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We are failing the world and the poorest are paying the highest price

Aerial view of the Porto Pirum community, next to the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve in Brazil. (AFP)
Aerial view of the Porto Pirum community, next to the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve in Brazil. (AFP)
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11 Dec 2022 12:12:57 GMT9
11 Dec 2022 12:12:57 GMT9

It is once again the time of the year when the world settles into a familiar pattern of considering auguries for the future as we ruminate on how far we have come in the past 12 months — or have not come and so we simply appreciate what little progress has been made. In the unfortunate cases of situations in which we have regressed, we rouse a furor or two in protest and indignation.

Increasingly, however, this “year of extremes,” as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it, has prompted a growing sense of resignation at a dismal, seemingly unchangeable reality.

For all our aspirations of achieving global sustainable development goals by the end of this decade we, as a world — collective humanity, so to speak — are failing. And failing badly.

Granted, we have certainly come a long way and not everything is doom and gloom. But no amount of alarm or warnings have succeeded in cultivating a much-needed sense of urgency. It appears as though we remain at a virtual standstill as the crises mount, converge and intensify to the detriment of the world’s most vulnerable.

But those forced to scrape together some kind of a livelihood in the planet’s most fragile, crisis-prone regions are not the only ones exposed to cumulative risks or hybrid threats as the emergencies of yesteryear continue to extend well into the future.

We are still a long way from coming to terms with the fact that as long as some parts of our world are at risk, or even just one, we all are, and we must bear this in mind when we address our gravest humanitarian crises.

For now, this remains a vague concept or distant eventuality that few are willing to acknowledge and fewer still are willing to act upon, even as short-sighted national self-interests continue to stifle our arenas for collective, global action.

But crises wait for no one and it is projected that global humanitarian needs will accelerate faster next year than in the previous two. This creeping reality builds on a woeful two decades of heightened risks that have disproportionately affected emerging and developing countries.

For instance, more than 100 million people around the world remain displaced as a result of food crises, conflicts, extreme weather events and diminishing economic opportunities.

These trends will only continue to get worse, driven by climate shocks, a global recession and the wide-reaching effects of the ongoing war in Ukraine, including food-security challenges and their global geopolitical fallout.

The former is especially worrisome to governments in the Arab world, where acute food insecurity has escalated in recent years, dovetailing with other domestic woes that place additional strains on already struggling populations.

Around the globe, close to a billion people in more than 50 countries remain food insecure, with about 45 million in danger of starving without aid. Meanwhile, we continue to lose or waste more than 2 billion tons of food between harvest, retail and consumption.

This same food waste contributes close to 10 percent of global greenhouse gases and costs the global economy about $935 billion a year. That is correct — almost a trillion dollars in wasted food, equivalent to nearly a third of the entire gross domestic product of the Middle East and North Africa region.

Yet there is still no definitive collective action or calls for sustained collaboration to curb such a high level of food waste, which would do wonders for efforts to end world hunger, improve nutrition, reduce emissions, restore water tables and boost other sustainable development goals.

Even without embarking on radical interventions targeting food waste, it would cost the world an estimated $330 billion to end global hunger by 2030. This price tag is well below current annual losses to global GDP resulting from food loss and waste. It is therefore a virtual no-brainer that we prioritize the end of world hunger, especially given that this would also contribute significantly to the eradication of extreme poverty.

More than 100 million people around the world remain displaced as a result of food crises, conflicts, extreme weather events and diminishing economic opportunities.

Instead, our failure to act decisively on the issue of hunger means that the global goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030 will no longer be achievable. About a million people worldwide fall into poverty every 33 hours. This number will continue to grow as long as problems such as conflicts, instability, lack of employment opportunities and pervasive inequalities, to name but a few, persist.

Based on current trends, more than half a billion people will be struggling to live on less than $2 a day by 2030, especially if available employment opportunities remain below pre-pandemic levels and a looming global recession limits growth rates for the remainder of the decade in many countries.

Meanwhile, international action on extreme poverty leaves much to be desired, despite the fact that the estimated $175 billion price tag for eradicating poverty will only continue to increase as debt-distressed emerging and developing economies succumb to unrest and turmoil among understandably aggrieved populations.

Beyond the issues of hunger and poverty, we are also not seeing much improvement in global public health trends. The COVID-19 crisis rages on in many places, now alongside sporadic outbreaks of mpox (formerly known as monkeypox), Ebola and cholera.

Furthermore, there has been a decline in the testing, treatment and promotion of preventative interventions for infectious diseases in recent years. One would think that after a disastrous pandemic that exposed significant vulnerabilities in global public health we would be seeing concerted efforts to ensure the delivery of healthcare services that are less constrained, better-resourced, and more inclusive, resilient and human-centered.

Yet global public health efforts remain fragmented, bogged down by deficiencies and inadequacies that doom less-wealthy countries to endure ineffectual mitigation strategies while rich countries work to reimagine and transform their own health sectors.

These sorts of divergences do not bode well for the downward trends in global education or the fact that it is now projected it will take more than a century for the world to achieve true gender parity.

That is not to say there is no hope of solving, or at least mitigating, the harmful effects of these crises. There are some signs of hope and sparks of renewed optimism the world over, which offer a blueprint for how we might navigate these troubled, polarized times and prevent catastrophic failure from becoming the only legacy of nearly 80 years of relative world peace.

One of these hopes remains the fairly effective anticipatory interventions by the UN in an attempt to mitigate the most extreme outcomes in humanitarian crises. Such preemptive actions have included pre-crisis investments to improve food security in fragile locations such as Sudan, where the value of a dollar has increased seven-fold even as conflicts and the harmful effects of climate change intensify.

The world will accomplish a lot more if humanitarian funding can be shifted from a highly reactive model that often leads to expensive, ill-timed interventions that only address the most severe consequences of inaction, to a less-expensive, preemptive strategy that targets root causes.

At present, several G20 nations have reduced aid donations and other forms of assistance to prioritize their own domestic challenges. As things stand, however, it is estimated that the world will need to raise a record $52 billion to help more than 200 million people who will be exposed to acute challenges in 2023, a number that is 65 million more than this year and likely to grow.

UN appeals for aid funding remain underfunded by as much as 53 percent, which does not instill much confidence that the global community will be able to commit adequate funding for bolder initiatives that could help eradicate some of the world’s gravest ills and meet most of its sustainable development goals by the end of this decade.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and a former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell

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