West needs to act fast to tackle food crisis — and Moscow’s blame game
The west’s mobilisation to address the global food crisis caused by the war in Ukraine is recognition that millions could face starvation in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as the conflict shakes commodity markets and leaves vulnerable grains importers on the verge of catastrophe. But it is also a tacit acknowledgment of the geopolitical risks of letting Moscow blame sanctions for surging food prices.
Those versed in the complex process of co-ordinating international initiatives say western allies have shown solidarity and resolve to tackle food insecurity and possible social unrest in poorer countries. The US and European governments have announced various initiatives and measures alongside spending commitments from multilateral organisations. Germany, which holds the G7 presidency, and the World Bank are co-ordinating those efforts under the Global Alliance for Food Security.
More details will be outlined ahead of the G7 heads of state meeting in Germany this month to address the immediate financial and humanitarian needs of poorer countries as well as longer term measures for sustainable agriculture.
“There has been an unprecedented amount of political attention to the food security impact of the war,” says Caitlin Welsh, director of global good security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Easing food insecurity has become paramount for European countries, which faces the possibility of hunger-related migration from the African continent and the Middle East, where countries including Tunisia and Lebanon rely on the Black Sea region for food staples — especially wheat.
But partly western countries are also seeking to win over hearts and minds of nations concerned about their wheat inventories and which have mostly been reluctant to pick a side since Moscow’s February invasion of Ukraine.
Apart from mitigating a food crisis among poorer countries, and to show that the west is standing in solidarity with affected countries, a co-ordinated initiative “is also a means by which we make clear: We have not caused this crisis, it is caused by Putin and his war on Ukraine”, says a German development ministry official.
After a meeting with Vladimir Putin last week, Senegal’s president Macky Sall, also chair of the African Union, called for the lifting of western economic sanctions against Russia. He embraced Moscow’s narrative that Russia was ready to “facilitate the export of Ukrainian cereals” and was “ready to ensure the export of its wheat and fertiliser” even though Ukrainian ports are under a Russian blockade.
“Some countries are saying ‘we don’t care [who is to blame for the war], we just want the wheat and to feed our people’,” said David Laborde, senior research fellow at International Food Policy Research Institute.
In presenting the international measures, policymakers also need to avoid being seen as window dressing. After the 2007-08 crisis which was caused by a spike in energy prices and droughts in crop-producing countries, the G8 and G20 announced a $22bn aid package. However, there was widespread scepticism over the amount of new money provided for food security. Much of the funding was recycled, some aid agencies said.
In order to widen backing, G7 countries have invited Indonesia, India and African countries as well as NGOs to participate in the GAFS discussions.
Another big question is whether the measures can take effect before crunch time for poor food importers, especially those in Africa, which will see their inventories depleted around September. Some including Cameroon and Kenya have been leading a hand-to-mouth existence, only buying when it is absolutely needed, say grain traders. Ukrainian farmers also need to empty their silos before the next harvest next month.
In parallel with the G7 measures, the EU and UN have been trying negotiate with Putin to create a humanitarian corridor for the passage of wheat. But the mistrust runs deep between Russia and Ukraine and its western allies.
Even if there were to be some sort of compromise to shift food out of Ukraine both sides may not strike an agreement until the last minute. The danger is that it turns into a game of chicken, says Ilana Bet-el, political analyst and senior fellow at King’s College London. “At a certain point, with so [many countries] depending on grain out of Ukraine, [the west] will have to take the risk and [come to an agreement with Russia].”