New food endowment fund to tackle global hunger

The UAE initiative comes as aid agencies are forced to cut rations in the region’s crisis zones due to funding shortfalls.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives (MBRGI) has announced the creation of an endowment fund to support food aid schemes in dozens of countries. The One Billion Meals Endowment builds on previous UAE Ramadan campaigns, including “One Billion Meals”, “100 Million Meals” and “10 Million Meals”, from 2020, 2021 and 2022, respectively.

But unlike previous initiatives, this new Dhs 1 billion (US$272m) fund is intended to last beyond the holy month - when people traditionally collect money to support those in need - and create sustainable long-term impact.

MBRGI is yet to share how and where it will use the money it raises, but announcing the initiative on Twitter, Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said it aims to provide “hundreds of millions of meals in a sustainable manner for decades to come”.

In the first week after its launch, the fund had raised Dhs 247m (US$67m) from more than 13,200 contributions by individuals, businesses, and public and private sector entities. Major donors to-date include: Azizi Developments; Al Ansari Exchange; Sankari Investment Group; Sobha Realty; Dubai Duty Free; Yusuff Ali; and the Tristar Group.

The new UAE fund comes as the world confronts a food crisis of unprecedented proportions due to a toxic mix of conflict, economic shocks, climate-related weather events, natural disasters, and soaring fertiliser and food prices.

According to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), more than 345 million people are projected to be “food insecure” in 2023. That is more than double the number in 2020, an increase of 200 million compared to levels pre-Covid-19. In addition, close to one million people are fighting to survive in famine-like conditions – a ten-fold rise in the space of just five years.

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are particularly prone to food insecurity due to water scarcity, volatile economies, and an overreliance on food imports – factors most recently exacerbated by climate change and protracted conflict.

“The number of people the WFP is assisting in the region has gone up six times since pre-Arab Spring,” explained Corinne Fleischer, WFP’s regional director for MENA and Eastern Europe. “That’s an increase from six million to 38 million people, and the war in Ukraine has really broken the camel’s back in this region.”

“Our global budget went up by 40% in just a year,” she added. “WFP is breaking records, and that is a bad thing for the world… We are also very worried about what is happening to the global economy because if the economy is bad, our donors have less money.”

Amid this rising level of need and pressures on donors, food costs are also soaring, forcing WFP to slash rations in several countries, including Yemen, Syria, and Palestine.

In Palestine, decades of protracted conflict, economic stagnation, restricted trade and access to resources - coupled with high unemployment and poverty rates - have created serious food security and nutrition challenges. One third of all Palestinians - equivalent to 1.84m people – are food insecure. Of the 1.1m who are severely food insecure, 90 percent live in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

The WFP currently provides 375,000 Palestinians every month with food and livelihoods support -- but the needs far outstrip funding, and the situation has been compounded by rising food costs and weakened purchasing power in-country.

The agency is appealing for an additional US$41m to be able to provide food assistance to 400,000 Palestinians over the next six months. Samer AbdelJaber, WFP’s representative in Palestine, said current funding would only last until the end of April and if no more money came in, they would have to cut supplies to all beneficiaries

This will affect people like Abeer Zouroub, a 47-year-old mother, living in Khan Yunis, in Gaza who previously had an income from her mother-in-law’s donkey and cart but it stopped coming in when her mother-in-law couldn't work anymore and now she relies on WFP vouchers to feed her family. 

“I have ten children who don't have jobs or income, so they depend on me to provide everything: cooking gas, paying the bills and sustaining food,” Abeer, pictured above, explains. "Some days are harder than others, but I am managing. Without the voucher, the kids would have nothing to eat.” 

WFP's AbdelJaber told Philanthropy Age: “These past years have witnessed a lot of uncertainty, rocketing food prices, the collapse of a social safety net, and cycles of violence. Food assistance from WFP was the one thing people counted on but now, that is at risk too."

He added: "People are drowning in debt, parents are going to bed on an empty stomach to give the little food they have to their children. On top of the difficulties Palestinian families face, cutting off assistance would be catastrophic."

In 2022, WFP received US4.7m from the MBRGI's One Billion Meal Campaign, allowing it to provide food assistance to 385,926 Palestinians (equivalent to 65,000 families) across Gaza, West Bank, and East Jerusalem.  

Each family received an electronic voucher, like a credit card, to use at local shops to purchase food items of their choice such as dairy products, eggs, bread, cereals, and other fresh and frozen foods.

“We need to find ways to have governments be able to take care of their people again through their own social protection systems."

Corinne Fleischer, WFP’s regional director for MENA and Eastern Europe

WFP's Fleischer said in addition to raising more money for food aid, there needed to be a focus on reducing need. “We cannot just continue to feed the same people every month because they need it and then add more people to it,” she explained. “We need to find ways to have governments be able to take care of their people again through their own social protection systems and then we need to start reducing the needs.”

Recalling a recent trip to Syria’s long besieged Eastern Ghouta, Fleischer said: “When you go and talk to farmers, they tell you, thank you so much for having given us food for 12 years. You helped us survive. But you know what? We don't want your food. We want to go back to the fields. We don't want to sit idly, but we can't because the water canals are destroyed.”

And she added: “If you talk to Ukrainian farmers, they say the same thing. They tell us it is sowing time, but their fields are mined so they can’t plant anything and so next year, there will be nothing to eat.”

In countries like Syria, WFP is working with communities to repair conflict-damaged infrastructure like water systems to help local farmers return to their fields. This boosts local food production, creates jobs, and in helping to uplift the wider community, reduces the reliance on food aid.

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In 2022, the UAE sent food aid to dozens of countries through its One Billion Meals campaign. Photo: MBRGI.

As well as raising money to buy food for people in need, the UAE is also working to reduce waste. “Ramadan is the month of fasting, but it is also a month a lot of food waste is created, especially around Iftar and Iftar buffets in restaurants and in hotels,” explained MBRGI director, Sara Al Nuaimi.

The UAE Food Bank, an MBRGI initiative established in 2017, is working for the second consecutive year with hotel chains, restaurants, supermarkets, and wholesalers, in conjunction with charity organisations to collect and redistribute untouched food to people in need through its One Million Saved Meals campaign.

In parallel, non-consumable food (waste that has come from plates and cannot be repurposed) is being taken to recycling plants to be composted and turned into biofuel.

“Last year, they targeted to save one million meals, but they in fact saved 2.3 million meals,” noted Al Nuaimi. “That was food collected from buffets but also wholesalers and supermarkets where products were approaching shelf life and it prevented millions of tonnes of waste going to landfills.” - PA

How to donate

You can donate to the UAE's One Billion Meals Endowment online or via phone, SMS, or bank transfer. Dubai-based online crowdfunding site, YallaGive, is hosting dozens of corporate and individual fundraisers for the campaign and other Ramadan initiatives. The WFP also accepts donations online.