Food security and related humanitarian needs present the great unacknowledged challenges of the 21st century. While conflicts in countries like Syria and Ukraine dominate the daily news cycle, and longer-term concerns about climate change and energy security are frequently aired, the problem of hunger and the emergence of new threats to world food supplies receive far less attention than they merit. These problems contribute directly to political instability, forced migration and violence. Without sustained focus at an international level and the commitment of adequate resources to address the problems, there is a real risk that the responses needed to address these issues will come too late to avert the geopolitical instability and widespread human suffering that may result.
Across the world 805 million people remain chronically undernourished. Although the target of halving the rate of hunger by the end of 2015 set under the Millennium Development Goals is close to being met, the rate of progress has slowed in the last decade, and developing trends raise troubling questions for the future. Global warming, creeping desertification, soil degradation and water scarcity all threaten agricultural production at a time when population growth is increasing the number of mouths to feed. The growing mismatch between supply and demand is already apparent in commodity price volatility, declining reserves and the rising number of countries dependent on food imports.
More than a third of countries now import at least a quarter of their grain requirements, while 13 are 100-percent import-dependent. Without sufficient spare capacity in the world food system, many of these countries will become increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of climate, production and political volatility. We saw in 2011 how quickly some countries resort to food nationalism and export bans in the face of supply shortages and price rises. Unless these problems are solved within a collaborative, multilateral framework, there is a danger that states and sub-state groups will resort to unilateral force to meet their basic needs. Hunger could easily become the principal driver for global conflict and refugee flows in the coming decades.
While the United States has historically been the largest contributor of food assistance in humanitarian disasters, no country, however powerful, can solve this problem on its own. Only long-term global leadership can defeat hunger and guarantee food sufficiency for all. The role of the United Nations, the World Food Program and of the Food and Agriculture Organization is essential in pooling resources and galvanizing the international community behind common strategies. The World Food Program does vital work in delivering aid to 80 million of the most vulnerable people each year and encouraging local production in developing countries. The leadership of the UN has also been critical in launching the Zero Hunger Challenge in 2012 with the aim of achieving 100-percent access to adequate food all year round.
The future of this initiative, and of humanitarian responses to food-related crises generally, should be on world leaders’ minds in choosing a new UN Secretary-General to replace Ban Ki-moon when he steps down at the end of next year. It is imperative that someone with a strong commitment to the UN’s focus on development and food security, as well as an established track record of leadership in this field, be selected.
In my judgment it would also be a big step forward if they chose a woman. The UN has never had a female Secretary-General. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has said, gender equality “is the single most important determinant of food security.” Empowering women as decision makers and asset owners increases agricultural yields and redirects expenditure to the welfare of children in particular. Appointing a woman would show that the UN means what it says about the importance of gender equality as an instrument of wider change. The role that women and girls play in alleviating poverty and building a safe and productive society cannot be understated.
Thankfully there are several qualified women candidates. One is Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New-Zealand, now running the United Nations Development Program. She has worked closely with the World Food Program in making the eradication of hunger the top priority. She has also distinguished herself in her work at UNDP, leading swift responses to humanitarian crises and planning major long-term initiatives. Another serious candidate is Irina Bokova, former Bulgarian Foreign Minister and current head of UNESCO. She has been very active in using the organization’s mandate to address issues of extreme poverty and food, water and energy security. And although she’s an American, Catherine Bertini, who served as Under-Secretary-General for Management at the UN and as Executive Director of the World Food Program, would also be an excellent candidate.
These three women have great diplomatic and UN experience, have won the respect of U.S. policy makers for their work and would make excellent appointees. There may be other qualified candidates as well, but the time is ripe for a woman possessing the credentials, leadership and management skills to head the United Nations and ensure that food security remains a top priority for the UN and the international community.