We can’t stop the war in Ukraine but we can prevent it causing world hunger
So here we are. The pound has slumped and Britain has the lowest growth and highest inflation in the G7. Manufacturing output has stalled and the financial markets are advising that sterling should be treated as an “emerging market” currency. The prime minister has broken the law and the government will reportedly soon publish a bill that could break international law in our name. You can only imagine the enormous respect and influence that Boris Johnson will carry into the room when G7 leaders meet in Germany. If they don’t burst out laughing at the sight of our threadbare prime minister it will only be because of decent diplomatic manners.
Yet, we’re not starving. And I mean literally starving. We’re struggling, or eating badly, but we’re not dying from hunger because there isn’t a single grain of wheat to put into a child’s distended, empty stomach. We haven’t got it easy by any means, and perhaps we can be forgiven for being so absorbed by our own cost of living crisis, which is only just beginning to bite. But when our economy rebounds, which it will undoubtedly eventually do, the poorest of our world will already be dead.
I think at this stage we all more or less know why. Vladimir Putin’s filthy, sad war has left one of the world’s great breadbaskets incapable of either harvesting its crops or shipping them. Between them, Ukraine and Russia produce 40% of the wheat consumed in Africa, and 25% of the global supply, but exports have stalled. Millions of tonnes are trapped at blockaded ports, or are unable to be transported through war-ravaged zones or be harvested in the first place, as farmers defend their country and their fields are bombed and burned.
Already vulnerable countries, still recovering from the pandemic, are being thrown into further chaos. There are fears food prices could provoke riots and protests in the Middle East. Should this happen, many fear these already struggling countries could descend into chronic instability. All of which would have disastrous knock-on effects for the UK and Europe. Then, once again, our television screens will be filled with awful scenes of the most destitute people of Africa and Asia desperately hoping for help – calls that, in a typical act of casually careless cruelty, will likely go unanswered as Johnson’s government cut help to the poorest of our world by 39% last year.
Perhaps we don’t have a broad enough bandwidth to cope with more than one awfulness at a time. The mind can really only encompass so much horror. Compassion has a limit. But here’s the thing: we can’t stop this war but we really could feed the world. The World Food Programme calculates it would cost $22.2bn. That’s a lot, but then again Elon Musk has just bid $44bn for Twitter. A thing on your phone. A messaging system. In a world economy of trillions, the funds necessary are truly “nothing money”.
Britain alone doesn’t have it. But collectively we certainly do, despite the developed world currently being in no mood to find a single extra dollar for anything but its own immediate domestic concerns.
But I don’t buy that. When Ukraine turned to us for help, we responded. The US just last month passed a bill allowing $40bn to be sent in aid to the beleaguered Ukrainians. This is quite right. But if we can instantaneously find that sort of cash to push back against a thug such as Putin, why couldn’t the G7 – seven of our top economies – and others collectively find some billions for Putin’s other victims, the poorest people of our world? For, make no mistake, Putin is using this food as a weapon, against millions of other utterly innocent families, many of whom won’t even have heard of him or Ukraine. He truly is a loathsome creep.
But what if the UK were to take a lead to get everyone to put their hands in their pockets, and direct their political muscle to get the trucks and ships moving again? Why shouldn’t Britain push for a guaranteed safe passage of grain to the hungry of our world, or better yet, halt the fighting, guard the grain and maybe begin tentative peace talks. We can all agree (except Putin, I suppose) that no child in any part of the world should die because of a war that has nothing to do with them.
Why not do this? Make food, not war. We’ve done it before. When he was prime minister, Tony Blair got his G7 colleagues to agree to billions more than the $22.2bn needed to fix global hunger. Why can’t Johnson do the same? When polled, over half of UK citizens still support helping the poorest of our world. Maybe because of Britain’s huge leading role on these issues in all previous governments, there’s a slim chance that we may reestablish some shred of credibility on this if nothing else. With luck, this time Johnson may truly represent us.
I worked with every prime minister from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron to help achieve that genuinely noble, moving history. There is just about enough of Johnson’s time left for him to join that pantheon of predecessors who decided Britain’s politics needed to represent its people’s inclination of compassion to others, and enshrine it in law and deed. Now is his opportunity.
Pray God he doesn’t fail us and the world’s hungry children in this, as he has in almost every other aspect of his premiership, personally, professionally and politically.
Bob Geldof is chairman of the Band Aid Trust and a supporter of the Hungry for Action campaign.