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How Syria’s hunger crisis is fuelled by conflict, climate and Covid-19

5 May 2021

More than 200 NGOs recently published an open letter to all governments, relaying an urgent message: increase aid or 34 million people would be pushed to the brink of starvation this year. 

The NGOs’ call came one year after the UN warned of “famines of biblical proportions” due to the global spread of Covid-19 as well as more frequent natural disasters and climate change. Put simply, the UN said at the time, we were facing a “perfect storm”.

One year on and those warnings have gone unheeded. Rich donors have funded just five percent of the UN’s $7.8 billion food security appeal for 2021, while globally, world food prices reached a seven-year high in February of this year.

At the end of 2020, the UN estimated that 270 million people were either at high risk of, or already facing, acute levels of hunger. While 174 million people in 58 countries have reached that level already and are at risk of dying from malnutrition or lack of food, this figure is only likely to rise in the coming months if nothing is done immediately.

Conflict is the biggest driver of global hunger, which is also exacerbated by climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rafik sitting on rubble of his damaged house in Eastern Ghouta, Syria. Photo: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

Take Syria, a country where 12.4 million people – or 60 percent of the population – go to bed hungry every night, and 1.1. million people need humanitarian aid to survive.

March marked 10 years since the start of the Syrian conflict, a war that has led to tremendous human suffering and the largest refugee crisis in the worlds. Hundreds of thousands of people have died. More than 12 million people have fled their homes, many more than once.

Even before Covid-19, more than 80 percent of Syrians were estimated to be living below the poverty line. The cost of the average food basket in Syria increased by 249 percent in the 12 months up to October last, while the World Food Programme estimated last June that some 9.3 million people were food insecure. Over over two million more were at risk, it added, a rise of some 42 percent in just one year.

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland, said: “While both the Irish government and public have been consistently generous in their support of aid efforts, global funding is not keeping pace with the increasing need – even with extreme hunger crises looming for millions more people across the world.”

Marwan*, one of 434 farmers who received saplings and seeds in Rural Damascus as a part of a project ran by Oxfam to help farmers remain self-sufficient. *Name changed to protect identity. Photo: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

Since the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in Syria, we have beefed up our response, distributing thousands of hygiene kits, cash, as well as providing seeds, seedlings and animal fodder to farmers in Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and rural Damascus. We also distribute food to communities, train people to grow food and make a living and provide cash for people who need it the most.

But if we want to ensure that millions of Syrians no longer go to bed hungry, the conflict must come to an end.

"Ireland, as a recently elected member of the UN Security Council, now has an important role in promoting respect of international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians in time of armed conflict,” added Jim Clarken.

At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UN Secretary General called for a global ceasefire to address the pandemic but too few leaders have sought to implement it. Together, we must now push global leaders to support durable and sustainable solutions to conflict, and open pathways for humanitarians to access communities in conflict zones to save lives.
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Oxfam responds to deadly Covid-19 wave in India

Oxfam Media Advisory: 29 April 2021

 

Spokespeople available for interview via Skype or phone 

 

Oxfam India has deployed teams to five of the worst-hit states in India where a second wave of coronavirus is sweeping the country. The international organisation is urgently appealing for $2 million to fund its emergency response to the crisis.  

Teams have already started providing face masks, hand sanitiser and other protective equipment in parts of Maharashtra following a request from state health authorities. Distribution of PPE to 500 frontline health workers will begin in Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the coming days. 

Oxfam India is procuring oxygen tanks, beds, digital thermometers, and other medical equipment to help government hospitals where supplies are desperately low. They are also preparing to provide food rations and cash support to stranded migrant workers and other marginalised groups, and handwashing stations in public spaces.  

Pankaj Anand, Humanitarian and Programmes Director, said: “The surge in coronavirus cases has caught the country off guard. We are seeing hundreds of thousands of new cases every day and many more deaths. The health infrastructure in India is bursting at the seams and there are widespread reports of shortages of oxygen and other medical supplies in large cities.” 

Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, said: "People are literally dying on the streets or in car parks or in their homes. There is no-one I think in India who doesn’t know of friends or family or colleagues who have not had Covid. We are a country that is united in fearful expectation.

