UN Warns of an Impending Famine With Millions in Danger of Starvation

In 2019, Ethiopia experienced the fifth-worst food crisis worldwide. Credit: FAO/IFAD/WFP/Michael Tewelde

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 27 2020 – The numbers are staggering— as reflected in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic which has triggered a new round of food shortages, famine and starvation.

According to the Rome-based World Food Programme (WFP) 690 million people do not have enough to eat. while130 million additional people risk being pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of the year.

“Hunger is an outrage in a world of plenty. An empty stomach is a gaping hole in the heart of a society,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week pointing out that famine is looming in several countries.

Striking a personal note, Guterres said he could have never imagined that hunger would rise again during his time in office as Secretary-General.

The WFP singled out 10 countries with the worst food crises in 2019: Yemen, Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria and Haiti. The list is expected to increase by end of this year.

WFP Executive Director David Beasley told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council last April: “There are no famines yet. But I must warn you that if we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.”

Against this grim scenario, resetting the future of food is possible, say the Barilla Foundation and Food Tank, which are jointly sponsoring an international online dialogue December 1 to “present concrete solutions to rethink our food systems– from farm to fork.”

The discussions are expected to help set the stage for the United Nations Food System Summit to be held in 2021.

The spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated the fragility of global food systems, “but it also offers opportunities to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume food.”

Guido Barilla, Chairman, Barilla Group and Barilla Foundation, said: “We need a positive movement to accelerate, empower, refine, and design a more sustainable future, and raising awareness in people – companies, citizens, institutions- that another future is possible.”

Danielle Nierenberg, President and Founder of Food Tank, told IPS the pandemic has had a huge impact on the world’s food and agricultural systems.

“Ironically, there will be record yields for many grains this year, but the disruptions in the supply chain caused by the pandemic as well as the global climate crisis and increasing conflict in several countries is leading to a hunger pandemic as well,” she pointed out.

Hunger, as many experts have pointed out, is not because the world doesn’t produce enough food, but a problem of distribution that has been exacerbated by concerns over health and lack of national leadership and political will in many countries, including the United States, to ensure that no one goes hungry, said Nierenberg.

Jeffrey Sachs, Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University and Director, U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, said: “Changing the food system is a complex challenge, but the first step is to know where we want to go, and that’s toward a healthy diet produced with sustainable agriculture.”

Abby Maxman, Oxfam America’s President & CEO, told IPS COVID-19 is the final straw for millions of people already struggling with the impacts of conflict, inequality, and climate change.

“The pandemic is fuelling hunger in the world’s worst hunger hotspots such as Venezuela and South Sudan, and it is creating new epicentres of hunger in countries such as India, South Africa, and Brazil where millions of people who were barely managing have been tipped over the edge by the pandemic,” she said.

She also pointed out that COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses of a food system which prioritizes the profits of big food and agriculture companies over the needs of food producers and workers.

“We’re hearing the same refrain all around the world – families are very worried as they are forced to make impossible decisions – do they risk catching the disease as they go out to earn money to buy food? Or stay home and watch their children go hungry?”

It’s not actually a choice for most. Governments must contain the spread of this deadly disease but it is equally vital they take action to stop the pandemic killing as many – if not more – people from hunger, said Maxman.

The future of the global food systems is in our hands. Let’s make the future grow! Credit: Barilla Foundation

The Advisory Board of the Barilla Foundation, described as an independent foundation that works on proposing concrete actions to solve issues around global food systems, has proposed a strategy to transform the food systems through shared and systemic solutions and a global collective commitment.

The online international dialogue is expected to highlight the critical role of farmers in feeding the world and managing natural resources, food business in progressing towards the 2030 Agenda, and chefs in re-designing food experiences. The prospects of technology and innovation, the role of food as prevention and the most recent policy developments, including the EU Farm to Fork Strategy, will also be discussed.

Asked if the availability of two vaccines by early next year will contribute to alleviate or end the food emergency, Nierenberg told IPS that while the vaccines are promising and will health ensure the health of millions and millions of people, the pandemic has shown us how fragile our food and economic systems are–it exposed a lot of cracks that were already there, but that have grown wider since the pandemic.

