The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme (WFP) is a decision that should be pondered carefully, in a special year like 2020. Between the lines of the Nobel Prize’s motivation, one can glimpse geopolitical references of clear importance. The selection of a United Nations program was perhaps obligatory during the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the life of this institution.
The WFP has put forward a great effort in 2020: it has increased its operations against world hunger by setting the goal of reaching 138 million people within the year (WFP aid reached 85 million people in the first six months of the year), and has secured the highest funding in its history ($8 billion). It has issued repeated warnings about the risk of a hunger pandemic due to the toxic combination of conflict, climate change and COVID-19.
But the choice of the WFP remains the result of a short-term vision, if one is aware of what is happening in the world and the signals that are coming from such a tormented time in world history.
The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize is tied to two fundamental world issues: the progressive return of hunger on a global scale and the equally-progressive weakening of the United Nations. The arrival of the pandemic caused by COVID-19 has contributed to making both issues more intricate. Let’s start from the end point: from the United Nations, gathered in a virtual general assembly. I would like to think, generously, that the Nobel Prize to the WFP is a polite but unequivocal reminder to the United States, recalling the role they played in the creation of the United Nations, coming precisely in the year in which the Trump administration has contributed greatly to the destruction of the activity and credibility of the UN, starting with the World Health Organization and ending with the Security Council, which remained silent for a long time on the COVID-19 affair.
In short, it is a pro-multilateralism signal, a few weeks before the US presidential elections. Of all the branches of the UN, the WFP is in fact the most American in its DNA. It was conceived in 1961 by one man, George McGovern, then-director of the newly established US Food for Peace Program, and created in a hurry in the same year by order of President Dwight Eisenhower. The idea was to experiment with food assistance through the multilateral system, and thus show the strong U.S. support for the UN system, at a time of substantial food surpluses in the United States. American leadership has marked the history of the organization, including the current Director General.
Then, there is the issue of hunger that is coming back to plague the planet, while everyone is reciting the cant about sustainable development. This is the other enormous issue mentioned in the Nobel award motivation, which obviously mentions war scenarios, but also the effects of the pandemic.
The latest FAO report on World Food Security and Nutrition in 2020 says that 2 billion people in the global south are suffering from food insecurity, which is severe for 746 million of them. With the impact of lockdown measures to stop COVID-19, 25 countries are on the brink of devastating hunger. The number of people exposed to malnutrition is expected to grow from 149 to 270 million by the end of the year in these countries, with a projected 6,000 children dying every day. A mathematics of increasing horrors, which suggests that the issue is serious, perhaps even out of hand.
The FAO, in the face of all the difficulties of a negotiation process working through virtual channels, must compile two decisive dossiers to regulate future global access to food: the one on food systems and the one on agro-ecology. Tortuous debates with many opposing sides are underway as we write.
Thus, in this scenario, does it make sense to reward the humanitarian approach to food that the WFP, by its statues, offers with a Nobel Peace Prize win? After decades of an ill-conceived emergency narrative, do we really think it is still possible to present food in terms of assistance, in the humanitarian field, when it is a fundamental human right? As COVID-19 is making us take a systemic look at the interconnection between health, food, nature, discrimination, finance, the economy, is it still possible to propose the humanitarian solution as a stepping stone to peace—the humanitarization of rights?
In its distribution chains, the WFP doesn’t use just any food. It uses a wide range of specialized foods, enriched food, micronutrient powders, ready-to-use foods and energy biscuits produced by a few multinational companies that hold the patents. In short, nothing could be further from the notion of food sovereignty that the world should pursue to finally liberate itself from the model of industrial and intensive agriculture that is killing the planet, with the use of pesticides, the felling of forests, massive use of antibiotics and animal exploitation.
Next year, the Food Systems summit at the initiative of the UN Secretary General will be held in New York City. In theory, it will be a great opportunity to tackle the causes of hunger in the world and create the conditions for food security. However, there is a problem: the UN representative for the summit will be Agnes Kalibata, president of AGRA, the large public-private partnership financed by the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations to promote the intensive model of agriculture in Africa. If this is the format in which it will take place, it will not go far. The United States and Bill Gates do not like the demand for agro-ecology that is coming from southern countries. Let’s hope that the Nobel Prize awarded to the WFP is not the reassuring answer they’ve been looking for.