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The UN World Food Program wins the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize

Millions are going hungry. The Nobel committee wanted to highlight that and the global body’s years-long work.

A worker stands on a vehicle carrying food and medical supplies provided by the World Food Program on June 23, 2019, in Sana’a, Yemen.
Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to the UN World Food Program (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization focused on providing sustenance to the hungry, for feeding the most vulnerable in times of conflict, and as nations — including the United States — mostly look after themselves.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which decides who or what deserves the honor every year, said the global body proved instrumental in combating starvation and poverty last year amid challenging circumstances.

“In 2019, the WFP provided assistance to close to 100 million people in 88 countries who are victims of acute food insecurity and hunger,” the committee’s announcement said, as “135 million people suffered from acute hunger, the highest number in many years. Most of the increase was caused by war and armed conflict.”

Fighting around the world — in places like Yemen, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo — accounts for roughly 60 percent of the world’s food insecurity, according to a 2018 United Nations report. During wars, millions flee their homes, supply chains break down, and adversaries target markets and crops.

Hunger, then, is a weapon of war, and since its founding in 1961 the WFP “has made a strong contribution towards mobilising UN Member States to combat” its use, the committee said.

In May 2018, the WFP encouraged the UN Security Council to, for the first time ever, pass a resolution condemning the purposeful and illegal starvation of civilians during conflict. David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, said at the time the measure was a “huge step forward toward breaking the cycle of conflict and hunger that stands in the way of prosperity and peace for hundreds of millions of people.”

It’s hard enough to address those issues as bombs drop and guns fire. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, such relief efforts are even more challenging, even with the WFP’s 17,000 staff and more than 20 ships, 92 planes, and 5,600 trucks at its disposal.

That’s concerning, as about 9 million people die of hunger every year, more than from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

Shining a light on the scourge of starvation as wars, a global health crisis, and climate change curb access to food, then, was the committee’s motivation behind this year’s award. It’s estimated that about 265 million more people will go hungry than if the WFP had greater resources.

It’s for those and other reasons that humanitarian aid workers like Shantamay Chatterjee of CARE in India applauded the Nobel committee’s decision. “This is a recognition of the need for robust development agencies to resolve critical gaps when addressing nutrition access, affordability, and availability in low-income countries,” he told me.

The award is kind of a critique of Trump

One person who may not be happy with the Nobel committee’s pick is President Donald Trump.

After receiving two nominations from right-leaning politicians in Scandinavia for brokering peace deals in the Middle East and the Balkans, he made his desire to win the Peace Prize clear. However, experts say the accord between Serbia and Kosovo didn’t actually do anything, and the “Abraham Accords” signed by Israel with the UAE and Bahrain normalized and formalized ties that already existed.

Plus, there’s just a logistical challenge: The nomination deadline for this year’s award was February 1, many months before any of those deals were realized.

But the Nobel committee made clear Trump was never — and may never be — likely to win as the “America First” foreign policy he promotes is anathema to its worldview.

“Multilateral cooperation is absolutely necessary to combat global challenges,” committee chair Berit Reiss-Andersen said on Friday in Oslo, Norway. “Multilateralism seems to have a lack of respect these days, and the Nobel Committee definitely wants to emphasize this aspect.”

Trump is one of the main culprits of this trend.

Among other things, he continues to advocate for cuts to America’s UN contributions. That’s a problem, as Washington, DC, provides the WFP and other UN agencies with more money than any other world capital. When the US stopped funding the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in 2018, for example, the administration put around 140,000 people at risk of not receiving food aid.

It doesn’t help that the US continues to assist the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen — which has resulted in hunger and illness for millions of Yemenis — because Trump vetoed a bipartisan congressional resolution last year calling for America’s extrication from the conflict.

Trump also relishes telling the UN at its annual gathering that every country should focus on their own challenges, not global problems. It’s a go-it-yourself attitude that has led to less multilateral cooperation during his four years in power, not more.

Those just aren’t the actions of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.