Penned by Jeevan Joseph & Shelly Singh
World Food Programme (WFP)
Stories seldom begin without a proper introduction of the protagonists. The World Food Programme is an international humanitarian organisation that strives to eradicate world hunger through food assistance programmes for the poor and vulnerable. WFP also aims to improve the quality and nutrition content of the food consumed by the poorer sections of the global community. It is no secret that ensuring food security is a key pillar of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty. Thus, the WFP’s intervention is all the more important in areas suffering from internal strife and violence. In 2020, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its valiant efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war. With its vast logistical apparatus of 5000+ trucks and 100+ planes, the organisation has directly touched the lives of 115+ million individuals in 80+ countries. Elon Musk on the other hand, is the owner of a Twitter account that challenged the WFP’s capacity to end world hunger. He also happens to be the richest person on the planet. So how did these two seemingly unrelated characters, both with arguably great ethos in their respective fields, have a public ‘spat heard round the world’ ?
In a CNN interview, David Beasley, director of the WFP claimed that billionaires around the world needed to step up and share fractions of their wealth to end world hunger. He claimed that just around 2% of Elon Musk’s wealth could avert the deaths of 40 million people, who would otherwise have to bear the brunt of a global food crisis. Beasley’s analysis could possibly have hinged on the fact that the global elite have had their fortunes grow by trillions of dollars during the pandemic, while the poor are finding it all the more difficult to put food on the table. Flash floods and hurricanes attributable to climate change, Beasley claims, are making the WFP’s operations even more arduous. He finally called on the richest to donate, even on a one-time basis, to help the WFP in its efforts. Elon, like many others, were perplexed by the math of Beasley’s proposal. The consensus among experts was that it would take at least $330 billion to end global hunger ( in contrast to the ‘paltry’ $6 billion asked by Beasley). Elon vowed to sell his stocks and donate $6 billion to the cause provided that the WFP could present an action plan to end world hunger with 6 billion dollars.
(In an updated headline, CNN changed the title of their piece from “2% of Elon Musk’s wealth could solve world hunger” to “2% of Elon Musk’s wealth could help solve world hunger”)
As prompted by Elon Musk, the UN released its plan to eradicate world hunger. According to the WFP proposal details proposed, some funds will be allocated in the following way:
- $700 Million will be spent on creating food voucher programmes in countries where such assistance does not exist. This spending includes monitoring of distribution and results and development of office facilities.
- $2 Billion will be spent in counties where food programmes already exist.
- $400 Million will be spent on creating a monitoring system, and building an effective supply-chain.
The proposal doesn’t present a holistic view of the policy as it doesn’t provide the list of countries and the proportion of funds which will be allocated to them.
The problem of world hunger and poverty in general can be seen from various economic perspectives. Many economists believe that the main factor leading to the issue of world poverty is wealth inequality. According to UN’s data, close to half of the world’s wealth belongs to the top 1%, the top 30% hold 97% of the world’s wealth. Therefore, this view persists that due to the increasing accumulation of wealth by the rich leaves the poor with minimal level of money, which is not enough to even buy a life-sustaining level of goods. To counter wealth inequality, some propose redistributing wealth.
The idea of wealth redistribution maintains a zero-sum game view of the economy. One has to lose for the other to win. In contrast to this, many economists also argue against this uncompromising view. According to them, people at the bottom of the pyramid are poor simply because of their inability to earn, not because of the accumulation of wealth at the top of the pyramid. The inability to earn can be caused by lack of skills as well as many external factors. Generally, citizens in Low and Middle Income Countries have very little economic freedom to choose a way which enables them to make a decent living. The poor quality of institutions along with their scanty numbers is one of the reasons for lack of skills.
When put in a critical window, the idea of eradicating poverty through wealth redistribution is not as easy as it seems. Many policy makers point out that the allocation of funds and channelising humanitarian aid is heavily influenced by politics. Only a percentage of the amount of funds dispatched from the top level is converted into food on the plates of the poverty-stricken individuals. Corruption at multiple levels is a major threat to such policy. However, in an ideal situation where all of the fund is used judiciously, the living standards of many may drop. As most of the wealth possessed by the rich is in the form of capital, and requires constant investment for quality maintenance, a movement of funds will make it difficult for modern living standards to be sustainable.
The issue of world hunger has been on the globe for centuries, and after years of neglect, the issue has finally taken the spotlight in the public debate. The most direct way in sight to counter world hunger and poverty has been wealth redistribution, which is proposed to be implemented through a combination of taxation and income transfers policies. The choice of policy itself puzzles the government, as there’s always a trade off between long term and short. However, even if an ideal policy is chosen, and taxation is at its core, the policy itself will create inefficiencies in the economy. Moreover, the success of such policies is highly dependent on the public system. Therefore, instead of helding billionaires accountable for poverty, the global government should focus on rectification of inefficiencies in their own policy implementation systems.
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