“Hospitals and health centres are begging for equipment and medicines and oxygen. The prices of medicines and oxygen has skyrocketed. This is a situation so bad, in my memory it is almost beyond my conception.

“Our immediate priority is to supply hospitals and health workers with medical equipment and PPE so they can continue treating those who are sick. But to avoid a worse humanitarian disaster it is vital we stop the spread and so we are also preparing handwashing stations and awareness campaigns to help people stay safe. We are particularly concerned about migrant workers and other marginalised groups who may be stranded in the open and will be hit hardest by lockdowns and the economic shock. Oxfam India is preparing to provide food rations and cash assistance to help the most vulnerable people to survive the coming weeks.

"Oxfam has also been asked to source electric incinerators. We will provide what we can and what is urgently needed – but it is heart-breaking to begin to understand that equipment to cope with the dead is as scarce and needed now as equipment that would help the living.

"India is the 'pharmacy of the world' and yet it is gasping for breath. This is wrong. India needs the world’s help now – with international aid and resources and assistance – but it needs the freedom too to unleash its own pharmaceutical might to produce Covid vaccines and not be bound by the patents and licenses and deals that it has had to make with the big pharmaceutical companies.

To arrange an interview, please contact:  

Oxfam Ireland

Caroline Reid | caroline.reid@oxfam.org | 087 912 3165

Joannne O' Connor | irl-media@oxfam.org | 083 198 1869

Oxfam India

Tejas Patel | tejas@oxfamindia.org | +91 9999105600 

Savvy Soumya Misra | savvy@oxfamindia.org | +91 98187 79535

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Notes to editors: 

  • Oxfam India will begin supplying PPE to 500 frontline health workers in five states in the coming days. It is also procuring oxygen tanks and masks, beds, digital thermometers and other medical equipment to help supply government hospitals, as well as 900 emergency food rations to support the most marginalised groups. Oxfam India and its partners are monitoring the situation in 16 states across India. 
  • Since the first outbreak of Covid-19 last year, Oxfam India has been working to provide food, PPE, safety kits, cash assistance and livelihoods training across 15 states (Assam, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Kerala, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana). Oxfam India is committed to reaching the most vulnerable and marginalised groups including Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims and women and girls. 
  • The sudden disruption caused by lockdowns has had a severe impact on daily wage labourers, migrants and informal workers who are struggling to feed themselves and their families. The sudden spike in cases Covid-19 in states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi has resulted in many migrant workers becoming stranded in railway stations, bus terminals or at their places of work. Oxfam’s field teams report that these groups, who are often excluded from government support, need food and handwashing facilities to reduce their chances of becoming infected.  
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Women bear $800bn brunt of Covid-related job losses

Few people have avoided the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, as is often the case in humanitarian crises, it is women who have paid the highest price.

Last year, Covid-19 cost women at least $800 billion – the combined GDP of 98 countries – in lost income. Globally, women lost more than 64 million jobs, a five percent loss compared to 3.9 percent for men.

But while women were losing money, companies like Amazon were thriving. The company gained $700 billion on the markets in 2020, while women’s $800 billion losses also top the $721.5 billion that the US government spent on the world’s largest defence budget.

Around the world, women are overrepresented in low-paid, precarious sectors such as retail, tourism and food services – industries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Most women across South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America work in informal employment. They also make up roughly 70 percent of the world’s health and social care workforce – essential but often poorly paid jobs that put them at greater risk from Covid-19.  

Across the globe, women have been more likely than men to drop out of the workforce or reduce their hours during the pandemic, predominantly due to care responsibilities. Even before the virus struck, women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every day, contributing at least $10.8 trillion a year – more than three times the size of the global tech industry – to the global economy.

“Economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic is having a harsher impact on women, who are disproportionately represented in sectors offering low wages, few benefits and the least secure jobs.” said Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland.

“This conservative estimate doesn’t even include wages lost by the millions of women working in the informal economy – domestic workers, market vendors and garment workers – who have been sent home or whose hours and wages have been drastically cut.”