“We’ll need more than vaccines to make sure that food is considered a human right and that people around the globe have access to a living wage and safe, affordable, and accessible food,” she declared.

Oxfam America’s Maxman told IPS the exciting news about vaccines is providing hope of getting out of this global nightmare, but the scientific breakthrough is only part of the equation.

Equally important, she said, is making sure every single person on this planet can get it as soon as possible. But at the moment, rich countries, including the US, are already hoarding more than half of the vaccines to be developed by the companies with the leading five vaccine candidates.

“With only 4% of the world’s population, the US has already reserved almost 50% of the Pfizer’s total expected supply in 2021. That’s why Oxfam is calling for a people’s vaccine: a global public good, freely and fairly available to all, prioritizing those most in need here at home and around the world”.

To protect everyone no matter their wealth or nationality, corporations with the leading candidates for an effective COVID-19 vaccine must commit to openly sharing their vaccine technology to enable billions of doses to be made as soon as possible at the lowest possible price, Maxman declared.

Asked about the impact of waste, obesity and overconsumption, Nierenberg said: “I think NOW is the time for a real resetting of the food system”.

“It’s clear that agriculture needed to be revolutionized pre-pandemic—and we can’t return to the way things were”.

These unprecedented challenges, she noted, provide enormous opportunities to create a food system that can’t be broken—one that is truly regenerative and restorative, and that leaves no one behind.

“We can’t go back to “normal.” Normal left us vulnerable, and this crisis has widened the cracks in a food system already in need of repair. But this is our time to pivot. Right now, we can develop long-lasting solutions to nourish both people and the planet,” declared Nierenberg, recipient of the 2020 Julia Child Award and who spent two years volunteering for the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.

Maxman said: “The global food system is broken. We must rebuild a fairer, more resilient, and more sustainable food system”.

The fact that eight of the biggest food and drink companies paid out over $18 billion to shareholders even as the pandemic was spreading across the globe illustrates just how broken our food system is, she noted.

“In the short-term, governments need to make sure that local food systems can continue to function, people can access and afford to buy nutritious food, and producers can continue to grow and produce the food needed for local communities”.

But as countries recover from the crisis, governments must prioritize investing in small-scale producers, ensuring that women food producers do not face discrimination, taking steps to make sure food producers can adapt to climate change, and demanding that big food and beverage companies pay workers a living wage, she declared.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@ips.org


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Autocracy on the Rise: Should we Expect Military Spending to Follow?

Credit: SIPRI

By Diego Lopes da Silva
STOCKHOLM, Nov 27 2020 – Autocracies are once again the global majority. The 2020 Democracy Report of the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-DEM), ‘Autocratization surges, resistance grows’, raises the alarm that while the world in 2019 was substantially more democratic than it was in the 1970s, an ongoing trend of autocratization may reverse this scenario.

Democratic institutions in countries as diverse as Hungary and Mali are weakening, leading to consequences of as yet unknown dimensions. A likely outcome is an increase in military spending: there is a significant body of evidence showing that autocracies spend more than democracies on their militaries, all else being equal.

This SIPRI Topical Backgrounder discusses the possible consequences of growing autocratization on military spending. Understanding the interaction between political regimes and military spending is of interest to scholars as well as to policymakers, as many of these autocratizing countries—such as Brazil, India and Turkey—increasingly bear importance in the international security landscape.

It also examines the case of Brazil in light of the findings of the 2020 Democracy Report and looks at how Brazil’s recent autocratization has affected its military spending.

Is the world becoming more autocratic?

The 2020 Democracy Report documents the acceleration and deepening of autocratization around the world. V-DEM defines any substantial decline on its Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) as autocratization. Simply put, it refers to the erosion of liberal democratic institutions.

The LDI captures the extent to which individual and minority rights are protected against a potential ‘tyranny of the majority’ and the state. Institutional features such as civil liberties, separation of powers, a constitutionally constrained executive, and a strong and independent judiciary are of special concern to this index.

Autocracies—political regimes where civil society’s influence and control over decision making is limited and unevenly distributed—are, for the first time since 2001, the majority in the world. The number of liberal democracies has fallen from a peak of 45 countries in 2010 to 37 in 2019.

