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COVID, Climate & Conflict Fueling Global Hunger as World Leaders at U.N. Urged to Take Action

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Image Credit: World Food Programme

An open letter signed by over 200 humanitarian groups calls on world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly to urgently take action on world hunger, citing that one person dies of hunger every four seconds. We speak with Abby Maxman, president and CEO of Oxfam America, one of the letter’s signatories, who just returned from Somaliland, where a famine may be declared as early as next month. Climate change, COVID and conflicts such as the war in Ukraine are largely to blame for rising hunger, she says, and “those who are the least responsible are suffering its worst impacts.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One person is dying of hunger every four seconds. That’s the warning from a coalition of humanitarian groups, who say global hunger is spiraling out of control. Oxfam, Save the Children and other groups say 345 million people are now experiencing acute hunger — double the number from 2019. Humanitarian groups from 75 countries sent an open letter to world leaders and high-level diplomats gathering this week for the United Nations General Assembly here in New York Ciy. This is the first U.N. General Assembly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a key meeting Tuesday focused on how the war is contributing to skyrocketing levels of hunger. This is the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: At the outset of 2022, conflicts, COVID-19, the effects of the climate crisis had already driven more than 190 million people into acute food insecurity. According to the World Food Programme, President Putin’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine may add 70 million people on top of that — an already staggering number becoming even more staggering.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the United Nations is warning of a looming famine in Somalia, where a searing drought fueled by the climate crisis has withered crops, killed livestock and left nearly 8 million people, or half of Somalia’s population, in need of humanitarian assistance. The U.N. says millions more are at risk of hunger and famine across East Africa, including Kenya and Ethiopia.

For more on the world hunger emergency, we’re joined in New York by Abby Maxman, president and CEO of Oxfam America. She recently returned from a trip to Somaliland, where a famine may be declared as early as October. Oxfam is one of the signatories to an open letter submitted by over 200 NGOs to world leaders this week, calling on them to take immediate action.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Abby Maxman. Can you start off by laying out the scope of the problem and what you’re calling for?

ABBY MAXMAN: Thanks so much, Amy. Good to be with you.

Having just returned from Somaliland last week, I’m able to connect what we’re seeing in the lived, real lives of people and how they’re affected, and connect them with those global numbers you already outlined. Three hundred and forty-five million people are facing extreme hunger as a result of that confluence of climate, COVID and conflict — and that number, in and of itself, 345 million people, more than the entire population of the United States, and this in the 21st century.

Now, we know that we have been calling the alarm for several years. And we’ve had used our early-warning systems to trigger, to show — that have showed drought has continued to erode the lives and livelihoods of pastoralist and agropastoralist communities. Someone I saw in Somaliland, the stories were very similar. A woman named Safia, mother of eight, divorcée, who had stayed in her community as long as she could over the past several years, and ultimately went to a displaced persons camp near Burao called Durdur after she had lost 90% of her livestock. And hyenas were literally circling her family and her community as the livestock weakened. They had no choice but to move.

What is so egregious about this is the cause of this is climate change. The increasing frequency and ferocity of intense climatic shocks, droughts, floods and heat waves, that we’re observing from Pakistan to Puerto Rico and, of course, across East Africa, are evidenced in all of the news. But we know it’s people like Safia and the 74-year-old farmer who said this is the worst drought he has ever seen in his lifetime, they are down to one meal a day. And they need and deserve our help.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Abby Maxman, you mentioned conflict, as well. To what degree has the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the food supply, especially to the Global South? And also, to what degree, from your sense, is it the corporations taking advantage of situations? We see the secretary-general mentioning oil companies or energy companies exploiting the current crises. Your sense of these two things — the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and general super profits sought by some international companies?

ABBY MAXMAN: Yeah, Juan, thanks for pointing those two things out. Yes, the war in Ukraine has exacerbated an already dire situation. The economic consequences of COVID and the climate crisis have been supercharged by the war in Ukraine. Prices have gone up exorbitantly. And people in Somaliland who I was talking to and seeing were spending more than 90% — 90% — of their income on food just to survive, and they were using coping strategies, down to one and two meals a day. That just is one anecdote of many about the impacts, direct and indirect, of the global crisis and conflict and its impact on those in East Africa and Somaliland.

