Fragility, Conflict and Violence Unit/World Bank Group
1984 marked one of Ethiopia’s worst famines. Years of drought destroyed the harvests and crops, causing great hunger. Famine, disease and war forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and try to find refuge in camps. More than half a million people starved to death (BBC, 2000).
Trying to shed light on this horrific famine in Ethiopia, Stan Grossfeld, The Boston Globe journalist, captured this image of a starving mother and child (Pulitzer.org, 2018). He sneaked into Ethiopia with a rebel convoy, exposed themselves to constant bombing of fighter jets, all in an attempt to capture images of the tragedy and convince the world to act. This mother bravely walked 250 miles to escape a war. After reaching the refuge in a camp, only a couple of days later, her child died from hunger and exhaustion.
The look on this child’s face, a look of hopelessness and despair, the sight of tiny bones crushed by hunger and weakness, evoked a reaction and ultimately influenced others to help and make a change. However, the response came too late – half a million people died from hunger.
FAMINE IS PREVENTABLE! So why is it still happening?
30 years later, dozens of international humanitarian and development agencies, governmental, intergovernmental and nonprofit organizations are involved in fighting hunger, and the world is again facing crisis in multiple countries with millions of families facing severe food insecurity and malnutrition. More than 27 million people in South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen are facing starvation and living on the brink of what could become the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time (IRC, 2017). Why are those people once again living on the edge of famine? Why does the international community react too late or not early enough? Who is ultimately responsible for “solving famine”? A small team in the Fragility, Conflict and Violence Unit (FCV) at the World Bank (WB) is trying to give answers and propose the right solutions to those questions. Gathered around the passion for achieving “zero hunger” through forecasting famine, this team cleared all my prejudices of rigidness and uniformness of big systems and institutions. Data, finance and implementation experts are just some of the exceptional team members using machine learning and big data. These teams are combining World Bank expertise in implementing social safety nets, helping experienced national and international actors in this field tackle famine and food crisis in much more efficient ways, triggering reactions before the pictures of famine reach the media, when it is usually too late to react.
In 2017, almost 127 million people across 51 countries and territories faced a crisis level of acute food insecurity or worse and required urgent humanitarian action. In 2016 the population in need of urgent action was estimated at 108 million across 48 countries, an increase of 11 million people or 11 percent rise from 2016 (FSIN, 2018). This rise can largely be attributed to new or intensified conflicts and insecurities, prolonged drought conditions and poor harvests in countries already facing high levels of food insecurity in eastern and southern Africa.
Famines are caused by multiple factors, but political events associated with violations of international humanitarian and human rights law often are major drivers. Although political and military actors bear primary responsibility for preventing famines, international actors can do a lot to mitigate escalating risks. To do so, aid must be delivered in the right way, at the right time, in the rights volumes and for the right purpose.
FAMINE EARLY ACTION – The Role of the World Bank
The World Bank commitment to fight famine is a part of a continuation of its twin goals to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity as the poorest are those most at risk of famine. This also contributes to the first two Sustainable Development Goals, No Poverty and Zero Hunger, as well as the World Bank’s ongoing efforts to promote preventative and preparedness approaches to address risks before they evolve into crises. The unique position and strength of the WB is work in close partnership with governments, the United Nations, civil society, the private sector, the academic community and philanthropies.
In order to tackle those challenges, the FCV team is working on developing an innovative mechanism to combat famine risks, emphasizing the links between existing famine early warning systems, financial instruments and implementation arrangements. Research has shown that early warnings do not reliably translate into a timely release of funds and predictable set of actions. Although the evidence shows that earlier interventions and investments in resilience save lives and are significantly more cost-effective, financing often follows the crisis instead of preceding it and investments remain under-resourced, especially in areas most at risk of famine.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE in service of fighting famine
Building on existing food security information systems, financial instruments, and coordination arrangements, this initiative seeks to provide an international platform to support data-driven financing and operations in high risk countries. It also includes scaling up development actions that reduce underlying vulnerabilities to extreme poverty and building coping mechanisms and systems for affected populations.