Levels of democracy have fallen throughout regions: as a population-weighted average, Latin America’s 2019 democracy index receded to 1992 levels, while in the same year Eastern Europe’s reached its lowest point since the end of the Soviet Union.

Hungary is a notable example. It is the first electoral authoritarian member of the European Union according to V-DEM’s methodology and the most extreme case of autocratization of the decade 2009–19, followed by Turkey, Poland, Serbia and Brazil.

Why would autocratization affect military spending?

In a nutshell, the literature puts forward two main hypotheses on the relationship between military spending and democracy. Far from being exclusionary, these hypotheses complement each other; empirical cases are likely to display features in accordance with both explanations.

The first hypothesis—the democratic control hypothesis—claims that liberal democracies spend less on their militaries as a means to avoid heightening threat perceptions and leaving fewer resources available to other valued social goods.

Thus, politicians seeking election or re-election may be more inclined to reduce military spending to provide more resources for health and education, for example. They would do so to please constituents and therefore maximize their chances of remaining in power.

Democratic institutions provide the channels through which civil society can express its preferences, reward politicians who abide by them and sanction those who do not.

A second hypothesis—the autocrat–military hypothesis—concerns the rent-seeking behaviour of the military. According to this theoretical strand, competition for resources is fundamentally different under democratic and autocratic regimes.

In democracies the military should not resort to violence as a means of securing resources; it must compete for budget allocations with other state bureaucracies on an equal footing. Conversely, autocratic regimes tend to rely on the military for internal repression. In these regimes, the military can bargain for larger budget allocations in exchange for political support.

There is evidence to support the association between military spending and democracy: countries with well-functioning democracies tend to spend less on their militaries, both as a share of gross domestic product (GDP)—military burden—and as a share of government expenditure.

A study published in 2015, for instance, found that full democracies—those scoring highest in democratic quality—spend on average almost 40 per cent less than full autocracies—those scoring lowest in democratic quality—on their militaries, all else being equal.

There is also some evidence suggesting that presidential democracies spend more on the military than parliamentary systems. Among autocracies, military regimes have higher military spending levels than single party and personalist regimes. The link between political regimes and military spending is well established in the literature.

These findings suggest that if the current trend of autocratization continues, military spending is likely to rise. The effects are already noticeable: some countries moving towards autocracy are either increasing military spending or changing budgeting practices. The following section discusses some preliminary findings on the relationship between autocratization and military spending in Brazil.

The autocratic surge in Brazil: President Bolsonaro’s relationship with the armed forces and military spending

According to V-DEM’s 2020 Democracy Report, Brazil ranks fifth among the top 10 autocratizing countries of the decade 2009–19. Democratic levels began to decline in Brazil in 2014, after a corruption scandal involving President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. A political crisis ensued ultimately leading to Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016.

The impeachment process was highly controversial, casting serious doubt on the quality of Brazilian democratic institutions. Autocratization accelerated after far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2018. Bolsonaro has made clear on several occasions that his commitment to democratic institutions is weak, going as far as to claim that ‘the dictatorship’s mistake was to torture but not kill’ dissidents, referring to Brazil’s latest military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985.

Bolsonaro is a former army captain and has appointed a retired army general as vice president. He has populated the state bureaucracy with military personnel and relies heavily on the military to govern.

When Bolsonaro took office in 2018, fewer than 3000 military personnel occupied civilian positions in the state bureaucracy; by 2020 that number had risen to over 6000. Many key positions in the government are or were occupied by retired army officers, such as the minister of health, the minister of mines and energy, the minister of defence and the national security adviser.

The military has backed Bolsonaro against political opponents as well as against other government branches. In May 2020, Bolsonaro’s national security adviser, Augusto Heleno, a retired army general, warned that the Supreme Court’s ongoing inquiries into the president’s supporters may lead to ‘unpredictable consequences for national stability’.

Following Heleno’s statement, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro—President Bolsonaro’s son—said that an institutional break, in other words a democratic rupture, in Brazil is only a matter of time.

