Ukraine, food crisis, humanitarian aid. Where are we heading ?

A woman (3rd R), evacuating with belongings, protects her ears after an explosion on a bridge over the Oskil River as black smoke rises in the frontline city of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, on September 24, 2022 (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Where is the war in Ukraine going? This editorial seeks to analyse the breakdown in the situation since Vladimir Putin’s declaration on 21 September, with its consequences. It seeks to anticipate what might happen in order to plan the appropriate humanitarian aid.

Défis Humanitaire is an independent website which publishes articles under the responsibility of their author in order to provide information, analysis and recommendations useful for humanitarian action.

The Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region and the recapture of many towns has given Vladimir Putin a shock and he has ordered the mobilisation of 300,000 men and the annexation of the Oblasts (regions) of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporidjia, celebrated on 30 September in Red Square in Moscow. Once again, the Russian president threatened to use all means at his disposal, warning “This is not a bluff”.

The response was immediate on the Ukrainian side, with President Zelinsky signing a document calling for rapid integration into NATO, while declaring that the goal was the recapture of all occupied Ukrainian territories, including Crimea.

Ukrainian soldiers ride on an armored vehicle outside Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022.  (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda) (CC BY 2.0)

In the West, the condemnation of the annexation is unanimous, people start dreaming of a Ukrainian victory and do not seem to believe in the threat of using weapons of mass destruction. The American president, Joe Biden, declares “don’t do it”, announces the sending of new weapons in numbers, reaffirms unconditional support while remaining circumspect about the American response. The French and German presidents are working together to form a common front in a European Union that is both united and divided on the final objective, between a total war and the containment of a weakened Russia with a political solution.

Russia vetoed on Friday 30 September a UN Security Council resolution condemning the annexation of Ukrainian territory. The draft was approved by 10 of the 15 members of the Council, with Russia voting against. Four members abstained, Brazil, China, India and Gabon.

The evidence is that we have taken a major step in military escalation without knowing how far it can take us. The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea is a foretaste of what may come next. But more serious is the real risk of using tactical nuclear weapons in accordance with Russian military doctrine.

“It’s not a bluff”.

If the Ukrainian army pursues the reconquest of separatist territories now considered Russian by the authorities in Moscow, can we be sure that Vladimir Putin will never use such weapons, knowing that his fate is intimately linked to that of this war? And if these weapons are used in Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO, how will the West respond? It seems to me that we should take this hypothesis more seriously in case Russia backs down on the battlefield, risking a change of power in Moscow for its president. We should take this hypothesis seriously for the Ukrainian people themselves, especially as we know that the nuclear “alert posture” of the countries holding these weapons is already activated, in France as elsewhere.

Le nuage atomique à Nagasaki en 1945 (CC BY 2.0)

In any case, as far as they are concerned, humanitarians must also raise their alert posture and prepare for a war that will not only last but also intensify. The number of victims and destruction can unfortunately only increase and we must prepare for the worst, to be ready, as much as possible, to help the victims. Let us remember the means used in Syria.

From now on, everything is possible and the head of the Kremlin is calling for a war against the West, which will probably not be without consequences even outside Ukraine, as we are seeing these days in Burkina Faso after Mali.

Many questions arise. Can the Ukrainian army militarily regain control of all its territory? Will Russia use weapons of mass destruction that would give it an advantage? How will the West react in this case? What impact will winter have on the course of the war? How will European public opinion cope with energy restrictions and price increases? Will the Russians carry out destabilising actions elsewhere than in Ukraine? Is Putin seriously ill and could the Russian army collapse?

How far will the global food crisis go?

Among the consequences of this war, there is for many countries and their population, the question of the supply of wheat, cereals, fertilizers coming from Ukraine or Russia (A global run for life ; Avoiding a “hurricane of famine”). Where are we with the agreement that Ukraine and Russia ratified on 22 July in Istanbul under the aegis of Turkey and the United Nations?

The BC Vanessa, a WFP chartered vessel carrying Ukrainian grain to Afghanistan as part of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. UN Photos / Levent Kulu (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Before the war, Ukraine was exporting around 6 million tonnes of cereals per month according to Agritel, a reference consultancy firm on agricultural sectors. Thanks to the Black Sea corridor, since August, more than 5 million tonnes had been exported by 27 September. Agritel estimates that Ukraine could export 12 million tons by the end of the year, against 18 million tons previously, while specifying that this remains “fragile, tense and volatile”. According to Gautier Le Molgat of Agritel on RFI, the food crisis is far from over, especially since this war has amplified the food tension caused by climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and conflicts.