Your point on fossil fuel profit and others, it can’t be understated. It is extraordinary that as humanity faces this existential crisis of climate, that there is still more incentive by fossil fuel companies to destroy our planet and people than to save lives and to save the planet. Now, we know that the oil and gas industry has enjoyed staggering profits as they have wrought havoc on the planet. They’ve been amassing $2.8 billion a day. That’s more than a trillion dollars a year over the last 50 years. And just let me contrast that against the fact that 18 days of fossil companies’ profit could cover the entire U.N. humanitarian appeal for 2022, which has been woefully underfunded.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you also mentioned that you were in Somaliland recently. Particularly, could you talk about the situation in Africa? Obviously, there are major conflicts still raging there, especially in Ethiopia. Your sense of the impact of those regional conflicts in terms of hunger and poverty in Africa?

ABBY MAXMAN: Yeah, Juan. Well, that confluence of those toxic three Cs — COVID, climate, conflict — are just supercharging the situation. And those who are least responsible are suffering its worst impacts. So, we need to make sure — we know that when humanitarian access is limited, that exacerbates people’s lives and livelihoods and the ability to get basics of their human rights — food, shelter, water, safety, protection. So, that is part of the cocktail, if you will, the toxic one, that people who — are experiencing, people like the countless pastoralists who are facing existential crisis to their lives, livelihoods, and that of their ancestors. They have rights and dignity that we need to protect and support in crisis. And the international community has a responsibility and a moral duty to act. And this week, in New York, around the U.N. General Assembly, we are calling on those in power, member states and policymakers, to take action now.

We need to do three big things. Save lives — and there’s a number of ways of doing that: make sure we resource the humanitarian appeals and get the resources to people who need them, support local organizations, women-led organizations. Second, we need to build resilience. We cannot repeat this pattern of pulling resources to respond to crises that we know are coming. And we need to invest in both now. It’s an investment in the future. It’s an investment in protection. It’s an investment in promoting lives and livelihoods and dignity. And third, we need to invest in that future, beyond the resilience. We need to double climate adaptation funds. We need to make sure that special drawing rights are modified so that countries are relieved from debt and debt burden. And we need to fund nutrition and other fundamental issues that need to be supported at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the growing inequality in the world and how this relates to the crisis of hunger around the world. According to a report just released by the investment bank Credit Suisse, the number of “ultra-high-net-worth” individuals, UHNW people, also increased exponentially last year to a record 218,200. Can you comment on this extraordinary rise in wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, while hundreds of millions are dying from hunger and hunger-related causes? And how must this be addressed?

ABBY MAXMAN: It must be addressed. And I appreciate there’s an acronym now, UHNW, though that’s sad, a sad fact that that needs to be called out. This is a failure in our economic system, a system that is broken and serving a privileged few. It’s not — it’s immoral, it’s wrong, and there’s an opportunity to fix it. It’s not happening by chance. It’s happening intentionally by those in power and political capture and those who are wreaking profits to benefit themselves.

There can be an opportunity to have a global wealth tax, to ensure that fossil fuel companies’ profits can be fairly taxed so that things like the U.N. humanitarian appeals, at a minimum, are funded. This is — nobody suffers. This is a race to the bottom versus a race to the top. And extreme inequality is harmful to all of society and all of humanity. It is very frustrating, it makes me very angry, to hear that, “Oh, there are no resources. That’s why we cannot save lives, build resilience and invest in the future.” That is not accurate. In the 21st century, there are enough resources to ensure the integrity and dignity of people’s lives and livelihoods and a more equal world. And there’s an opportunity to end extreme inequality by changing this failing economic system.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Abby Maxman, we thank you so much for being with us, president and CEO of Oxfam America, recently returned from a trip to Somaliland, where a famine may be declared as early as October.

Next up, Adnan Syed has been freed after spending 23 years behind bars. His case gained international attention when it was the subject of the podcast Serial. We’ll speak with the first attorney to represent him. Stay with us.

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