"Because of so many wars, climate change, the widespread use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and a global health pandemic that makes all of that exponentially worse—270 million people are marching toward starvation."
Those were the words uttered by the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) executive director David Beasley on Thursday as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the international aid organization, which was chosen in October to win the esteemed award that the diplomat said cannot erase the shameful persistence of hunger.
"The Nobel Peace Prize is more than a thank you," Beasley said during his speech. "It is a call to action."
In an interview conducted ahead of his acceptance speech, Beasley told TIME that next year "is looking catastrophic... The hardest work is yet to come for the WFP because the needs of 2021 are going to be so critical that failure to address those needs will result in war, famine, and mass migration."
"Because of so many wars, climate change, the widespread use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and a global health pandemic that makes all of that exponentially worse —270 million people are marching toward starvation."— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) December 10, 2020
- 2020 Peace Laureate World Food Programme. pic.twitter.com/vHGR5Kd6bH
"I feel pride today, but also a sense of shame I cannot seem to shake," wrote Beasley in a Thursday op-ed published by The Guardian. "There is failure in this victory. We are having our media moment while hunger still rages."
According to Beasley, "We are losing the battle against hunger as never before. And we are losing it most in Yemen."
I know that just as WFP receives this coveted award, in a nameless village in Yemen, a skeletal child will be hovering close to death, hooked to a feeding tube.
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I have met these frail Yemeni children, most often in hot and dusty clinics filled with flies. The mothers usually give up on shooing the flies away and sit quietly by their sides. When you enter the room they pray you are the western miracle that has come to save their child. You know you're not and you could not be more uncomfortable.
On occasion, a child will grab your hand or finger. You really want that to happen, but you hate it at the same time because you fear the feeding tube may not do its job. It gets hard to control your feelings, but you simply cannot let the child's mother see tears in your eyes.
The WFP, Beasley said, reflects both the best and the worst in humanity. "It exists because many of us care and it exists because many of us do not."
"Last year hunger and malnutrition claimed twice as many children's lives as Covid-19 has claimed worldwide so far—more than three million."
—David Beasley, WFP
"Last week WFP and its partners UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization issued yet another appeal for Yemen as the crisis intensifies again," he said, but "in the midst of the horror of the Covid pandemic, it is a struggle to get any notice."
Beasley added that "we cannot let hunger simply fade into the background in the age of Covid-19." While acknowledging that "times are tougher now than at any point in most of our lifetimes," he pointed out that "last year hunger and malnutrition claimed twice as many children's lives as Covid-19 has claimed worldwide so far—more than three million."
The WFP leader is convinced that "if we are determined, we can succeed" in ameliorating the suffering of starving Yeminis and millions of others around the world.
Beasley assessed the deteriorating conditions in Yemen, which he characterized as a "country in chaos." As the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed assault on the impoverished nation continues, food prices are spiking alongside a collapsing domestic currency—a situation the WFP chief described as "a huge blow in a country that imports 80% of its food."
"Millions are food insecure and famine-like conditions have begun to appear," Beasley wrote. "What is happening in Yemen now is a shame."
"We all share that shame, and we need to end it together," he said.