On September 13, 2017, the Bretton Woods Committee hosted a virtual conference Regional Spotlight: Fighting Famine in Africa and Yemen, that explored the underlying causes of and international response to the famine crises in South Sudan, Somalia, northeast Nigeria, and Yemen. Featured speakers included Valerie Guarnieri, Regional Director for East and Central Africa at the World Food Programme, as well as World Bank experts Mamta Murthi, Director of Operations and Strategy for the Africa Region, and Poonam Gupta, Country Program Coordinator for Egypt, Yemen, and Djibouti. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, moderated the conversation.
Guarnieri opened the session by highlighting the World Food Programme’s (WFP) response effort to the 20 million people at risk of starvation primarily through providing food assistance, but noted that disease and dehydration are contributing to the death toll as well. Guarnieri contended that conflict (rather than climate-related factors) is powering the crises in South Sudan and Yemen, and added that 80% of global humanitarian needs are conflict-driven. She recounted two areas in South Sudan where WFP aid workers have not been able to access due to security concerns. Guarnieri stressed that to more effectively respond to these crises, humanitarian solutions are needed to address humanitarian problems, but political solutions are also needed in order to solve the underlying political problems that are often the drivers of crises.
In her opening remarks, Murthi echoed Guarnieri’s comments, reiterating that drought is only part of the current famine equation in Africa: a confluence of climate instability and conflict is causing the food insecurity conditions there. Murthi explained that humanitarian and development institutions are working more closely to bridge the crisis response-development divide; for example, the World Bank and the World Food Programme are collaborating on the ground to address acute food security needs and build longer-term resiliency. While the World Bank is not a humanitarian agency, Murthi explained that the World Bank has been able to mobilize emergency support through the crisis-response window of the International Development Association (IDA), the Bank’s fund for the poorest.
Gupta provided insights into the crisis in Yemen, detailing a bleak situation fraught with conflict, famine, and cholera. With over 167,000 refugees fleeing into neighboring countries, the crisis is now spilling over across borders. Gupta articulated that the majority of World Bank funds for Yemen have gone to health programs and emergency cash-transfers directly linked to famine response.
During the moderated conversation, Lemmon asked the speakers if the post-WWII international architecture is designed to handle the diversity of crises that the world currently faces. Guarnieri maintained that the system is not fit-for-purpose when it comes to mobilizing humanitarian resources, often as the result of siloed humanitarian and development aid channels. Lemmon followed up by inquiring as to how more response-flexibility can be achieved. Murthi responded that the new design of IDA, provides more flexibility to address the silo issue through special funding windows that increase focus on fragile states and refugees, and engagement of the private sector.
Lemmon also inquired as to the role of the private sector to drive opportunity in such fragile contexts. Murthi responded that the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank, is working to bring the private sector in, but establishing a local private sector is very difficult in conflict-affected states since markets prefer stability. Gupta added that the local private sector is in fact present in Yemen, and the World Bank is working to support it by employing local institutions to deliver urban services such as vaccinations, health clinics, and water projects.
An audience member asked the World Bank representatives to what extent other market-based financial instruments, such as bonds for purpose, can be used to address the famine. Murthi explained that under IDA18, poor countries with sound macroeconomic frameworks have access to the World Bank’s Catastrophe Bonds, which enables the immediate release of resources. Often, conflict-affected states – such as Nigeria and South Sudan – do not meet this requirement, but all IDA projects do have an emergency-release component which can disperse funds quickly in the event of crisis. Lemmon summed up by highlighting increased collaboration among organizations along the humanitarian-development continuum, the role of the private sector and technology, and the limits and challenges of the international architecture in delivering aid to fragile countries.