At a press conference in New York on 13 September, Amir Abdulla (UN Black Sea Coordinator) and Rebeca Grynspan (Director General of UNCTAD) said that they wanted to increase the number of ships in the Black Sea, that the destinations of these ships were similar to those before the war, and that while there had been a drop in international grain prices, this trend was not always reflected at the national level. They also noted that Russian fertiliser exports remained at a low level. It should be noted that four humanitarian ships were chartered by the WFP for 120,000 tonnes of wheat for the Horn of Africa, Yemen and Afghanistan.

For its part, the European Commission announced on 5 September that Ukraine would accede to a Convention on transit and simplification, allowing for easier movement of goods, and the elimination of customs duties and VAT on the import of vital goods for Ukrainians. This exemption would also apply to charitable or philanthropic organisations approved by the competent authorities in the Member States.

In a well-documented note “Analysis of the global food crisis and its links with the war in Ukraine”, the humanitarian NGO “Solidarités international” conducted a survey in the countries where it is active. In the Central African Republic (CAR), it found a 28.6 to 33% increase in prices depending on the type of flour. In Sudan, food prices have almost tripled. In West Africa, there is an estimated shortfall of 1.2 to 1.5 million tonnes of fertiliser from Russia and Ukraine, equivalent to 10 to 20 million tonnes of grain. The association makes the following observation: “On the one hand, the number of people in need of assistance is increasing and on the other, food aid is increasingly expensive to implement (cost of food and oil for transporting food).

Distribution of food supplies in Mozambique @Solidarités International

Finally, the Russian president criticised the Black Sea export mechanism, saying that his own food and fertiliser exports would continue to suffer from sanctions. Whether this is true or not, the Black Sea initiative is fragile.

Helping humanitarian aid.

In Ukraine, the UN’s (OCHA) humanitarian needs assessment rose from $1.1 billion at the beginning of March to $2.25 billion in April and $4.3 billion at the beginning of August. Winter and the need for heating could increase this amount of aid for 17 million Ukrainians, whose numbers are expected to rise as the fighting continues.

For the record, Ukraine already has 7.5 million refugees, 7 million displaced people in the country. According to the UN, 580 humanitarian partners are helping 13.4 million people throughout the country. This is an opportunity to recall a request made by humanitarian organisations during a recent meeting in Paris at the Crisis and Support Centre of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, to ask the Ukrainian and Russian authorities to respect the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and to facilitate the action of humanitarians, not to hinder it.

Two recent reports on humanitarian action (GHAR and ANALP) highlight the growing gap between humanitarian needs and the means available to meet them. In our previous editorial we already reported that the UN humanitarian appeal this year amounted to $46.3 billion and that only $15 billion had been raised by the end of the first half of the year. According to these reports, half of the UN’s appeals for people in crisis countries receive less than 50% of the resources needed and about a quarter of them receive 75% of the bare necessities to survive, while the number of people at risk is now 306 million worldwide, 90.4 million more than before the COVID-19 pandemic!

Our observation is that humanitarian needs are seriously underfunded and that international aid is in danger of running out! Will we soon have to launch an emergency appeal for international humanitarian aid? Among the ways to respond to this funding crisis, these reports suggest broadening the donor base and better targeting funding to countries in crisis. More concretely, we can envisage an increase in the percentage of GNI (Gross National Income) dedicated to humanitarian aid. In France, for example, although considerable progress has been made by the Crisis and Support Centre of the Quai d’Orsay, humanitarian aid still only represents 1% of France’s Official Development Assistance compared to an average of 10% for OECD countries! What is the problem?

Mali, 2021 @Solidarités International

Humanitarian aid is in danger of being cut off. In Somalia, where some 213,000 people are in “imminent danger of death” according to the UN, due to famine and drought, only 70% of vital needs are covered. In Afghanistan, where 23 million people are facing hunger, only 42% of the $4.4 billion needed by the UN and its partners has been funded. Should half the population be left to starve?

Crucial questions and essential lessons.

These are crucial issues which are both specific and interdependent and which interact with each other. One of the characteristics of Humanitarian Challenges is to highlight these links and to establish the relationship between geopolitics and humanitarianism in the face of major challenges in order to be more effective in helping populations at risk.

Will Russian aggression be contained without resorting to the use of weapons of mass destruction for the populations in Ukraine and the risk of collateral effects?

Shouldn’t the export of wheat, cereals and fertilisers from Ukraine and Russia meet the needs of the countries most threatened by the spectre of hunger? We must also learn the lessons of this situation now by changing food and agricultural practices towards greater self-sufficiency for the poorest and most dependent countries.

