"Hunger is created"
In Somalia. Picture: World Food Program
Interview with Hans Peter Vikoler
[This interview published on Oct 16, 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Hunger-ist-gewollt-4930450.html.]
This year's Nobel Peace Prize went to the UN World Food Program. Hans Peter Vikoler has been working for the organization for almost 27 years and is critical of development aid
Hans Peter Vikoler works for the World Food Program of the UN (WFP) at the front line. He directs, plans and coordinates the deployment and distribution of relief supplies in disaster areas. In most cases, wars, floods or droughts are the immediate causes of hunger - this year a pandemic was added to the list.
Vikoler was last deployed in Mozambique, where the worldwide lockdowns in spring had caused the economy to collapse, suddenly depriving countless day laborers and workers of the income they needed to survive. WFP's efforts to stem such famines were recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize.
In April, the United Nations warned of a famine of biblical proportions. Six months have passed since then. Could the worst be prevented?
Hans Peter Vikoler: Some things have certainly been prevented, but the number of hungry people is growing daily. At the end of last year, about 85 million people were affected by malnutrition. With the beginning of the pandemic, their number skyrocketed to 135 million; in the meantime, the figure is already said to be 270 million. On a global scale, the effects of Covid are not so much in the health sector as social misery due to lockdowns, trade restrictions and disrupted supply chains.
Is that why the WFP was awarded the Nobel Prize this year?
Hans Peter Vikoler: To a certain extent, yes. But the Nobel Prize was also awarded in recognition of the work done over the past few years. In 2020, we also cooperated strongly with the World Health Organization (WHO), we were responsible for logistics, so to speak, and we also took over the aid deliveries of medicines. During the pandemic, we were at times the world's largest airline.
Are you proud of the honor from Sweden?
Hans Peter Vikoler: As an organization we are happy that our work is recognized. Personally, I have been involved in WFP and the humanitarian business for many decades, so I am a bit more cautious with such feelings.
"Hunger is always a means of warfare"
How has WFP's work contributed to peace?
Hans Peter Vikoler: Hunger is always a means of warfare. We see this in Syria, in Yemen or in West Africa, especially through Boko Haram. A starving population is usually more prone to violence, and is more likely to be recruited and appropriated by terrorists. If we fight hunger in these regions, we also contribute to their pacification.
WFP also operates at various levels, and a great deal is invested even before a conflict and a concrete emergency situation. We use analyses and stock-taking to gain an accurate picture of the situation and support governments and smaller organizations on the ground so that they are better equipped to deal with crises.
There was also criticism of the decision that it was too tame and too apolitical. By awarding a prize to the WFP, the Nobel Prize Committee does not make itself any great enemies.
Hans Peter Vikoler: I understand the criticism, but on the other hand I can't think of any individual this year who has attracted attention through outstanding achievements for peace. Of all UN organizations, the WFP is probably the one that actually works best and delivers tangible results.
The purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize is not only to symbolically recognize achievements, but also to generate media attention for a particular issue. Ideally, this has real political impact.
We are not the only organization working against hunger worldwide. That's why I believe that this decision is not only intended to honor WFP, but to create more attention for the problem itself. It concerns us all, including in our everyday lives, whether in the form of food waste or far too cheap products.
"Hunger is first created by others, by people who are full"
Development Minister Gerd Müller recently hit the headlines with the sentence "Hunger is murder". What is meant by that?
Hans Peter Vikoler: Today we produce and waste more food - although often produced in an unsustainable way - than is actually necessary to feed all of humanity. The fact that people are starving should therefore no longer exist. Hunger is created by other, full people. In wars, hunger is deliberately used as a weapon, then one can actually speak of murder. In other cases, hunger is simply tolerated or caused by irresponsibility.
Hunger is consciously tolerated?
Hans Peter Vikoler: In many countries, including Mozambique, my last area of work, the vast majority of goods - including food - are imported. Formerly from Europe, now mainly from Asia. Local farmers cannot find a market for their food because it is too expensive compared to foreign products. By preventing local production, these countries remain trapped in extreme poverty. A status quo that is maintained by international treaties, agreements and unilateral subsidies.
Who benefits from this?