The relationship between Bolsonaro and the military has had consequences on the allocation of government resources. The presidency presented a budget proposal to Congress in August 2020 calling for a 4.83 per cent increase in the defence budget for 2021.

The Ministry of Defence was successful in lobbying for 8.17 billion reais (US$1.5 billion) for investments in arms acquisition programmes, much higher than in previous years. The Ministry of Defence has even more ambitious plans in mind to enlarge the military budget: the latest version of the National Defence Strategy, submitted to Congress in July 2020, proposes raising Brazil’s military spending from the 1.4 per cent of GDP average of the past decade to 2 per cent of GDP.

Although the proposition is based on that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—since 2002 NATO member states have agreed to spend at least 2 per cent of their GDP on their military—Brazil’s proposed approach is fundamentally distinct from the one taken by NATO. The NATO 2 per cent military burden is a political guideline, not a legal obligation.

The Brazilian proposal, however, appears to aim at setting national defence expenditure at 2 per cent of GDP in the Annual Budget Law. While the means to do so are not yet clear, the language in the document implies, or at least creates potential for, the establishment of a legal mechanism securing a minimum allocation per year (2 per cent of GDP) to the military irrespectively of approval by Congress. If that is indeed the case, it would severely weaken democratic control over the budgetary process.

Discussions about raising military spending in Brazil are taking place during exceptionally challenging times. Firstly, since 2017 Brazil has been under a new fiscal regime that limits government spending for the following 20 years.

The expenditure ceiling links any increase in federal primary expenditure to the previous year’s inflation, ensuring that spending does not grow in real terms. The fiscal regime heightens the zero-sum game of resource allocation, as government branches must now compete for shares of a substantially smaller pot of money.

If the proposal for a 2 per cent military burden is approved, it would automatically decrease the resources available to other ministries.

Secondly, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has hit Brazil particularly hard. In the six months following the first registered case, Brazil reached 4.3 million cases and over 133 000 deaths. In June 2020 COVID-19-related fatalities averaged 1000 deaths per day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed Brazil’s health system and put a strain on public resources. Raising military spending amid the most severe health and economic crises Brazil has ever experienced will considerably limit the country’s ability to respond effectively to COVID-19.

Had the 2 per cent military burden proposition been approved in 2019, military spending would have grown from $28 billion to $40 billion annually. The difference, $12 billion, is more than a tenth of the 2020 budget allocated by the Brazilian Government to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

This simple comparison provides a tangible example of the opportunity costs involved in raising military spending amidst such a severe health crisis.

The quid pro quo between Bolsonaro and the military supports to some extent the hypothesis that autocracies rely on the military. Brazil is not a full autocracy; it is still a democracy with functioning institutions.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Bolsonaro relies heavily on the support of the military to govern and thus Brazil does display some of the features of the autocrat–military hypothesis.

Moreover, Brazil also fits the democratic control hypothesis. The proposal to fix the military burden at 2 per cent—if carried out without the approval of Congress—would be a significant setback to Brazilian civil society’s ability to influence public expenditure. In that sense, it represents a weakening of democratic control.

Military spending in autocratizing countries

If the current trend of autocratization leads to higher military spending, the consequences would certainly be damaging for international security and economic development. Higher military spending could lead to heightened threat perceptions, and thus ultimately increase the likelihood of conflict.

Likewise, larger military budgets might mean that fewer resources would be available for spending on health and education or to effectively aid a post-pandemic economic recovery. While some may argue that military spending could benefit economic growth, extant evidence suggests otherwise.

The effects of growing autocratization on military spending are becoming increasingly clear in Brazil, where Bolsonaro intends to raise military spending to 2 per cent of GDP. The government presented this proposal amidst a pandemic that has hit the country particularly hard and under an austere expenditure ceiling.

The Brazilian case may forebode a trend: if other autocratizing states, such as India and Turkey, follow suit, we can expect rising levels of military spending. Studying the relationship between military spending and political regimes is of utmost importance to anticipate the shifts autocratization may bring to international security.

This Topical Backgrounder has only scratched the surface of this relationship. A more in-depth analysis of the Brazilian case, alongside cross-country comparisons, might provide a clearer picture of the issue.


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