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And the Nobel Peace Prize goes to... The World Food Programme?

Source: Flickr/ USAFRICOM

Faseeha Hashmi

There was no shortage of high-profile candidates for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. In a bid to revitalise international solidarity and multilateral cooperation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme (WFP) for its efforts to combat global hunger. The prize will be a much-needed cash injection to help feed the world’s poor. But what does the choice of recipient say about the current state of the international community? At a time when hunger has been aggravated due to conflict and COVID-19, it seems the need to reinvigorate humanitarian aid appears more necessary than ever before. As such, what is the state of hunger in the world today? And how will this year’s choice of Nobel laureate bolster support for multilateralism when political self-interest and isolationism are more pronounced than ever before?

Pandemic Hunger

Today, more than 820 million people do not have enough food. This damning reality means that global health, productivity and other forms of social capital are also compromised. This year, food security is predicted to worsen for many across the world. This is especially true in circumstances of civil conflict, droughts, floods and other natural disasters. Though the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals ambitiously aim to reach Zero Hunger by 2050, the organisation reported that it would be unable to reach its hunger reduction targets by 2030. Unless urgent action is taken, with the exacerbating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food production and security, the number of people suffering from acute hunger could nearly double by the end of 2020. Therefore, the need for cooperation through intelligence and resource sharing is more important than ever before.

Weapon of War

Aside from the pandemic, the state of global hunger today has been most severely aggravated by ongoing conflicts. This link has been acknowledged by UN forums, as seen by the unanimous adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2417 in May 2018 for the “protection of civilians in armed conflict”, and which was supported by the WFP. Resolution 2417 reaffirmed the prohibition on the use of hunger as a weapon or military strategy, and also recognised that humanity can never eliminate hunger without first establishing peace. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s hunger-affected people live in conflict-prone regions, making conflict the single greatest challenge to ending hunger. It disrupts infrastructure and social stability, making it harder to provide supplies.

Food insecurity also perpetuates conflict, as “fighting drives large numbers of people from their homes, their land and their jobs.” The WFP has been pivotal to assisting war-torn Yemen, in its largest operation to date, as well as in providing aid to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and South Sudan. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the WFP’s work has laid the foundations for peace in these states by facilitating greater access to resources such as water and land. Regrettably, in many cases, such as in Yemen, Afghanistan, and South Sudan, aid by donors has been obstructed due to attacks or delivery concerns. This highlights the ongoing safety concerns that impair humanitarian assistance. Moreover, the WFP’s work along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border to rehabilitate irrigation canals and pipelines was reported to “prevent inter-community conflict over water”. Such examples reiterate the necessity for nations to collaborate.

Signalling a move towards isolationism…

Under President Trump, the US has placed the interests of the state above its interests abroad. Retreating from the principals of liberal internationalism, the administration has taken the controversial action of cutting funding for the World Health Organisation. Isolationism is a policy whereby a country avoids foreign responsibilities or engagements with other states. Now confronting a global pandemic that has caused an economic debacle not experienced since the Great Depression, to the international community’s despair the United States is rediscovering its history of isolationism. Yet, scaling back foreign commitments has devastating consequences. The Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has expressed concern over how the economic shutdown is affecting supply chains and could consequently worsen hunger in developing nations. In a world as interconnected as ours, with economic interdependence and globalised threats, an isolationist strategy harms the international community.

In the 21st century, neo-isolationism has become increasingly popular. Some examples include the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, as well as the United States distancing itself from the UN and other international organisations. Though the Trump administration has prided itself on President Trump’s supposed deal-making capabilities, the reality has been a policy of selective engagement and frequent disregard for international norms and customs, impairing the function of international diplomacy. Under a new administration, it is hoped that President-elect Joe Biden will seize the opportunity to reinvest in diplomacy, recommit to the principles of liberal internationalism, and redirect attention to global institutions once more. International cooperation has been sorely lacking around the world, and those most vulnerable are impacted as a result. According to Dan Smith, director of the SIPRI, "[h]unger… is a world problem that can only be properly addressed through cooperation.” Therefore, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the WFP, an institution of global cooperation, sends a clear message that global funds and alliances are needed now more than ever.


The WFP was created in 1961, suggested by US President Dwight Eisenhower as a trial program to provide food aid through the UN. Abiding by liberal internationalism, America recognised the value of international humanitarian aid and was once the most influential supporter of the WFP. However, under President Trump, the US has cut funding to numerous WFP projects, specifically UN programs providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians. The international community has failed to fill the funding gap, with many European countries only making up some of the shortfall. According to the WFP in 2019, it provided resources and assistance to 97 million people across 88 states, and the agency needs international donors to continue to carry out emergency response missions. Given that the Nobel Peace Prize comes with a cash prize worth around $1.1 million, this cash injection will help the WFP continue its humanitarian work around the globe and subsequently alleviate some of the severe challenges facing vulnerable people.


However, awarding the WFP this accolade is not a de facto commendation of the organisation, as past winners have highlighted that there are controversies around its granting. Indeed, the question of who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize has been frequently debated. Many recipients have obtained the award, with them then failing to deliver on their promises. One notable recipient was US President Barack Obama in 2009, who stated his desire to see a “world without nuclear weapons”, but did not establish concrete policies to realise this aspiration. The former Nobel Committee secretary Geir Lundestad later stated that awarding the prize to President Obama was ill-founded. Controversial selections also included last year’s recipient, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. His peace deal with Eritrea was hoped to help end a 20-year military stalemate following the 1998–2000 border war; however, his government is now involved in a conflict that has led to mass killing of civilians in Ethiopia's Tigray region.

Akin to the reputations of these past winners, the WFP is itself not untainted or free from controversy. In 2019, the WFP internal survey found that at least 28 employees claimed that they had been victims of rape or sexual assault during their time at the agency. More broadly, it has been reported that over 640 employees reported they either had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment. These allegations demonstrate that despite the enormous good that UN agencies do, there is a significant need for improvement. The Nobel Committee's decision to award this year’s prize to the WFP demonstrates an initiative to highlight their achievements, but these reports must also be acknowledged.

Final Remarks

Food insecurity is an urgent global challenge now and will be in the future. This is especially true as climate change is likely to exacerbate many pre-existing challenges. Under President-elect Joe Biden, there are renewed hopes for US multilateralism, and we may see a resurgence in participation in international institutions from the US. Food security is a vital ingredient for peace and should remain a priority for the international community. As the Nobel Peace Prize makes clear, a world of peace and stability hinges upon “fraternity between nations”. The WFP hopes to contribute to this fraternity by eradicating world hunger, helping to move towards a world where human rights, peace and dignity are enjoyed by all.


Faseeha Hashmi holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, and has an interest in human security and international diplomacy



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