UNITED NATIONS — This week, world leaders gathered in New York to adopt a set of goals on development, including the elimination of hunger and malnutrition within 15 years. But overwhelming humanitarian needs from Africa, the Middle East and Asia are already straining the ability of donors to keep up, calling into question the feasibility of achieving this ambitious goal.
In war-torn Syria, where the world’s largest humanitarian operation is underway, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) is feeding close to 6 million people in the country and the surrounding region. In South Sudan, thousands of people recently fled to a United Nations base because staying in their villages would mean starving to death. In Yemen, more than 3 million people are dependent on U.N. food aid to survive.
In all these regions, food aid operations are significantly underfunded, forcing aid groups to cut back on lifesaving programs.
“We continue to slice and dice the targeting to continue to support as many people as possible for as long as possible,” said Ertharin Cousin, the executive director of the WFP, on Monday. “We risk losing more people if we are forced to cut even further.”
A $300 million budget shortfall for the Syria program recently forced the agency to cut back on the level of assistance and in some situations eliminate food assistance. As of Sept. 1, about 360,000 people in Lebanon and Jordan were cut off from food aid.
She warned a perfect storm is developing in Yemen, where historically more than 90 percent of food has been imported and now a Saudi-led bombing campaign is preventing merchants from bringing in food.
More than 6 million people in Yemen are severely food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from. The WFP’s emergency operation in Yemen is short $226 million of the $320 million needed — meaning it is less than 30 percent funded.
A lack of funds is also forcing the WFP to cut food aid in Iraq, where the organization has reduced the number of people receiving assistance from 1.8 to 1.5 million. The agency still needs an additional $61 million to provide food for that population until December.
The WFP, the world’s largest food aid agency, provides food assistance to more than 80 million people in 82 countries.
The largest contributors to the program are the U.S., Canada, the European Commission, the U.K. and Japan. In 2014 the United States was the largest donor, giving approximately $2.2 billion ($1.2 billion in food and $1 billion in cash).
The funding shortfall is forcing humanitarian agencies, including the WFP, to turn to the private sector and examine alternative funding mechanisms — such as a global trust fund — to provide a reserve of money for when annual contributions fall short.
Experts say policymakers need to also take a more holistic approach to combating hunger and funding nutrition programs, putting more money into medicine, safe drinking water and sanitation rather than simply donating food aid. The Sustainable Development Goals, set to be adopted on Sunday, endorse this approach.
“If a child is malnourished due to frequent episodes of diarrhea because of unsafe drinking water, bringing in food will not help to prevent the child from becoming malnourished,” said Mija-tesse Ververs, a nutritionist with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. “However, working on a system that provides safe drinking water and ensuring the child has access to it would help.”
Currently, funding for malnutrition programs falls far short of what experts say is needed. About 45 percent of child deaths are related to malnutrition, according to the World Health Organization, yet only 4 percent of official development assistance is funneled to nutrition programs.
In a report published Monday, the International Food Policy Research Institute said global spending was too low to reach the U.N.’s ambitious new development targets. It called for the doubling of official development assistance aimed at malnutrition.
Andrea Tamburini, the CEO of Action Against Hunger, a nongovernmental agency that works to combat hunger, said the lack of money in nutrition programs showed a disconnect between the ambitious goal of eradicating hunger and the international community’s commitment to it.
“It is a bit naive to think that malnutrition can be eradicated in 15 years — unless you invest,” he said.
Cousin said the WFP is monitoring malnutrition levels in a number of other areas, including the Sahel, where drought and the radical armed group Boko Haram has displaced tens of thousands of people, and Ethiopia, where there are signs of increasing food insecurity.
Mogens Lykketoft, the president of the U.N. General Assembly, said targets could be met if leaders committed the necessary funding to reduce world hunger.
“It’s not unrealistic if the political will is there. Decision-makers have to understand if they don’t do it, the number of problems they’ll have to deal with will be much, much more than they have to deal with today.”