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Beti, 15, washes dishes outside the family's shelter in Mozambique.

Opinion Those already starving are feeling the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine

Plan International Ireland’s Dualta Roughneen highlights the effects of food shortages on the most vulnerable in Africa.

THE WAR IN Ukraine, while causing widespread disruption and concern worldwide, is fundamentally a European conflict. It is a ‘western’ conflict. It is not necessarily of concern to people distant from it.

From a humanitarian perspective, the human suffering witnessed in Ukraine should elicit feelings of empathy and horror, which is to be expected.

But materially, if you live in northern Kenya or western Burkina Faso, the fighting, the reasons, the history – they are not of your making, they are not of your past.

Drawn into conflict

But this isn’t the first time that European conflicts have had far-reaching consequences. The first World War was a European affair, yet over one million Africans were involved as soldiers, with much more forcibly involved as carriers. Over 150,000 lost their lives. The tentacles of the Empire dragged them into a conflict that was not of their making.

World War 2 – a much more global affair – saw similar recruitment of African soldiers from the colonies of the fighting powers. Africa as a location also played a pivotal role in the war.

Hitler sent General Rommel to support Mussolini in his quest to expand the Italian Empire in Africa. The Allies saw the importance of defeating the Axis forces in Africa as the key to winning in Europe. The turning point came at El Alamein in October 1942, when General Montgomery inflicted a decisive defeat on the Axis forces.

The Cold War saw Africa as a strategic location in the quest for geopolitical hegemony. For more than 40 years, the decline of the Empire saw post-colonial governments rise and fall, that process aided by Soviet and US interference. Puppet regimes across the continent were proxies in a global struggle. The struggle for democracy was put on hold.

And again, in 2022, a war far from the European continent brings with it the possibility of severe consequences for Africa. Prior to the war in Ukraine, warning flags were waved that another hunger crisis was about to engulf the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. The world knows that food security is a challenge across the Sahelian belt at the best of times. In lean years, when rains fail, it becomes more than a challenge. The shadow of hunger looms large every few years.

Food security

African countries are heavily dependent on food imports from both Ukraine and Russia. The war – as well as sanctions on Russia – are impacting the availability of key foodstuffs such as wheat, sunflower oil and even fertiliser, meaning less food is available, pushing prices up and people into hunger.

Prices were already rising before the war with supply affected by extreme weather events and the socio-economic impacts of policy responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Food shortage and unaffordability for those with the least were already a near certainty.

With the impacts of the conflict in Ukraine, there is no doubt that millions are going to feel hunger, are going to fall into food poverty, and many are going to die directly or indirectly.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme buys half of the wheat it distributes in times of severe hunger from Ukraine. The war has severed the global safety net for the many that will be asking themselves where they will find their next meal.

This conflict is going to make it harder for the international community to buy the supplies they need to meet a widening hunger gap. Prices going up means the budgets of aid agencies don’t go as far. With growing numbers of people falling into hunger and poverty, more is needed, not less.

The human impact

Having worked in Ethiopia and Niger in response to hunger crises in Africa in the past decade, I have seen the effects of the cyclical droughts that hit the continent. I have seen how families have had to sell their livestock in order to get through the next week. And even if they get through the next week, or through the dry season, it is a long wait until the next harvest bears fruit. And even then, they have sold their draught animals to plough the land. The hunger cycle is one of the ever-increasing circles.

It isn’t just the direct effects that matter. When hunger hits, children have to drop out of school. This may be a temporary measure but many children do not go back. When they don’t go back to school, they find it harder to get work. The poverty trap continues.

Some families have a Hobson’s choice for their children. Watch them go hungry or try to find them a better life somewhere else. This can mean indentured servitude, child labour and even child marriage.

When food is not available mothers and teenage girls become vulnerable to exploitation, sexual abuse and trafficking. For others, the choice is to move. To leave. The lure of greener fields often proves to be an illusion. Any savings they had are then spent chasing empty promises.

On World Hunger Day as the conflict in Ukraine rages on, there are 44 million of us on the brink of starvation. Often, the absence of food does not just mean hunger, starvation and famine. It has so many far-reaching impacts across Africa. The war in Ukraine may end up having more casualties in Africa than anywhere else.

Dualta Roughneen is Head of Programmes at Plan International Ireland. Learn more about the hungriest places on earth and what you can do to support them at


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