Shahida Akter Lucky (25), an unemployed domestic worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh, holds her baby son as she queues for a food parcel from Oxfam. Photo: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam

Although some governments have taken positive measures to address women’s economic and social security the response remains grossly insufficient. Only 11 countries have introduced shorter or flexible work arrangements for workers with care responsibilities, while 36 have strengthened family and paid sick leave for parents and caregivers.

“Even before the virus struck, the responsibility for caring in Ireland was deeply gendered and severely unbalanced. Last year, Oxfam Ireland estimated that women’s unpaid care work contributes at least €24 billion to the Irish economy every year – the equivalent of 12.3 percent of the entire annual economy,” added Mr Clarken.

For women in every country on every continent, along with losing income, the demands of unpaid care work have rapidly increased. As care needs spiked during the pandemic, women —the shock absorbers of our societies— have stepped in to fill the gap, an expectation so often imposed by sexist social norms.

The effects of these dramatic changes will be unevenly felt for years to come. An additional 47 million women worldwide are expected to fall into extreme poverty in 2021. According to the World Economic Forum, closing the global gender gap has increased by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years due to negative outcomes for women in 2020.

“As we move from emergency measures to long-term recovery, our government must seize this opportunity to build a more equal, inclusive economy for everyone living in Ireland. Our Citizens’ Assembly has laid out what needs to be done for gender equality – offering concrete actions across politics and leadership, caregiving and childcare, domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, pay and the workplace, social protection, as well reforming the Constitution,” Mr Clarken explained.

“A fair and sustainable economic recovery is one that supports women’s employment and unpaid care work, as recovery from Covid-19 is impossible without women recovering.”

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Women’s lost income in 2020 totalled combined wealth of 98 countries

  • Citizen’s Assembly recommendations on gender equality must be a heart of Covid-recovery plans 
  • Millions more women at risk of extreme poverty in 2021 

 29 April 2021

The Covid-19 crisis cost women around the world at least $800 billion in lost income in 2020, equivalent to more than the combined GDP of 98 countries – dealing a striking blow to recent gains for women in the workforce, said Oxfam today. 

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland said: "Economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic is having a harsher impact on women, who are disproportionately represented in sectors offering low wages, few benefits and the least secure jobs. 

“This conservative estimate doesn’t even include wages lost by the millions of women working across the world in the informal economy —domestic workers, market vendors and garment workers— who have been sent home or whose hours and wages have been drastically cut.”

Globally, women are overrepresented in low-paid, precarious sectors, such as retail, tourism, food and textile services, that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Women also make up a majority of the world’s health and social care workforce. In the EU alone, 76 percent of healthcare workers are women —essential but often poorly paid jobs that put them at greater risk from Covid-19.

Women have also been more likely than men to drop out of the workforce or reduce their hours during the pandemic, largely due to care responsibilities. The Covid-19 crisis has shown yet again that it is the care economy, a ‘hidden engine’, that keeps the wheels of our economies, businesses and societies turning.  

Clarken went on to say: “Even before the virus struck, the responsibility for caring in Ireland was deeply gendered and severely unbalanced. Last year, Oxfam Ireland estimated that, women’s unpaid care work contributes at least €24 billion to the Irish economy every year - the equivalent of 12.3 percent of the entire annual economy.

“For women in every country on every continent, along with losing income, the demands of unpaid care work have rapidly increased. As care needs spiked during the pandemic, women —the shock absorbers of our societies— have stepped in to fill the gap, an expectation so often imposed by sexist social norms.” 

The effects of these dramatic changes will be unevenly felt for years to come. An additional 47 million women worldwide are expected to fall into extreme poverty in 2021, while the World Economic Forum predict that closing the global gender gap has increased by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years due to negative outcomes for women in 2020.

Clarken concluded: “As we move from emergency measures to long-term recovery, our government must seize this opportunity to build a more equal, inclusive economy for everyone living in Ireland. Our Citizens Assembly has laid out what needs to be done for gender equality – offering concrete actions across politics and leadership, caregiving and childcare, domestic, sexual and gender based violence, pay and the workplace, social protection, as well reforming the constitution.