Will the international humanitarian eco-system succeed in meeting the challenges it faces?

I sincerely hope that this article will be useful to you and that you will be able to share it with your colleagues and friends to whom it could also be useful. I also thank you for the support of your donation, however small (HelloAsso), which should enable us to publish future editions in the service of the humanitarian cause. In advance, a big THANK YOU.

Alain Boinet.

Président de Défis Humanitaires.

A global run for life!

Refugees from DRC waiting in line at the Nyakabande Transit Center in Kisoro, Uganda. BADRU KATUMBA / AFP (7 June 2022)

Refugees, conflicts, DRC, Ukraine, NATO, wheat, BRICS, humanitarian action!

130 days of war in Ukraine has already resulted in 5.5 million refugees and 6.28 million internally displaced people (IDP) out of a total population of 44 million. And the fighting is raging in the Donbass, driving people out of the frontline areas.

On June 20th , for the “World Refugee Day”, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) announced that there were 89.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world at the end of 2021, but this number had risen to 100 million by May 2022. At the same time, in a positive development, 5.7 million displaced people returned to their country of origin in 2021.

Note that more than two-thirds of all refugees, not counting IDPs, come from just five countries: Syria (6.8 million), Venezuela (4.6 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.4 million) and Myanmar (1.2 million). All five countries are experiencing civil wars or serious unrest.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, more than 700,000 people have had to flee their homes since the beginning of the year, and there are 5.9 million internally displaced people in the country. But these raw figures need to be supplemented to better understand the human toll.

The United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in DRC, Philippe Lemarquis, denounces the 11 IDP sites attacked in Ituri by armed groups, in North and South Kivu, and the 15 health structures and schools targeted since the beginning of the year. In Ituri alone, 128 health structures have been put out of action. And what can be said about the 116 security incidents that have targeted humanitarians and their equipment!

In the DRC, as elsewhere, if we know that humanitarian work is never without risk, it is essential to constantly remind ourselves with strength and conviction that civilians must be protected and that humanitarians are not targets!

To put the figures into perspective, as Humanitarian Challenges suggests to its readers, in order to anticipate future crises and the humanitarian capacities needed to deal with them, let us stress that the number of refugees and displaced persons has more than doubled in ten years (2010-2020) and that conflicts and demography in Africa will further increase the number of people to be helped in the years to come if crisis prevention and political solutions are absent or ineffective!


Will we experience the “hurricane of famine” that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres fears?

Annia Ciezadio writes in The Washington Post (1) that 28% of the world’s wheat exports come from Ukraine and Russia, but that in total, exports only account for 30% of world production! Meanwhile, 22 million tonnes of grain are still blocked in Ukraine. And if Russian wheat is not subject to sanctions, these apply to the logistical and financial chains needed to sell and transport it.

When you consider that a third of the wheat imported by the Middle East and Africa comes from Russia and that half of the wheat of the WFP (World Food Programme of the United Nations) was coming from Ukraine and Russia in 2021, there is reason to be concerned. Since our last edition of Humanitarian Challenges, concerning the concept of “humanitarian corridors” or “wheat corridors”, nothing has really materialised yet in early July. While Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and Rebecca Grynspan, Secretary-General of UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), are preparing a comprehensive agreement including “safe export of Ukrainian grain by sea and access to Russian food and fertiliser on world markets, particularly for developing countries”, the countdown to hunger is already well underway in July.

The Covid-19 pandemic had already caused serious disruption to supply chains and an increase in prices. For the record, hunger threatened 811 million people in 2005, 607 million in 2014 and 811 million in 2020. How many will there be this year?

Already in Egypt, the world’s largest importer of cereals, which covers 80% of its needs, General Al-Sissi is calling for a national dialogue to anticipate the dangerous consequences of galloping inflation and bread shortages.

In Kenya, according to the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg, the price of a 2kg bag of wheat has increased by 25% and the price of cooking oil by 42% since April 2021.

Even more seriously, according to The Guardian, the global food system is in danger of collapse. A complex system 90% owned by four large global groups with a constant flow logic, the food system has developed along the lines of the banks that prevailed during the 2008 crisis and, as was the case then, “a disruption can topple the whole thing”.

While it is becoming urgent to diversify global production and to strengthen “the factors likely to prevent a systemic collapse”, it is also necessary, first of all, to supply wheat to the countries and populations that urgently need it today.

NATO Summit in Madrid during which Turkey signed an agreement with Sweden and Finland for them to join NATO. ©NATO (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Military escalation in Ukraine.

