President Obama is facing a critical foreign policy test with hunger emergencies unfolding in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, and other countries. Food has quickly moved to the top of the foreign policy agenda.
In Libya, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is trying to feed victims of the conflict between rebels and the dictator Muammar Qaddafi. In the western part of the country, humanitarian needs may be immense as fighting has blocked access routes to aid agencies.
WFP plans to feed 1.5 million people impacted by the violence in Libya through August. It’s critical that pipelines of food and other supplies be maintained. The relief operation costs $100 million. As of June 5, only $27 million has been received. If we do not act, food stocks may simply run out for the war victims in Libya.
Yemen has been in the news because of the political violence between government forces and those seeking the removal of long-time President Saleh. It’s unclear whether there will be a peaceful transition of power, as Saleh remains hospitalized in Saudi Arabia after an attack on his palace.
But what is clear is that no peaceful transformation will occur in Yemen if there continue to be widespread hunger and malnutrition.
Even before this conflict unfolded, the population of Yemen was suffering from hunger. High food prices were taking their toll. Victims from prior conflicts in Northern Yemen were trying to recover livelihoods. As you can imagine, the situation has been made worse by the recent fighting and the instability of the government.
One way the international community can really help Yemen is to ensure that food and other humanitarian aid are available. The track record, though, is not good. The World Food Programme, for instance, was going to run a program to feed impoverished families in 14 governorates in Yemen. Low funding meant only four governorates could receive the rations. UNICEF also does not even have enough plumpynut to meet the child malnutrition caseload there.
A hungry, malnourished population will not make for a smooth, stable transition of power in Yemen.
Afghanistan is another example as we struggle to win a war while also winning a peace. As long as over seven million Afghans suffer in hunger and poverty, it is hard to imagine either taking place. Funding shortages for relief efforts in Afghanistan do not help the cause. In fact, rations for child feeding programs are already being reduced because of low funding for WFP’s Afghan relief mission.
The crisis by no means ends with these three countries. There is Sudan, the West Bank, Gaza, Nepal, Haiti, and many other areas in need of food.
What President Obama has to do is establish a full-time food ambassador to build international cooperation to fight the hunger. This would be a position similar to the one Herbert Hoover filled in 1946 during the post-WWII hunger crisis.
If hunger is to be defeated, there must be broadened participation among governments and the public. There must be someone constantly sounding the alarm on hunger.
President Obama now faces his most critical test when it comes to fighting hunger. He faces a threat that will derail many of his foreign policy objectives. Will he show leadership and be able to fulfill the goal he set out when he started his presidency?
Obama said, “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.” It can happen, but right now it’s about leadership.