the agency in Oslo on Dec. 10.

The WFP’s executive director, David Beasley, was in the West African country of Niger when the prize was announced. A crowd of staff members greeted him with cheers and applause when he addressed them after the announcement, The Associated Press reported. “I didn’t win it, you won it,” he told them.

In a tweet, Mr. Beasley said the WFP’s thousands of aid workers deserved the award. “They’re out there in the most difficult, complex places in the world, whether it’s war, conflict, climate extremes – it doesn’t matter, they’re out there.”

Other agencies welcomed the announcement. “Never has the work of humanitarian organizations been more critical than in the extraordinary circumstances of 2020,” said a statement by Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The WFP’s emergency food aid and longer-term programs are “the very lifeline that will keep people alive and help communities recover,” he said.

Gayle Smith, president of the global anti-poverty advocacy group known as the ONE Campaign, said in a statement: “Let’s hope that this well-deserved Nobel lights a fire under governments that need to step up and finance WFP’s urgent mission to stave off a hunger crisis that we can prevent.”

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