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Food insecure Asians doubled to 265m in 2020: UN report

World Food Program faces budget pinch as governments face 'harsh reality'

A boy carries a bag of onions at a food distribution center at a Rohingya refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh: The WFP's efforts have been hit by COVID-19. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

TOKYO -- The COVID-19 pandemic may erase many of the gains made in food security and nutrition in the Asia-Pacific region, as stretched government budgets exacerbate chronic underinvestment in social protection, warns a group of U.N. bodies.

The pandemic has pushed an estimated 140 million people in the Asia-Pacific region into extreme poverty and doubled the number facing acute food insecurity to 265 million, according to a report released on Wednesday by the World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

Even before last year's backsliding, the region was falling behind it its drive to reach the U.N. sustainable development goals, specifically, ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

"We have a big task ahead of us and very little time to complete it," said Jong-Jin Kim, the FAO's regional director. Kim called the rate of stunting and wasting, in which children's height and weight lag behind the average for their age group, "unacceptably high" in the region.

While the pandemic's immediate impact on food security and nutrition remains unclear, the report says mothers and children, already the most susceptible to malnutrition, are likely to suffer long-term effects. Malnutrition at key stages of development is known to affect children well into adulthood, a potential blow to Asia's human capital. The report estimates 74.5 million children under age 5 are stunted in the region, with a majority found in South Asia.

The report comes despite a recovery of Asian economies, with governments and headlines heralding economic improvement as jobs numbers inch upward, buoyed by record-high stimulus spending. Growth in Asia's developing economies is expected to rebound to 6.8% in 2021, according to the Asian Development Bank.

But traditional measures of economic well-being miss what aid workers are seeing on the ground: households having fewer meals and eating less. Asia, the center of global economic growth, is also home to about 51% of the world's 687.8 million malnourished people.

"The COVID-19 pandemic showed where the Asia-Pacific region left itself exposed," John Aylieff, regional director for the World Food Program, told Nikkei Asia. "Hunger doesn't get solved entirely by economic development."

If the International Labor Organization's forecast of nearly 200 million jobs wiped out by the pandemic is correct, Asia will see a slowdown in the growth of the middle class and overall development that underpin food security and nutrition.

"The cumulative economic slowdown is playing out more slowly," Aylieff added. "2021 will be a much more harsh reality."

Nowhere is the reversal more visible than in Bangladesh. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, it was on track to become an upper middle income country this year, freeing up the WFP's Bangladesh food aid program to focus on camps hosting Rohingya refugees from Myanmar's western state of Rakhine.

A woman waits at a food distribution center run by the World Food Program in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma) 

"There was a lot of excitement. They were moving away from the traditional narrative of big World Bank loans and poverty reduction to actually driving the economy," said Richard Ragan, Bangladesh country director for the WFP. "Now that's been pushed backward a little bit."

For the first time, the WFP's food assistance program had to cover urban households missed by government stimulus payments, as well as the community hosting the Rohingya refugee camps. Dhaka provided up to $200 million a month in free or subsidized food aid as part of its COVID package.

"We knew that there were really poor populations being overlooked who weren't able to avail themselves of government programs or weren't registered," said Ragan.

"There's a stereotype of poor people being overwhelmingly rural. The reality is a lot of the need is in densely populated urban areas," said Caitlin Welsh, director of the global food security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "That's an untold story, a real blind spot for the food aid community."

As migrant workers remain at home and Bangladesh's textile industry contends with billions of dollars in canceled orders, the WFP expects the number of Bangladeshis living below the poverty line to rise by at least 20 million, from 40 million before the pandemic hit. "In a country of 170 million, you're already pushing 40% of the population under the poverty line," Ragan said. "That's a big deal for economic aspirations."

The gaps in the social safety net are particularly glaring in Asia, where seven out of 10 people work in the informal sector and are untouched by government welfare programs. Governments in Myanmar and the Philippines relied on databases created by the WFP to identify unregistered households.

Often, lockdown measures have aggravated job losses and food scarcity.

The unemployment rate in the Philippines, which had the world's longest-running lockdown, climbed as high as 17.6% in April before falling to 8.7% in October, still significantly higher than the 5.3% pre-pandemic rate in January last year.

Just two weeks into Manila's quarantine, residents of Sitio San Roque -- one of the country's largest informal settlements -- unable to earn daily wages and buy necessities took to the streets in April last year. Soldiers broke up the protest, and 21 people were arrested for defying quarantine orders and a ban on large gatherings.

"We have run out of rice to eat, as well as money," the community's leader told reporters at the time. "Our electric and water bills are due, but who will pay when we don't have jobs?"

The WFP, known as the food logistics specialists within the U.N. system, won the Nobel Peace Prize last October. The Nobel Committee recognized the group's nimble and far-reaching work. WFP's teams across 14 countries in Asia have spent the past year adjusting food assistance programs for 10 million people, implementing school meal programs for 1 million children and ensuring social distancing at distribution sites.

"The last thing you want is your food distribution to be a way that COVID is spread," the WFP's Aylieff said.

In remote areas, such as Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, Rakhine in Myanmar and Afghanistan, the WFP's logistics expertise will almost certainly be tapped to help deliver coronavirus vaccines. That effort will require massive fundraising, on top of the group's regular financing needs.

"I still need for this region, in the next six months, $300 million," Aylieff told Nikkei shortly after the WFP won the Nobel Prize. That is roughly to its yearly aid budget for Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar.

But as government budgets are squeezed by efforts to fight the coronavirus, the WFP may see its own funding run short. The nightmare scenario is that money becomes so tight that aid workers have to pick and choose between needy families in communities.

"It's emotionally grueling for WFP to go into a community and say, 'You're getting food, you're not getting food.' The gap between those who get food and those who don't is not very big," said Aylieff. "We're going to have to sharpen that and make harder choices."

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