Ukraine/Russia: Africa food crisis looms as war continues – HRW

  • Importing countries in Africa should boost local food production

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has worsened the food security crisis in many African countries, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today.

Many countries in East, West, Middle, and Southern Africa rely on Russia and Ukraine for a significant percentage of their wheat, fertilizer, or vegetable oils imports, but the war disrupts global commodity markets and trade flows to Africa, increasing already high food prices in the region.

Read Also: Russia doubles fossil fuel revenues since invasion of Ukraine began

Even countries that import little from the two countries are indirectly impacted by higher world prices for key commodities. Governments and donors should ensure affordable food access in Africa by scaling up economic and emergency assistance and social protection efforts. Otherwise, millions of people across the African continent may experience hunger.

“Many countries in Africa were already in a food crisis,” said Lena Simet, senior researcher on poverty and inequality at Human Rights Watch. “Rising prices are compounding the plight of millions of people thrown into poverty by the Covid-19 pandemic, requiring urgent action by governments and the international community.”

Under global and African human rights law everyone has the right to sufficient and adequate food. To protect this right, governments are obligated to enact policies and initiate programs to ensure that everyone can afford safe and nutritious food. Social protection systems that implement the right to social security for all can be key instruments for realizing the right to food.

Before the war in Ukraine, countries in East, West, Middle, and Southern Africa, including Angola, Cameroon, Kenya, and Nigeria, were already grappling with soaring food prices due to extreme climate and weather events such as floods, landslides, and droughts, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted production efforts and global supply chains.

Since Russia’s invasion, global food prices have reached new heights. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Food Price Index, a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, increased 12.6 percent from February to March. The March index is the highest it has been since the measure was created in the 1990s.

Russia and Ukraine are among the top five global exporters of barley, sunflowers, and maize, and account for about a third of the world’s wheat exports. Nigeria, the world’s fourth largest wheat importer, receives a fourth of its imports from Russia and Ukraine. Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda, and Sudan source more than 40 percent of their wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) buys half of the wheat it distributes around the world from Ukraine. With the war, supplies are squeezed, and prices rise, including for fuel, increasing the cost for transporting food in and to the region.

Human Rights Watch research on the food situation in Cameroon, Kenya, and Nigeria confirms that the rising food prices exacerbated by the war severely affect people’s livelihoods and food security in many African countries, especially where adequate social protection is lacking.

The United Nations defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to food, which diminishes dietary quality, disrupts normal eating patterns, and can have negative consequences for nutrition, health and well-being.” In situations of severe food insecurity, people have a higher likelihood of running out of food and experiencing hunger, sometimes going days without eating.

In Cameroon, where more than half of the population was food insecure before the war, the cost of imported food is driving local food inflation, with bread and other staple foods increasingly out of reach to those with low incomes.

In Kenya, where nearly 7 out of 10 people were food insecure before the war but only 1 out of 10 are covered by at least one form of social protection, the cost of cooking oil increased by 6.5 percent between February and March alone.

In Nigeria, where food insecurity affected nearly 6 out of 10 before the war, year to year food inflation was 17.2 percent in March, with prices of bread, rice, and yams rising even faster, by more than 30 percent.

The WFP warned that if the war lasts beyond April, acute hunger may increase by 17 percent globally, with the sharpest increases expected in countries in East, West, and Southern Africa. They said that the total number of people in these regions experiencing acute food insecurity may rise by 20.8 percent, affecting 174 million people.

Before the war, the cost of nutritious foods and high rates of poverty and inequality kept healthy diets out of reach for 66.2 percent of people in the region, according to FAO estimates for 2020. Approximately 323.2 million people in Africa, or 29.5 percent of the population, ran out of food or went without eating that year.

In West Africa and Middle Africa, the share of food insecure populations is even higher, 68.3 percent and 70 percent, respectively. The number of people affected by food insecurity continued to increase under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Data by the World Bank suggest that the Nigerian adult population suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity increased from 48.5 percent in 2019 to 75.5 percent in 2021. A Gallup World Poll before the war found that in Nigeria, 71 percent of the population lacked money for food in 2020, and in Kenya 69 percent.

The poll also noted that the two countries imported approximately 31 percent and 34 percent of wheat from Russia and Ukraine, respectively, and with disruptions occasioned by the war, the situation can only become worse, with the risk of people being pushed into destitution, starvation, and premature mortality.

Food inflation particularly affects people in poverty, who spend more of their income on food even when consuming the lowest-cost options. The World Bank reported that in African cities food accounts for 60 percent of total expenditures for the bottom 20 percent of urban households and 35 percent for the wealthiest, making it hard to absorb price hikes. People forced to spend more on basic staples have to adapt by purchasing lower quality food, eating less, and reducing essential nonfood expenditures like health or education.

To prevent a hunger crisis, a rights-centered response is vital, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should act to protect everyone’s rights to an adequate standard of living, and in particular the right to food, by scaling up emergency food aid and expanding social protection systems. Investing in social protection might be a tall order for many African governments facing high debt levels and stretched fiscal positions after two years of the pandemic.

A Global Fund for Social Protection should be set up to increase the level of support to low-income countries, helping them to establish and maintain social protection floors in the form of legal entitlements. Many social protection systems in African countries are at least in part financed and supported by the World Bank, which should ensure that support reaches everyone in need.

International financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank should refrain from pressuring countries to adopt fiscal consolidation measures that could further raise the cost of food or cut social spending.

Preventing a worsening food crisis requires international cooperation. Food exporting governments should carefully balance export restrictions to protect the right to food domestically while minimizing to the extent possible impacts on food supply and prices for other countries.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) estimates that 40 percent of the increase in global wheat prices during the 2011 food crisis resulted from hoarding. Importing governments should work to ensure that nutritious food is affordable and accessible to everyone.

In the long run, importing countries in Africa should boost local food production to increase food sovereignty and make food systems more sustainable. This requires support for climate change adaptation and resilience in the region.

“The war in Ukraine has led to more people across Africa going hungry. Governments should do everything in their power to mitigate the impact of rising food prices and avert a hunger crisis,” Simet said. “Expanding social protection and ensuring the supply of affordable food is critical to protecting the right to food for everyone.”

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