UNITED NATIONS — The head of the U.N. food agency is telling world leaders that the only way to end global hunger is to end conflicts, which would also free up billions of dollars to build roads and infrastructure and promote economic growth in all developing countries.
David Beasley said in an interview with the Associated Press this week that 19 countries are now in "protracted conflict" — which is "more conflict than we've ever had" — and 80 percent of the World Food Program's funds are now going into conflict regions.
For many years, he said, the number of people facing extreme hunger fell despite the increase in global population, but in the last few years the number of people facing extreme hunger has increased from 777 million to 815 million in 2016 — "all because of man-made conflict."
In 2015, world leaders adopted new U.N. goals, first and foremost to eradicate extreme poverty — people living on less than $1.25 a day — in all countries by 2030.
"Zero hunger by 2030? It's a joke without ending the conflicts," Beasley said. "If we end the conflicts, with the expertise and the food sector of the world, we can end world hunger."
Beasley said he has recently visited many countries in conflict — Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Somalia.
"It's a disgrace on humanity, the number of innocent victims of conflict, children, that are starving to death because of nothing but man-made conflict," he said.
When he met Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whom he called "the grandpapa" of the east African region, Beasley said Museveni asked how much money the World Food Program was spending in South Sudan.
"I said, 'it's around a billion dollars'. I said, 'How'd you like to have a billion dollars for roads and infrastructure, for development in Uganda?'" Beasley said.
"It's just being poured down the tube and nothing to show for it. We're keeping people alive, and that's a wonderful thing, but how long can you sustain that?" he asked.
Beasley said he thinks it was "a game-changer" for Museveni, realizing how much money was not being used for development and to promote jobs and opportunities in developing countries because of conflicts.
He urged powerful nations around the world to work with the United Nations to end conflicts.
"Why don't we put our heads together and have a comprehensive strategy and end just one? And then we'll go to the next one, and then within a year we've ended two or three wars, saved us hundreds of billions of dollars," Beasley said. "Let's end Yemen or Syria or South Sudan. Let's end something."
In the meantime, Beasley said, WFP needs between $6.5 billion and $6.8 billion this year to feed over 80 million people.
Traditionally, he said, the United States has provided about 30 percent of WFP's budget, but this year he speculates that the Trump administration will contribute 35 to 40 percent, "up to maybe $2.5 billion."
Beasley said he had argued to Congress and the administration that "if you want to spend another half a trillion dollars on military operations in the United States budget, cut the World Food Program, because the World Food Program is the first line of offense and defense against extremism."
"I said, 'you must understand, this is not just some liberal feel-good program. This program is in the United States' national security interest, and it's the right thing to do."
Over the next 12 months, Beasley said, he's going to be identifying "which countries can do more and should do more."