The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced earlier this week that the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme is the 2020 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in tackling hunger worldwide.
In Oslo, Norwegian Nobel Committee chairperson Berit Reiss-Andersen announced the decision. She espoused the principle that “food is one of our most basic needs” and identified the rationale for awarding the World Food Programme with the accolade as being that the Programme has worked to “turn the eyes of the world to the millions of people who suffer from or face the threat of hunger.” She called on efforts to adequately fund the UN and said “the UN plays a key role in upholding human rights.”
Established in 1961 “at the behest of US President Dwight Eisenhower…as an experiment to provide food aid through the UN system”, the UN World Food Programme seeks to advance progress towards the aim of zero hunger. “As the international community has committed to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition by 2030, one in nine people worldwide still do not have enough to eat,” it states. “Food and food-related assistance lie at the heart of the struggle to break the cycle of hunger and poverty.”
The World Food Programme beat out multiple contenders many thought had a shot at winning the Prize. Frontrunners included environmental activist Greta Thunberg, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the World Health Organization (WHO), and U.S. President Donald Trump.
In a statement, the World Food Programme said “the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme (WFP) is a humbling, moving recognition of the work of WFP staff who lay their lives on the line every day to bring food and assistance for close to 100 million hungry children, women and men across the world…in 2019, WFP assisted 97 million people – the largest number since 2012 – in 88 countries.”
India is among the countries to benefit from the work of the World Food Programme, home – as the Programme notes – to one-quarter of the world’s undernourished peoples. The World Food Programme’s work in India takes the form, it explains, of “working to improve the efficiency, accountability and transparency of India’s own subsidised food distribution system, which brings supplies of wheat, rice, sugar and kerosene oil to around 800 million poor people across the country.
“WFP ensures that food reaches those who need it most, working with the Government to reform and strengthen the system, which is one of the world’s largest.”
It also works “to boost the nutritional value of the Government’s Midday Meal school feeding programme.” This work incorporates “pioneering the multi-micronutrient fortification of school meals. The pilot project saw rice fortified with iron, which was distributed in a single district, resulting in a twenty percent drop in anaemia. We also help tackle malnutrition by fortifying food given to babies and young children in the Kerala State.”
Finally, the World Food Programme said that it “uses its own Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping software to identify India’s most food insecure areas, which allows policy and relief work to be targeted appropriately. WFP is also supporting the government’s Poverty and Human Development Monitoring Agency in establishing a State-level Food Security Analysis Unit, working towards the goal of achieving Zero Hunger.”
Tackling undernourishment in India is a lofty endeavour, but a critical one. One-fourth of the world’s undernourished population is not a mere statistic. It translates to real pain and suffering.
Last year, the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) reminded us of the plethora of health effects due to malnutrition – especially among children. As reported by Health Issues India at the time, “according to the CNNS, stunting affected 35 percent of children under five and wasting affected seventeen percent. 33 percent of children are underweight, with 35 percent of children aged five to nine years being underweight and ten percent being severely underweight…fewer than seven percent of Indian children below the age of two consume an adequate diet according to the CNNS, lending an insight into the trends the survey identifies.
A mere 6.4 percent of children in this age bracket receive a “minimum acceptable diet”. Acute malnourishment afflicts eleven percent of those aged between six and 59 months.”
Such is the scourge of malnutrition among India’s children, it accounted for 68 percent of deaths among those aged under five in 2017. This translated to seven lakh lives lost.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, malnutrition has taken on a new acuity. As Health Issues India reported earlier this year, for many, the primary concern was not catching a virus. It was starving.
The recipience of the Nobel Peace Prize by the UN World Food Programme is a cause for celebration for the agency. However, it is also a reminder of why fighting hunger and undernourishment is of such great importance.
India has enjoyed increasing levels of economic prosperity in recent decades. Yet it remains ravaged by socioeconomic inequalities that directly and indirectly translate to poor health exacerbated and, in many cases, caused by hunger. In addressing the health of the nation, hunger must be a core component of the conversation. That the Government is working towards it is good – but 2030 is less than a decade away. Efforts need to be ramped up.