Africa in the crosshairs of Ukraine war – UN chief

Africa has severe exposure to the economic effects of the Ukraine war, says UN secretary-general António Guterres as he calls for urgent action from the West.


Image : Bullen Chol / UNICEF

UN secretary-general António Guterres called for “active and urgent support” for the developing world on Wednesday as a new UN report highlighted the devastating impact of the war in Ukraine on some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

“The risk for the African continent has extraordinarily expanded, and we have a particular concern about Africa,” he told a press conference in New York.

His comments came as the UN unveiled a report on the ruinous impact of the war in Ukraine on developing countries.

The report, Global Impact of War in Ukraine on Food, Energy and Finance Systems presents the war in Ukraine as a three-dimensional crisis affecting the prices of food and energy, and destabilising the financial system.

A total of 25 African countries have severe exposure to the fallout from port closures, the ending of grain exports and supply chain disruptions leaving farmers from tending their crops and sending prices skyrocketing.

With Ukraine and Russia providing 30% of the world’s wheat and barley, one-fifth of its maize and more than 50% of its sunflower oil, their grain provides more than one-third of the wheat imported by 45 African and least-developed countries.

The crisis risks pushing up to 1.7bn people – over one-fifth of humanity – into poverty, destitution and hunger on a scale unseen since the Second World War, the UN report says.

Since the start of this year, wheat and maize prices have risen 30%, leaving Africa’s leaders with tough decisions on whether to subsidise the rising price of wheat and other agricultural imports. 

But while global aid pours in for Ukraine, there is no sign of the same support for the 1.7bn other potential victims of the conflict, said Guterres. 

A grandmother takes care of her 17-month-old malnourished grandson in South Sudan. (Photo: Bullen Chol / UNICEF)

New challenges

As countries across the continent struggle to their feet after the economic impact of Covid-19, under the weight of historic debt burdens and soaring inflation, the Ukraine war is now creating new challenges for Africa.

While the developed world has borrowed record sums at ultra-low interest to finance public services and social protection during the pandemic, “the poorest countries spent billions servicing debt, preventing them from investing in sustainable development,” says another recent report from the UN, Bridging the Finance Divide.

The pandemic has been a significant step backwards for developing countries as they were forced to cut budgets for education, infrastructure, and other capital spending, thus cancelling sustainable development objectives, says the UN.

The report estimates that in one in five developing countries, per capita income will not return to 2019 levels by the end of 2023, even before absorbing the impacts of the Ukraine war.

“Keep the markets open”

While these reports paint a dismal picture, Guterres said that the world “can do something about it”.

Among other recommendations, Bridging the Finance Divide advocates the need for developing countries to “avoid export bans and other trade-restrictive measures, particularly on food and agricultural products”.

Guterres stressed that prohibiting food imports will contribute to market distortions and further increase global food prices.

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