A pinch in Australia delivers a punch to hunger

Australians are feeling the pinch. The war in Ukraine has sent economic shockwaves through the global economy. Petrol. Housing. Groceries. There’s barely a good or service spared from inflation.

But what if that pinch was a gut punch?

That’s the reality for 50 million people worldwide on the brink of famine, including Afghanistan, my country of birth.

The number of people feeling the body blow of acute hunger has tripled from 135 million to 345 million since 2019. Every night 811 million people go to bed hungry. Heartbreakingly, eight million children under five around the world could die from starvation.

The sheer numbers of this story are impossible to comprehend. To understand the true horror you have to zoom right into the human level.

Consider, for example, the experience of my family in Afghanistan.

Taliban rule threatens lives daily. And recently we discovered the body of one of our extended family members who was abducted not long after the Taliban took over, confirming our worst fears.  Death and violence is only one of a multitude of ways to die in Afghanistan. My family, facing grave danger, knew that remaining meant they’d be at risk in several ways including not being able to access or afford basic necessities. The irony is that you could face death via Taliban rule or via starvation – the odds are stacked against you.

My family were forced to flee to another country where things are slightly better. But not everyone can escape the rising tide of hunger.

As one of the world’s wealthiest nations, Australia can definitely do more to help people meet their most fundamental human requirement: to eat.

That’s why I’ve joined Help Fight Famine, an alliance campaign of Australia’s leading humanitarian organisations, to ask Treasurer Jim Chalmers to invest $150 million in a global hunger package to urgently save lives.

We need this emergency package from the Australian government in the October federal budget.

I know the government is doing its best to tighten the nation’s belt right now.

But we should recognise this is not the same old global hunger story. And it’s not a sum plucked out of the air.

Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe, supplying the world with sunflower, oil, barley, maize and fertilisers.

Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan are dependent on Ukraine and Russia for 40 to 90 per cent of wheat supplies, a staple in those countries.

The recent deal between Ukraine and Russia to allow grain to be exported is mired in the fragility of war. I hope it is the “beacon of hope” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres flagged. But just 24 hours after the agreement was signed, Russian rockets rained on the port of Odessa, damaging grain storage facilities. The deep uncertainty surrounding exports mean the urgent need for humanitarian aid is as vital as ever.

Australia knows all too well the devastating impact climate change can have on agriculture. The lingering effects of shocking floods continue to send prices for fruit and vegetables sky high. Before that natural disaster, drought scorched paddocks and ruined harvests across vast swathes of the country.

In the Horn of Africa, farmers are staring down the barrel of a historic fifth failed rainy season.

Somalia’s 2011 food crisis in which 260,000 people died came after two failed rainy seasons – at the time considered to be the worst drought in 60 years.

Food prices are higher now. Covid doubled the number of people living with life-threatening hunger. The war in Ukraine continues to rage.

About seven million people in Somalia alone are set to face acute food insecurity between June and September. One person is likely dying of hunger every 48 seconds in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Around 63 per cent of South Sudan’s entire population will struggle to survive this year’s lean season. Among all these confronting statistics, it’s easy to lose sight of a simple truth: we are talking about individual people. Children, mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers and sons. So many precious lives on the brink. Some of whom include people I know through my extended family. These are not just numbers.

This funding will save lives through practical action delivered by leading aid organisations with the capacity for rapid delivery.

For example, Plan International is delivering emergency food packages and school meals that are preventing thousands of children from facing the life-long consequences of severe malnutrition. By supporting NGOs and local organisations who work hand-in-hand with local communities, we can ensure this urgent funding gets to the people who need it most.

Last year’s evacuations, despite its shortcomings, showed the special bond between Australia and Afghanistan. Now in the face of another disaster it’s time to act.

The Albanese government has signalled a more humanitarian approach to global crises. This is its first major test. Australia is a generous nation. We have rightly spent $385 million on military assistance for Ukraine. Less than half of that will save lives from an awful humanitarian catastrophe. It’s our duty as a good global citizen to defend millions from the hunger gut punch. A relative pinch in the federal budget can go a long way in helping fight famine.

16/08/22 The Daily Telegraph