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The global COVID-19 pandemic has seen a mass mobilisation and response rate across the world, yet the ‘hunger pandemic’ in East Africa has long been overlooked.

Areas including South Sudan, Somalia and other’s topping the UN’s list of concerns of a potential hunger pandemic have in the last year seen a deterioration of food security and malnutrition unlike anywhere else currently in the world. Thanks to efforts by humanitarian responses in South Sudan, famine has eased. However, the situation remains unstable and almost seven million people are struggling to meet their daily food requirements.

To make matters worse, many NGOs and humanitarian organisations have withdrawn their staff from the region due to travel restrictions and lockdown concerns following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conflict and violence

South Sudan is facing the worst hunger crisis since its formation 10 years ago. The ongoing conflict in South Sudan has severely affected the local economy with food and living prices skyrocketing. Shortages of food due to flooding and farmers' inability to access their land has only exacerbated the situation. Though the floodings and other shocks contributed to the food shortage and widespread famine, the conflict has been identified as the main causing factor of the food insecurity in the region.

Somalia is another country that has been severely affected by the ongoing civil war that has been going on since the early 1990s which has left millions of people more vulnerable to food security.

COVID 19

It therefore comes as no surprise that these regions are being hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, world food prices stood at their highest level in seven years in early 2021.

Urban populations have been severely affected by the global pandemic, and millions have lost their livelihood and income whilst closure of schools has affected school feeding programmes in many countries. Global lockdowns and restrictions have contributed to regional supply and demand shocks of food. This in combination with the high food prices and ongoing conflicts has escalated the hunger insecurity, particularly in East Africa.

Why have NGO staff been removed from the region?

A further devastating consequence of COVID-19 has been the withdrawal of NGO staff from the region due to national lockdown restrictions. An East African coalition of humanitarian NGOs surveyed its member organisations and found that 66.7% have withdrawn staff from countries including South Sudan and Somalia following the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

The vulnerability of displaced populations in the region has further increased during the pandemic due to the withdrawal of staff, but also as a result of reduced funding for humanitarian operations. This in turn has led to food ration cuts for many refugee populations in East Africa including Ethiopia and South Sudan.

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So what can be done to put an end to the hunger pandemic in East Africa?

To put an end to the hunger pandemic in East Africa, the international community must act now to address the root causes of the hunger pandemic and food insecurity. Firstly, and most importantly, a sustainable solution to the conflict must be prioritised. Secondly, efforts to strengthen the institutional capacity of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security in South Sudan and Somalia are needed.

One example of an organisation working on such an initiative is the World Food Programme (WFP) together with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, and the Agricultural Bank of South Sudan. They are working to support smallholder farmers with agricultural inputs to improve production and productivity in the region.

Conclusion:

Despite efforts to address food security in the region, it remains an ever complex situation due to the ongoing health pandemic and we are yet to see a unified international response to the hunger pandemic in East Africa.

But with lockdown and travel restrictions now starting to ease, the international humanitarian response will hopefully soon see an uptake, and more attention will be directed towards addressing the root causes of the hunger pandemic.

This topic will be discussed in more details in our East Africa Webinar Series taking place on 15-16 September 2021. Click here for more information.

Article written by Josefin Nordahl, AidEx Contributor