Humanitarian Crisis in Ukraine

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It’s been nothing short of staggering to watch a sovereign nation in Europe being attacked so vehemently and ceaselessly by its neighbour. What’s happening in Ukraine is, on a political level, highly disconcerting. On a human level, it’s abhorrent. Many voices have started weighing in on what the war in Ukraine means for our collective future. As we speculate, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is, first and foremost, a humanitarian crisis. Finding ways to protect all innocent civilians—both in Ukraine and in the streets of Russia, where protestors are risking their lives to take a stand—is of utmost importance, as is ensuring a compassionate response to refugees seeking to escape the devastation.

Let’s also keep in mind the bigger picture. The implications of this war extend far beyond Eastern Europe and touch on nearly every aspect of sustainable development. They also reinforce why multilateralism—the bedrock of international cooperation—must be part of the solution. As events continue to unfold in the region, three urgent areas of concern are emerging: global food security and the hunger crisis; risks to progress on the clean energy transition; and the state of multilateralism, which is under increasing strain.

The COVID-19 pandemic undid years of progress toward ending hunger. Now, the Russia–Ukraine war has fuelled fears that an even greater crisis for global food systems is on the horizon. Even worse, governments are sending early signals that they may turn inwards to try to limit the damage, such as by banning exports of food staples, rather than working together to build more resilient food systems. If they start on this path, the results will be catastrophic.

Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of crucial agricultural commodities, holding a significant share of the global market. With food exports disrupted from both economies, prices are soaring, building on an already worrisome commodity price trend that brings back difficult memories of the 2008/2009 global food price crisis.

It gets worse. Russia and Belarus, both instigators of this war, also make up a major share of fertilizer production. Together, the nations accounted for more than 40% of global exports of potash last year. As well, the natural gas that Russia exports is not just an energy supply to its neighbours—it is also used as an input for chemical fertilizers, and we have not yet found viable alternatives.

The combination of high prices and scarce food and fertilizer would hit many lower-income countries hard, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, potentially pushing millions of additional people into hunger and poverty. To prevent a crisis of this nature from spiralling out of control, governments must act now to diversify their agricultural and food markets at all levels, from local to global, rather than turning inward and trying to meet all their needs from domestic production.

Governments also need to work together at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to reform global trade rules and prevent knee-jerk responses, such as export bans, that only hurt the very people they are trying to help. Not only will this limit the risk of a global food security crisis, but it could also spur much more ambitious reforms of the WTO’s agricultural rulebook, sending a strong signal that multilateral cooperation remains alive and well.

The situation in Ukraine has brought to light just how precarious our energy security is when it’s tied directly to oil and gas. It’s understandable that some leaders, seeking to take immediate action, are signalling at least short-term support to the fossil fuel industry. But this isn’t a viable approach in the long run.

Building new oil and gas infrastructure, in the form of liquefied natural gas terminals or pipelines, would take years to complete, deepen our global dependence on fossil fuels, further empower Russia and other exporting countries, and all but crush our chances of meeting climate commitments in the Paris Agreement. Another immediate priority for many countries is supporting vulnerable populations as fuel prices soar. That’s the right move—if those payments go directly into needy people’s pockets and not into a new fossil fuel subsidy that further delays the transition.

These challenges have reinforced long-held fears that our multilateral system may not be fit for the problems we’re facing now. The initial objective of multilateralism, established in the wake of two world wars, was to ensure countries settle their differences through cooperation rather than on the battlefield. Today, the capacity of such institutions to achieve this goal is being tested like never before.

To show that multilateralism is a value worth protecting, leaders must also, finally, translate old pledges for policy reform into tangible results that usher in a fairer, more sustainable world. As the events of the past few weeks have shown us, only by coming together and proving we are greater than our differences will we stand any chance of ending this crisis—and preventing others.

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