Rome, May 12, 2023
Good afternoon everyone, and thank you Professor Costa for the kind introduction and for inviting me to be a part of your Global Conversations Series.
Today I am going to discuss the biggest global challenge of our time: hunger, or what we call food insecurity.
But first, let me tell you a bit more about who I am and what I do.
I am the Chargé d’Affaires, or acting Ambassador, at the U.S. Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome where I lead a small but mighty team that is focused on addressing food insecurity.
The United States actually has three U.S. diplomatic Missions in Rome. The largest is the U.S. Embassy to Italy, which manages the U.S. bilateral relationship with the people and government of Italy; then there is the U.S. Mission to the Holy See – the Vatican; and our Mission: we work with the United Nations Agencies here in Rome.
The numerous organizations of the United Nations are located in various cities in the world: the United Nations headquarters in New York is the heart of the UN and the seat of the Security Council (where I worked for four years just before coming here to Rome); Geneva has numerous organizations such as the UNHCR which deals with refugees, and the Human Rights Council; Vienna is the home to the International Atomic Energy Agency; Nairobi has UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program; UNESCO is in Paris.
In Rome we have the food agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization – FAO, the World Food Program – WFP, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development –IFAD. These agencies were set up in Rome by the United Nations in the aftermath of WWII to fight hunger in the world.
FAO was established in 1945 with the objective of eliminating hunger and improving nutrition and standards of living by increasing agricultural productivity. It leads international efforts to defeat hunger and achieve food security by building resilience and capacity in agriculture and food systems worldwide.
WFP was created a few years later, in 1961, at the behest of the U.S. president at the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to provide food aid through the UN system. It provides emergency food and humanitarian assistance in response to natural and man-made disasters such as conflict. Most recently they have added Ukraine after Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion and responding to the latest needs in Turkey and Syria after the devastating earthquake there.
A third agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development – IFAD – was created after the 1974 World Food Conference in response to the food crises in the early 1970s, primarily widespread famine and malnutrition in parts of Africa. It is an international financial institution that provides grants and low-interest loans to help small farmers grow and lift themselves out of poverty.
Together, these three agencies spearhead international efforts to eliminate hunger in the world.
The U.S. Mission (another word for Embassy) to these agencies has a strong inter-agency team that includes representatives from the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). We are committed to working together as a team with a whole-of-government approach to fight global hunger and promote sustainable development in an efficient and effective manner.
The work at our mission is a little different than that of a regular Embassy. While the U.S. Embassy to Italy, for example, is focused squarely on relations between Italy and the United States, we engage in multilateral diplomacy, building relationships with these food agencies and with the Ambassadors from all other UN member countries, 192 of them, to find solutions to food insecurity. Instead of just focusing on the relationship with one country, our Mission is working on food security issues across the globe, wherever there is need.
And that need has never been greater. Right now, there’s real urgency behind our mission, because sadly, after declining for years, poverty and hunger are both on the rise again after decades of development gains.
We are in the midst of a global food crisis of epic proportions – the largest since World War II. Never has hunger reached such devastating highs, as millions of people are being driven closer to starvation every day.
Last year was the fourth year in a row that the number of people in urgent need of food aid has risen, according to the latest numbers.
258 million people in 58 countries or territories faced crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity in 2022 — a sharp increase from 193 million in 2021.
Conflicts – such as the wars in Syria, Yemen, and now Sudan, and climate change – affecting countries such as Somalia that has had a drought for four consecutive years, plus the COVID-19 pandemic in the past few years had already created a huge challenge by disrupting global food supplies, raising food prices, and causing the number of hungry to rise around the world.
We have been approaching a catastrophe of epic proportions as we saw the numbers of people going hungry skyrocket.
Then Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed his unprovoked and illegal war on Ukraine, causing an unprecedented shock to the global food system.
The fallout of this war in a country that was one of the world’s main grain producers, including high food and fertilizer prices, was the major driver of hunger in 2022, especially in the world’s poorest countries, hitting the most vulnerable people the hardest.
Today, according to WFP, 2.4 billion people in the world, nearly one in every three people – do not have access to adequate food. Think about that – nearly 30% of the world does not have access to the food that they and their families need to thrive. And on top of that, a record 345 million people across 79 countries face acute hunger – more than double the number in 2020.
Of those almost a million are fighting to survive catastrophic hunger. They are on step away from famine: they will die of hunger if we don’t help them. Sometimes it’s important to think about that. People. Children, parents, brothers, sisters. Real people. And those real people are dying of hunger every day. More will die if we don’t work together to help. That’s what we’re trying to make better.
So, you can understand the urgency.
Something we often don’t think about is that hunger drives many other global issues: when people are hungry, when they can’t feed themselves or their families and communities, they are desperate. Hunger drives migration, it drives conflict, it makes people vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations, it is used as a weapon of war. It is a national security threat.
Food insecurity is the most important global challenge of our time.
The UN organizations we work with in Rome – FAO, WFP and IFAD – play a vital role in preventing a worsening crisis. They are ramping up operations, delivering critical lifesaving assistance, and protecting livelihoods. At the same time, the U.S. has been pouring resources into immediate humanitarian assistance and broader strategies to bolster food security.
The United States is supporting the work of these organizations with unprecedented funding. We are the largest provider of financial contributions to the United Nations, providing 22 percent of the entire UN budget – roughly $11 billion dollars. And that’s during a normal year.
Last year with the multiple crises exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, the United States responded with a record contribution to global food security, providing over 7.2 billion dollars to WFP alone and almost a quarter of a billion dollars to FAO. That’s greater than all other countries’ contributions combined last year.
As U.S. diplomats, our work is to help solve global problems and to advance U.S. priorities and interests. What are some of those interests as related to food security?
Well, the United States is focused on creating innovative and sustainable solutions for achieving a hunger-free world and responding to, and building resilience, in the face of crises caused by conflict, climate change, and natural disaster. By using all the science and technology at our disposal, we can work to make the world a better place.
We provide direct feedback to the food agencies on the specific programs and activities that they execute, many of which are funded by U.S. dollars. We also promote good governance and management practices to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the organizations.
But all of this isn’t enough – it’s not even close.
The present food crisis is a global catastrophe that demands a global response. We need all countries to step up and contribute what they can and that is one of the strong messages we give when we meet with other countries at meetings and conferences at the UN Agencies in Rome and during our international travels.
That’s one of the reasons why multilateral work within the UN system is so important – we are much stronger together than we are apart. And when we work together, as nations or as individuals, we can make a huge difference.
As you continue your course work in this excellent inter-disciplinary Global Governance program, make sure to look for how hunger is affected by and how it affects every aspect of global interaction and the global economy. And consider whether this might be a focus for your future studies and career. Fighting food insecurity takes an equally inter-disciplinary approach, involving economics, agriculture, nutrition, logistics, data analysis, and peacebuilding.
Together, we can make a difference for future generations. And it starts with you. With each of you thinking about things in a new way, finding new methods to solve the problems that today’s world faces. Let’s do this together, and let’s build a future where no one goes to bed hungry, ever.