The fate of 30,000 people dying each day from hunger and malnutrition seems to depend on how one billionaire responds to one tweet. How can that be?
This week the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) chief executive David Beasley replied to Tesla founder Elon Musk with some numbers. Elon Musk had tweeted on October 31st, “If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it.”
To give you an idea of the anticipation, one reply, from Michael Beck, or @michaelrbeck, read, “He’s asking you to describe on this Twitter thread how the money would solve world hunger. Don’t miss an opportunity because you didn’t read/follow the instructions. Too much is at stake.”
Elon Musk’s ask came after a Dr Eli David said, “In 2020 The UN World Food Programme raised $8.4B. How come it didn’t “solve world hunger”?”
Looking at David Beasley and the World Food Programme’s response, we have questions – and this is why. The numbers address the scale of the immediate need, which is dramatic, rather than solve hunger.
“500,000 people are hungry because of dysfunction which can be addressed over 10 years”
We’re looking at the difference between those who are hungry as a result of avoidable, versus unavoidable reasons. By avoidable we mean the world already produces more than enough to feed us all, so people are suffering for structural reasons, because of dysfunction in the food system.
They are not the same as those who are hungry as a result of war or conflict.
In an interview with Quota earlier this year, experts told us 500,000 people are hungry because of dysfunction which can be addressed over 10 years with money – costing US$33 billion a year by their estimation.
That leaves 200,000 who are trapped by war or conflict. Solving their hunger requires political intervention, and in the meantime, they could be expected to remain in need.
This came from Dr Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and Carin Smaller, a programme director at the International Institute for Sustainable Development who believe the private sector could solve the hunger of those 500,000 who suffer for structural reasons.
David Beasley’s response would fund one meal a day for a year – will that solve hunger?
“It’s not handouts, it’s investing in the infrastructure to get food grown, to get it to people who need it, and to allow them to have the income to buy it,” Lawrence Haddad said.
David Beasley’s response this week to Elon Musk says US$6.6 billion would pay for “one meal a day, the basic needed to survive – costing US$0.43 per person per day, averaged out across 43 countries. This would feed 42 million people for one year, and avert the risk of famine.”
The costs are further broken down as:
- $3.5 billion for food and its delivery
- $2 billion for cash and food vouchers
- $700 million for country-specific costs to design, scale up, and manage the implementation of efficient and effective programmess
- $400 million for global and regional operations management, administration, and accountability
David Beasley had clarified to Elon Musk, on October 31st, “Headline not accurate. $6B will not solve world hunger, but it WILL prevent geopolitical instability, mass migration and save 42 million people on the brink of starvation. An unprecedented crisis and a perfect storm due to Covid/conflict/climate crises.”
To a billionaire, are those outcomes as attractive as the idea of being the guy who solved hunger in one fell swoop, or indeed one sale of stocks? Billionaires – like many of us – can have short attention spans, not just when it comes to their philanthropy. Charitable fundraisers have always been pressured to give honest, credible answers in good time, in exchange for donations. Elon Musk’s challenge to the WFP is a familiar one to any fundraiser proposing to solve a problem via donations, whether it’s curing cancer or youth unemployment.
Seeing the food system under scrutiny in this way seems vaguely welcome, having been largely unchallenged and left to its opacity since the Second World War.
All that’s new is that the potential donor has asked his question in public, over Twitter. Now, how will he respond?
How do we think he should respond? Elon Musk has people to go over the accounting in fine detail – he’s the billionaire. In principle, should he cash in $6 billion to make the world more fair? Come on, what the heck is he waiting for? We all know the answer to that question.