On 19 October 2023 the Global Cities Hub in partnership with the World Food Program (WFP), the Permanent Mission of the United States to the UN, and UN-Habitat, invited an expert group bringing together representatives of Member States, International Organizations, Local Governments and NGOs from across the food security and humanitarian communities to discuss the humanitarian challenges of the growing issue of food insecurity and malnutrition in urban areas.
With poverty, inequality, and unemployment increasingly concentrating in cities, the burden of food insecurity and malnutrition is gradually shifting from rural to urban areas. Cities are now home to more than half of the world’s population. They consume 70% of all food produced globally, which might increase to 85% by 2050. At the same time, nearly 1 billion people live in very precarious conditions in slums or informal settlements in and around urban areas. Crises situations occur repeatedly in cities. Responding more effectively in an urban situation requires better understanding of the urban context and its specificities.
The discussion pointed out that the local, national and international actors together on the one hand can act to overcome current challenges and on the other should create better conditions in the currently developing urban areas. The critical need for a system-wide discussion was constantly emphasized.
The new Urban Strategy of WFP was presented by Dr. Isis Nunez Ferrera. It recognises urban areas as a crucial operational context, and outlines a framework with key priorities, actions, and programmatic shifts needed to achieve zero hunger in urban areas. The meeting was the right platform to elaborate on the shift needed in the relevant international organizations’ approach to partnerships and coordination for enhanced urban response. Several participants echoed the urgency to connect the global work with the local actors in order to have the biggest impact on the ground.
WFP has a long history of fighting food insecurity and malnutrition in urban areas worldwide, including the 2008 global food price crisis, the Syrian crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, and the on-going humanitarian crises in Gaza. Nevertheless, participants pointed out that even during periods of peace a large proportion of the global urban population has limited opportunities, lacks access to basic services and has restricted purchasing power, therefore is more likely to be hungry or malnourished, and less able to manage risk and absorb shocks.
The health, social and economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemics have revealed the depth of food insecurity and malnutrition in a number of cities around the world. It also brought to the surface the lack of data on the disparities within urban areas. Humanitarian organizations, including WFP, have worked with local governments using local knowledge and modern technology to develop the most accurate data possible to enable targeted action helping the most vulnerable, like youth, displaced people, etc.
The probability of crisis situations – from starvation to violence – is constantly increasing. The urban poor often struggle with the higher cost of living, not being able to buy enough food or access healthy options. Director Ihaja Rajaonarison from Antananarivo Municipality completed the picture with local experiences and advised the participating representatives of donor countries, NGOs and international organizations on possible approaches to follow. He echoed the need for more assistance in future-oriented preparatory activities at the local level.
Urbanisation is also changing how rural and urban areas connect to each other, impacting the food systems that depend on these linkages, and the diets of urban people. The complexity of the rural-urban interdependence was well illustrated by the questions regarding urban farming, shortening food supply chains, and the role of peri-urban areas and secondary cities.
Urban multi-stakeholder partnerships can cover traditional areas for food security intervention such as social welfare, agriculture, humanitarian/crisis management and the health sector, or can help enter new collaborations in non-traditional sectors like infrastructure, shelter, WASH, and local governance. It was clear from the experts’ interventions that immediate humanitarian intervention, long-term development policy and donor activities should be closely coordinated. A system-wide inter-agency cooperation enables an effective process of building on each other’s work and achievements, and offer stable foundation for a better future to the local community.
Experts discussed how cities, local and regional governments can best be supported in addressing urban food security and nutrition challenges. Among the intricate web of urban actors, local and regional governments play a key role in addressing this global challenge. They are often the first responders and set the rules for the development of urban areas and their citizens’ well-being, including urban expansion, the provision of basic infrastructure and services, housing, and livelihood opportunities.
The Global Cities Hub thanks all speakers and discussion participants for the insightful exchange on this important topic.