Soon after being chosen as secretary-general of the United Nations last year, António Guterres vowed to serve “the most vulnerable” in the world. Not long afterward, Nikki Haley, who is President Trump’s ambassador to the UN, said she hopes the world body would act on behalf of the displaced and hungry, or “the people whose voices often go unheard.”
Little did either one know that their sentiment, which comes out of a compassion for the weakest in society, would be very much needed in 2017. Last week, the UN said the world is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945.
The lives of more than 20 million people – nearly equivalent to the population of Australia – are at risk of famine in four countries, the UN estimates. Of the four, South Sudan in northeast Africa has already been formally declared as a famine zone. Overall, more than 40 percent of its population is in need of food. If the UN declares an official famine in the three other countries, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen, the totality of these crises would be unprecedented.
The cause for the food shortages in each country is a combination of war, drought, and weak governance. In addition, aid workers are hindered by lack of access to conflict areas. Money is certainly needed. The UN is asking donors for $4.4 billion by July to deliver food and other aid. But just as urgent are peace efforts to end the fighting in each country.
While the need is most acute in South Sudan, the UN says Yemen as a whole is the largest humanitarian disaster. More than two thirds of the population, or about 18 million people, need assistance in the midst of a proxy war between forces backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Somalia, more than half of the population is vulnerable because of drought in the Horn of Africa and the instability caused by a war against Al Shabab militants. In Nigeria, the crisis comes out of continuing threats posed by Islamist Boko Haram fighters and by military restrictions on travel.
Since the Ethiopian famine in 1984-85, the world has learned much about how to respond to such crises or prevent them. In fact, despite a current drought, Ethiopia is applying many lessons from its earlier crisis to reach the hungry. Kenya, too, is doing much to ward off the effects of a drought.
If it acts as one, the global community can help these millions of people. The UN chose a leader in Mr. Guterres whose heart is with the most vulnerable. That compassion defines him. At this moment, it can also define humanity.