This initiative is testing the open data sources and advanced machine learning to trigger early action through parametric and non-parametric approaches. Non-parametric modeling is providing a “red flag” for upcoming food insecurity crises, and country-specific econometric models are used for further assessments. All sorts of “buzz words” like machine learning, big data, data forecasting received a real implementation through this project, ultimately bridging humanitarian and development worlds and enabling saving human lives. This mechanism is enabling quick deployment of aid to areas that are at risk of extreme food insecurity, instead of waiting for on the ground time consuming verifications. A pilot phase of this modeling project focuses on five countries: Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Niger, and Mali.
This time spent at the WB gave me the opportunity to provide support to ongoing and new projects being led by the FCV Group, including the Famine Team, the Global Crisis Risk Management Platform Team, among others. Apart from providing analytical support, collaborating with internal and external partners and participating in meetings to further the FCV agenda, I had an opportunity to meet the USAID, FEWSNet, Microsoft, and different UN agencies’ teams, and participate in several deep dive sessions that gave me an in-depth insight into the important roles those organizations are having in tackling famine. I would specifically like to single out the chance to join of the World Bank missions to New York, for a deep dive with United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, that allowed me to experience the mission side of the work of the organization. This was a great chance to learn more about the work of both organizations and witness the development of a partnership between the humanitarian and development international actors recognizing that famine can be tackled only by joint and coordinated efforts.
D.C. – FIGHTING ITS OWN HUNGER BATTLE
Thousands of people are working in the World Bank Group with the set mission to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity in the developing countries around the world. Although this mission brought together exceptional people from throughout the world, the most capable of achieving this goal, it is hard not to notice the same poverty and hunger problems happening here in the US, in fact at the very entrance of the World Bank in D.C. Every morning thousands of employees are passing the park in front of the World Bank building, a park that has become home to dozens of homeless people in the city. It appeared as an irony that the organization that fights hunger in the developing world is witnessing daily the hunger in its own front yard.There are almost seven thousand homeless people in the District. Homelessness is often accompanied by hunger. According to D.C. Hunger Solutions Report, one in seven D.C. households experiences some form of “food insecurity”. Poverty and economic inequity have resulted in many District residents not having access to grocery stores and the resources to purchase enough food. This study found that nearly 27 percent of families with children in the District had experienced periods when they were unable to afford food. Those statistics puzzled me. How can there be any hunger in the capital of the wealthiest and probably the most powerful country in the world? This led me to research what the local communities are doing to help, which ultimately led me to the organization in my very own neighborhood, Martha’s Table. I started volunteering with Martha’s team, preparing meals for homeless and impoverished and distributing food in DC parks, among them the very same one in front of the WB building.
For over 35 years, Martha’s Table has worked to support stronger communities by increasing access to quality education programs, healthy food and family support. Martha’s Table runs emergency relief programs that meet basic, fundamental needs of all neighbors in crisis. As part of their emergency program, I joined McKenna’s Wagon, daily mobile food truck and 4pm daily meal service. In the previous year, the organization distributed more than 1.6 million meals with the help of 18,000 volunteers. Martha’s Table is also supported by volunteers from the World Bank, and many of them help to eliminate homelessness as part of their yearly fundraising and support efforts.
This parallel experience of consultancy with the FCV Famine Early Action Mechanism and volunteering with Martha’s Table gave me valuable insight and opportunity to think about different approaches of system level and big impact solutions on one side and grassroots NGO level on the other. I believe this experience is just the beginning of my future professional path of tackling famine and hunger on both levels, in the developing world and in my own neighborhood. I would like to thank the FCV for this opportunity to work as part of their team, and to Rotary International for making this possible.
BBC. (2000, April 6). Flashback 1984: Portrait of famine. Retrieved from BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/703958.stm
FSIN. (2018). Global Report of Food Crisis. Food Security Information Network.
IRC. (2017, April 21). 5 things you think you know about famine, and the actual facts. Retrieved from International Rescue Committee: https://www.rescue.org/article/5-things-you-think-you-know-about-famine-and-actual-facts?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=JUL_2018_childsurvival18&ms=em_jul5_jun5_childsur18_180716&initialms=em_jul5_jun5_childsur18_180716&utm_cont
Pulitzer.org. (2018, July 25). The 1985 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Feature Photography. Retrieved from The Pulitzer Prizes: http://www.pulitzer.org/winners/stan-grossfeld-0