The ‘Ukraine effect’ on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable

The war in Ukraine will have catastrophic ripple effects on people in the poorest and most conflict-ridden corners of the world.

Local residents walk past a burned building during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol
Local residents walk past a burned building during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 4, 2022 [Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

Global human suffering was already unprecedented before Ukraine exploded.

Today, 24 million people in Afghanistan rely on humanitarian aid to survive. Ten million people in the Sahel region are severely hungry. Seven million people in Ethiopia are being hammered by the worst drought in decades. The list goes on.

At the start of the year, Norwegian Refugee Council teams in Ukraine were making plans to hand over aid projects to local organisations, as much of the destruction caused by the conflict in 2014 had been repaired and rebuilt. The economic situation had even improved for many of those affected by the violence. We began redirecting relief workers and resources to some of these other major crises.

Fast forward three months and Ukraine is witnessing the fastest mass flight this century – more than 10 million people have already fled their homes. Two health facilities a day are being attacked. Towns lie in rubble. Cities are besieged. Hundreds of thousands of women, children and men are without clean water or power.

The Ukraine conflict will not only be devastating for countless Ukrainians, but also for millions of vulnerable people elsewhere. Three major areas will be hit particularly hard by “the Ukraine effect”.

Global hunger crisis looms

First, a worldwide food and energy crisis is now inevitable. Ukraine and Russia together export 27 percent of the world’s wheat, and Russia is a major global supplier of fertiliser. Ongoing hostilities could force international food and animal feed prices up by 20 percent, and massively affect hunger levels in food-insecure hotspots.

In Africa, 25 nations import more than a third of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Somalia is already feeling the effect of rising prices amid worrying shortages, importing almost all its wheat from the warring nations. Our staff tell us prices are on the rise in places families are already hit hard by drought. Even before this brutal war, the World Food Programme warned that 2022 would be a year of catastrophic hunger, with 44 million people in 38 countries teetering on the edge of famine. The global food body is now slashing food aid to other emergencies across East Africa and the Middle East, in a knock-on effect of stretched funding.

Aid funding diverted

Second, funding for protracted and forgotten emergencies is under threat. Donor budgets are facing immense pressure to reallocate funding in response to the colossal human cost of Ukraine’s conflict. Some donors are reportedly pulling funding from aid budgets in other regions to fill the gaps, which will have significant consequences for millions.

The deeply disappointing outcome of last week’s international pledging conference for Yemen is an indicator that our fears are well-founded and funding may be being squeezed in other parts of the world, despite immense and worsening needs. Aid budgets for neglected crises are already desperately low. Humanitarian appeals for Myanmar, Palestine and South Sudan are each less than 8 percent funded. Contrast this with the success of the United Nations’ two emergency appeals calling for a total of $1.7bn for people affected by Ukraine’s conflict. Both were close to fully funded the day they launched. This shows what is possible with political drive and an outpouring of public sympathy. These forgotten crises need to be scaled up, not down.

UNSC paralysis

Finally, the Ukraine conflict has paralysed UN Security Council action. Relations between permanent members have frozen as nations align along old battle lines.

Agreements to act and resolve humanitarian bottlenecks in other crises are near impossible. Aid organisations desperately need UNSC action to end protracted crises and prevent new conflict, and to enable the delivery of life-saving relief across borders in places like Syria.

We need the Council to ensure parties to the war in Yemen agree on political talks and a sustained ceasefire. We need the permanent members to rally all sides in Libya’s conflict towards peace. The Council members showed what political will could achieve just three days after the Ukraine invasion began. They voted for an emergency session of the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution demanding Russia ends its military operation. This is the first time in 40 years such a session was set up, despite human rights violations in places like Palestine and Myanmar desperately needing similar action. UNSC powers must divorce their Cold War polarisation around Ukraine and prioritise the mandate of this crucial mechanism above political interests.

Reversing the Ukraine effect

Europe is experiencing its worst refugee crisis since World War II. While giving Ukraine the attention it needs, we must also widen our focus to avoid a tidal wave of tragedy in the world’s other crises. The International Rescue Committee’s suggestion to channel 50 percent of the total international aid to fragile and conflict-affected nations is a sound step in the right direction. But beyond funding, world leaders need to break the deadlock of indifference towards conflicts in other parts of the world.

The speed at which the UN, the European Union and other international partners acted in response to the war in Ukraine should trigger the same urgency for solutions to the major and neglected crises of our time. Widespread and hard-hitting condemnation, urgent appeals for a cessation of conflict, opening borders to citizens seeking protection, and rapidly mobilising funding, must be replicated in other emergencies. When I visited eastern Ukraine in the weeks leading up to the invasion, I warned that too little attention was being given to its looming catastrophe before it was too late. As we sit transfixed on the horrors happening there now, we risk other crises boiling over behind the scenes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.