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Reckonings of an economist

With conflicts raging and hunger on the rise again, what does the man who warned the world about famine see in the forecast? I paid WFP Chief Economist Arif Husain a visit to find out.
, Domenica Sabella
WFP Chief Economist Arif Husain in Nigeria's Borno State to see how people are faring after facing famine in 2017. Photo: WFP/Inger Marie Vennize

I am conscious of time. Arif is wrapping up his last day in the office before he heads to Syria, where he will spend a week travelling and talking to people about the country's current food crisis. I cut the introduction and go straight to the point: "Where are we today with the ‘four' famines?"

"We averted famine," he says.

It is a no- frills answer to what could have easily been a dire outcome for millions of people who were on the edge of starvation across conflict- affected Yemen, South Sudan, northeastern Nigeria and Somalia last year — 20 million people to be precise.

"It was because of our work and the concerted efforts of our partners," Arif asserts, "that we were able to reach people with the necessary assistance." He pauses, abandons the language of briefing papers and press releases, and adds — "Without us, they would have died."

But these words do not have time to linger. As if by instinct, Arif makes the one statement he has repeated countless times to the media, governments, donors, the private sector and anyone else who might listen: "Famine is a failure, a collective one."

By August of 2017, WFP had assisted 7 million people in Yemen, 2.9 million in South Sudan, 2.2 million in Somalia and 1 million in northeastern Nigeria with food assistance. Photo: WFP/ Karel Prinsloo

The difference between an economist employed by an international financial institution and an economist at a humanitarian agency like the World Food Programme (WFP) comes down to scale. Literally. At the World Bank — where Arif used to work — economists look at fiscal policy and broader macro and micro economic issues. "My role as an economist at WFP is to look at those same policies but see how they impact a local population, specifically, how they affect people in poverty and their food security." Data in hand, Arif and his team can figure out how the negative impacts of policies can be offset. They can then bring their findings to the attention of those who help determine a country's national economic and social policies. They can help elicit improved livelihoods for the most vulnerable of people.

"Some really depressing stuff when you start to look at it, isn't it?" In a turn of events, Arif starts asking me questions.

I parry and ask, "So, what's the answer?"

This past May, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that officially recognizes food insecurity as both a result and driver of conflicts worldwide. For humanitarians working in today's war zones, providing assistance to an ever increasing number of people escaping the cycle of hunger and conflict, the move was heralded as a step in the right direction. The numbers, after all, speak for themselves: 60 percent of the 815 million chronically hungry people live in a conflict zone; that's 489 million people suffering man-made, preventable hunger.

The answer, it turns out, is formulaic. The approach needs to change. "Conflicts need to be addressed, and while they are being resolved, humanitarians need to keep providing assistance," is how Arif puts it. Linking it back to last year's almost- famine, he elaborates: "Here we are a year and a half later and dealing with the same conflicts. If we were to stop our operations right now, we would easily fall back to where we were in 2017 in a matter of a few months."

"We aren't in the clear — "

This time, the pause is slightly longer. "You're in a car. The gas pedal is humanitarian assistance. Now keep your foot way down on that accelerator and just drive."

He asks me another question. He seems to have taken a liking to this.

"So why would you expect things to get any better if all of the core reasons are still there?"

Lucky for me, the question turns out to be rhetorical.

Dolow, Somalia. While famine can be pushed back, the threat is linked to persistent conflict. The longer conflict goes on, the worse the hunger crisis. Photo: WFP/ Georgina Goodwin

For the fifth straight year, Syria has topped the list as the largest recipient of aid. Yemen ranks second. To put it into perspective, in 2017, global humanitarian assistance from both governments and private sector totaled US$ 27.3 billion — of which 60% was given to just 10 countries. "That's a big gap in aid," I say. Arif corrects me: "That's aid inequality."

Social media has made aid a lot more visible, rendering the inequality issue more complex. "A hungry person in the Central African Republic who receives food that is weighed out or ‘scooped' knows that a hungry person in Syria receives a food basket or a voucher," Arif explains. While infrastructure and market access are among some the factors that determine which "aid modality" — aid speak for type — gets used in an operation, this never gets said in post or a tweet. People will still compare, and hunger will still be hunger.

Arif has given me a lot to unpack, but I sense time is running out. My hunch is confirmed when his assistant lets him know that his next appointment is on their way. My eyes dart from one corner of his office to another looking for luggage and any other sign of his upcoming trip. I notice that there is a clock on the wall.

"The worst part," Arif maintains, "is that all of this is happening in a globalized world." Before I can process what he is saying, he throws me off by raising "1,000 days" — the period of time from pregnancy through age 2 sets the foundation for a child's physical and cognitive development. Without the right nutrition during this "window of opportunity," a child will not reach their full potential an adult.

"We're good at raising awareness about ‘1,000 days' and showing the connection between a child who does not grow up to be a healthy and productive adult and the negative consequences that has for the economic development of a country. But we need to do more work on linking," says Arif.

"Sorry, was that linking you said?"

"We're talking about the suffering of today's generation and that of future generations too. A less productive generation will then have to live and function in the same globalized world but at a disadvantage. The next generation is being marginalized, and it's critical that people understand this. That's linking," Arif explains.

His next appointment slips into the room. I try hard to avoid looking at the clock. Arif does not seem to notice either of these moves.

"In today's world, many people have nothing left to hope for. We need to give people something to work for, to live for, and that's where our resilience work comes in. Hunger is no longer someone else's problem."

"I have never heard development put in these terms," I admit to Arif.

He smiles. "That means we still have a lot of work to do."

Famine is declared when there is evidence of three conditions in a single location: at least 20 percent of the population face extreme food shortages; at least 30 percent of children under five suffer from acute malnutrition; and people are dying at double the normal daily rate.

Find out more about WFP.