Hans Peter Vikoler: If everything is imported, some traders and suppliers benefit first. Local governments also receive their share - usually through dubious channels. In the end, however, the whole western world benefits. If there is no local production in some parts of the world, our products are sold there. Conversely, some raw materials, such as coffee, cut flowers or bananas are imported from such countries at knock-down prices. But there they are produced at starvation wages. If a product comes cheaply on the market, someone else has usually already paid the price.
Who is responsible for this exploitation?
Hans Peter Vikoler: The responsibility lies with those who maintain such structures through appropriate agreements. These are the all-powerful multinational corporations, but also the machinations of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. And of course the local governments, who often sign such agreements for their own personal benefit and to the detriment of their own citizens.
"We will not get anywhere with humanitarian aid alone"
The organizations you mention are not democratically legitimized. What possibilities do we have to influence them?
Hans Peter Vikoler: Above all, we should look more consciously and cautiously at the party programs and political performance: What does the party we vote for stand on seriously sustainable regional structures or global exploitation and discrimination? What does it propose to do about it? And as an employee of the organization that has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, one must show courage and openly say: No, we will not get anywhere with humanitarian aid alone. We must also tackle the problem on another level, change unjust trade relations and redesign the system at its roots.
What role does development aid play in this system, as it is also provided by the WFP?
Hans Peter Vikoler: In the last 30 years, during which I have been active in the humanitarian field, we have indeed been able to improve a lot. But usually the aid is only temporary, a drop in the ocean. For what we cost the donor countries, we sometimes solve too little and often not permanently enough, but of course this does not depend only on us. If we were to focus more on influencing the switching points in the system, we could fight hunger much more effectively. More could also be achieved in the prevention of conflicts, which makes it all the more evident that the UN needs urgent and comprehensive reform to be efficient and effective. Today the UN is mainly a huge and somewhat cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus.
The UN and also the G7 had the goal of achieving a world without hunger by 2030. Is that still realistic?
Hans Peter Vikoler: I never thought it was quite realistic. But it is a noble goal and it was certainly not wrong to set this - by the way, completely authentic - goal in mind.
Which areas are currently most affected?
Hans Peter Vikoler: Syria and Yemen are examples of how the starvation of the people is used as a means of war. The situation in Iraq has improved somewhat, but the supply situation is worse in the long-running conflict areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Southern Sudan and Somalia. The situation is particularly bleak in West Africa between Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger, where Boko Haram is active.
Where are climatic changes the main cause?
Hans Peter Vikoler: In the Caribbean, Central America, along the entire Sahel belt to the Horn of Africa and in Asia, harvests are increasingly being destroyed by storms and floods or plagues of locusts. At the same time, large areas are being hit by droughts. Where the drought used to occur only every ten years, it now occurs almost every year.
"Our handling of the virus was petty and absolutely irresponsible"
They have also cited the lockdowns in western states as the cause of the current famines. Hans Peter Vikoler: In the western world, most people have enough cushion to be able to afford a lockdown. This is not the case in countries where many people work only for their daily meals. Most developing countries have therefore avoided imposing a lockdown at all costs because it would have deprived people of their livelihood. Nevertheless, countless people have lost their income because of the lack of demand from the rich countries. In addition, imported goods - including food - became more expensive because of trade restrictions.
Were these "collateral damages" of the lockdowns sufficiently taken into account?
Hans Peter Vikoler: If you look at the consequences of the lockdowns on a global scale, it can only leave you perplexed that such measures were taken at all. The economic and social damage caused by the fight against the virus exceeds the health damage caused by the virus many times over. The measures have been justified by the danger that a collapse in health care could lead to many deaths. However, the economic consequences have been killing millions of people through hunger for months. Our handling of the virus was petty and absolutely irresponsible.
What does it do to a human being if, like you, you are exposed daily to the contrast between European abundance and the naked struggle for survival in other parts of the world?
Hans Peter Vikoler: In crisis areas I try to do my work with courage and professionalism and not to despair. When I am back in Europe and especially in my home region South Tyrol, I consciously enjoy the mountains. I have learned to keep both worlds apart. I realize that something is wrong when I hear the local news and learn what our biggest problems are in this country. Then I just have to laugh.
Do you do your work with the feeling of making a difference?
Hans Peter Vikoler: I have this conviction, yes. Otherwise I would have quit my job long ago. Unlike many others, I don't do this work for the money. (Teseo La Marca)