Since the end of June, it seems that we have entered a new phase of escalation of the war in Ukraine. The G7 meeting with its reinforced sanctions, the NATO summit with the membership applications of Finland and Sweden, the tensions around the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the delivery of long-range heavy artillery and, soon, of American medium- and long-range NASAMS surface-to-air missiles demonstrate this. This is undoubtedly a case of reinforced military support in the face of the Ukrainian army’s difficulties in the Donbass.

Russia’s response was not long in coming when Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that the war against Ukraine “could be over in a day, if Ukrainian forces lay down their arms and comply with Russia’s conditions”. Nothing less.

On the ground, the Russians have seized the city of Severodonesk and Lyssychansk. Already strikes are being carried out on the new targets in Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. The Ukrainians are increasing their firepower, notably with the help of French Caesar guns and American M771 howitzers and, soon, HIMARS rocket launchers with a range of 80 km.

French César canons delivered in Ukraine. June 2022

In other words, the priority on both sides is the war and it will last at least until the winter, which freezes the fighting and the positions. This represents more than a doubling of the war’s duration, from 4 to 9 months and, consequently, of the destruction of the population and the infrastructure. The Ukrainian army is in a difficult situation in the Donbass, but it can hope to wear down the Russian military machine as it is fighting at home and can mobilise large numbers of motivated soldiers. The next front line will be established during the summer in front of the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and we will experience new displacements of populations, injuries, deaths and demolished cities, not to mention war crimes. Therefore, humanitarians should increase their emergency and long-term relief efforts.

A changing world

The rupture now seems to have been made, and for a long time to come, between Russia and what can be described as the Western world, with Europe in the front line. Seen from Paris, Washington, Brussels or Berlin, we can think that Russia is isolated, with a few exceptions, and as the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, says, that it has committed a major strategic error that some would like to make it pay for at the highest price through defeat.

But seen from Beijing, Delhi, Pretoria or Dakar, it is quite different. As proof, at the same time as the G7 and NATO were meeting, the BRICS Group was meeting in Beijing. This group brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, representing 41% of the world’s population, 24% of GDP and 13% of international trade. Among the topics discussed was the reform of the multilateral system. Chinese President Xi Jimping denounced the “expansion of military alliances” on the podium and said that sanctions were a double-edged sword that would come back like a “boomerang”. This makes some commentators say that China has clearly chosen its side!

14thBRICS Summit in Pékin 24/06/2022. Jairus Mmutle/GCIS (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wong Yi, has also called on a number of countries to join the BRICS, particularly Indonesia, where the next G20 meeting will take place in November, which Vladimir Putin is expected to attend.

At the same time, China has increased its crude oil imports by 55% between May 2021 and May 2022. And India has multiplied its crude oil imports by 9, even though it is seeking to diversify its purchases of mainly Russian military equipment.

Russia is therefore less isolated, and other alliances are being forged that will shape international relations, if not crystallise them into competing alliances. We are witnessing a change in the world, with Ukraine as a trigger, or rather as an accelerator!

And humanitarian action in all this ?

The world is becoming antagonistic, more uncertain and conflictual. The rules that were once commonly accepted are being challenged. The period that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR, some thirty years ago, is turning the page and we are entering the unknown of new international power relations.

Are we not already in a world war for hydrocarbons and gas, for grain and fertiliser supplies and between opposing political models, a war of memories and ambitions?

Will the war in Ukraine last, escalate, spill over or will it lead to a negotiated solution? Is a new cold war beginning when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Labrov declares that a new iron curtain is coming down on Europe? In any case, Vladimir Putin will have succeeded in strengthening NATO and the European Union, in stimulating their spirit of defence.

It is in this context that a conference bringing together 40 countries and numerous international organisations mobilised to define the conditions for the reconstruction of Ukraine opened in Lugano, Switzerland, in early July. This may seem to come at a bad time, but reconstruction will be long and costly. So we might as well start preparing for it now.

In any case, humanitarian action will have a lot to do with a less globalised, less multilateralist world, with more sovereignty and a desire for independence and recognition. If humanitarian action is not to emerge exhausted from the great laundry of history at a time when the need for relief has never been so urgent, we will have to apply our principles without compromising on the substance, while adapting a great deal on the form, so as not to leave victims alone in the face of adversity and cruelty, to save lives, to rebuild and to promote a future of hope and the right of peoples to be free and to develop.

I hope this article will be useful to you, and I would like to thank you personally for the support you can give us (makeadonation) to enable the regular publication of Humanitarian Challenges.

Thank you and see you in early August for the next edition.

Alain Boinet.