The decision to award the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Program isn’t going to generate the same amount of attention as an award for media favorites like Greta Thunberg or Alexei Navalny. But it sends a clear message about a growing global crisis.
After decades of steady decline, the prevalence of undernourishment around the world has been increasing over the last several years, driven by factors including conflict, economic insecurity, and weather shocks related to climate change. In 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that 820 million people were undernourished—about one out of every nine people in the world—while 135 million people faced acute hunger.
And that was before COVID hit. The WFP, the U.N. agency tasked with addressing food security, has warned that 130 million more people could go hungry in 2020, caused by a range of factors related to the pandemic including the sudden loss of income, the collapse of oil prices, the decline in overseas remittances, and children losing access to meals they would have received at school.
Giving the WFP a peace prize is also an acknowledgment of the link between hunger and armed conflict. And this is not only because war tends to cause famine. In conflict countries including Syria, Sudan, and Yemen, the deliberate starvation of civilians has been employed as a weapon of war, a practice unanimously condemned by the U.N. Security Council in 2018. And as Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen has been arguing for decades, there’s also a clear link between famine and authoritarianism.
This is the ninth time a U.N. agency—including the U.N. as a whole in 2001—has been awarded the prize, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee began its citation for the award by noting the need for “international solidarity and multilateral cooperation.” Founded in 1963, the WFP is one of the world’s largest and most visible relief agencies, and provided aid to close to 100 million people in 88 countries around the world last year, according to the citation. The prize is a reminder that for all the justified criticism of the U.N.’s effectiveness, millions around the world still depend on its agencies for vital assistance.
It’s also notable that this is a rare U.N. agency that has a fairly good relationship with the Trump administration: It’s headed by David Beasley, the former governor of South Carolina and a Trump appointee. President Donald Trump has been loudly touting his own nomination for the prize by a far-right Norwegian politician, but this is likely to be the closest his administration will come to winning.
As an institution, the WFP has also been the subject of some controversy in recent years. Reporting by the Guardian and the New York Times in 2018 uncovered a widespread culture of sexual harassment and failure to investigate allegations of sexual assault at the agency. A survey commissioned by Beasley and released last year found a large number of WFP staffers reporting instances of abuse of power, discrimination, and harassment.
But this award may be less about the organization itself than the topic it addresses. There have historically been two main types of Nobel Peace Prize picks: those that recognize a past achievement—last year’s award to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was one of these—and those that highlight a topic of growing concern. While it does have a decadeslong record of achievement, the WFP’s award very much seems like a warning.