“A fair and sustainable economic recovery is one that supports women’s employment and unpaid care work, as recovery from Covid-19 is impossible without women recovering.”

END

Contact

Caroline Reid | caroline.reid@oxfam.org

Notes to editors 

  1. Despite Ireland’s work towards achieving gender equality in recent years, the gender pay gap remains an issue, and female employment rates are slightly lower than the European average – something that should be considered against the backdrop of Ireland’s relatively low level of state funding for subsidised childcare and the lack of investment in childcare infrastructure. 
  2. Childcare costs in Ireland are among the highest in the EU – young families can pay the price of a second monthly rent or mortgage for crèches, which can limit or impede a woman’s choice to return to work or pursue employment in certain fields or professions. 
  3. In addition, women in Ireland are over-represented in the low paid sector, can be working reduced hours due to care responsibilities and are also more likely to have to leave paid employment to fulfil unpaid care work of children or elderly dependents. This in turn results in reduced benefits and pension contributions – creating a pension gap - possibly extending cycles of financial insecurity or poverty into retirement age.
     
  • Women’s total income loss is an estimate derived from the change in the number of women working between the years 2019 and 2020, as captured in the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) indicator: Employment by sex and age -- ILO modelled estimates, Nov. 2020 (thousands) — Annual. To achieve our income loss figure, Oxfam first estimated the average income among women globally and then multiplied this figure by the number of women working in 2019 and 2020. The average income figure comes from the International Labour Organization’s indicator: Mean nominal monthly earnings of employees by sex and economic activity for the year 2019. The ILO's monthly earnings data includes fifty countries representing every region of the world. The monthly averages are multiplied by twelve to estimate an annual earnings figure. We keep women’s annual average income constant between 2019 and 2020 (2019 is the last year there is data available). The calculation is an estimate and is susceptible to data limitations. For example, using average income among women globally diminishes the extent of economic inequality among women. Further, regarding data describing employment by sex, the ILO cautions: Imputed observations are not based on national data, are subject to high uncertainty and should not be used for country comparisons or rankings. 
  • Although some governments have taken positive measures to address women’s economic and social security, including the infusion of $39 billion by the Biden administration into the childcare sector and new legislation in Argentina that offers flexible work schedules to those caring for children or the disabled, the response remains grossly insufficient. Only 11 countries have introduced shorter or flexible work arrangements for workers with care responsibilities, while 36 have strengthened family and paid sick leave for parents and caregivers.
  • Oxfam Ireland’s submission to the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Quality included recommendations on: 
  1. Gender responsive budgeting 
  2. Gender pay gap 
  3. Gender Equality in leadership and participation 
  4. Gender equality in the care economy 
  5. Gender equality in development and aid 

You can read their full submission here: https://www.oxfamireland.org/sites/default/files/Oxfam%20Ireland_CA%20Submission_Gender%20Eqaulity_March2020_Final.pdf  

 

 

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Climate change, food insecurity and hunger: Three crises, inextricably linked

Sarah has been a subsistence farming taking care of her family for 25 years in Nyanyadzi, Chimanimani, Zimbabwe. Sarah accesses the Nyanyadzi Irrigation scheme to water her crops. Cynthia Matonhodze/Oxfam

By Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland and IHREC Commission Member

Two important events took place last week – events that concern some of the most urgent crises facing humanity.   

On Tuesday, hundreds of organisations across the world marked one year since the UN warned of a “famine of biblical proportions” due to deepening crises because of more frequent natural disasters, changing weather patterns, and conflict. Crises only made worse by the global pandemic.

Responding to this grim milestone, they published an open letter calling on world leaders – particularly those from wealthy nations – to urgently increase aid and prevent 34 million people from being pushed to the brink of starvation this year. As despite advances made in recent years, the pandemic, coupled with conflict and climate change, could push millions more into extreme hunger, setting back the fight against poverty by a decade.

On Thursday and Friday, US President Joe Biden hosted 40 world leaders, including Ireland at his virtual Earth Day Summit in an effort to increase global climate ambition, lower emissions, and build resilience. Given the significance of these events, there has never been a more fitting time to talk about climate change, food insecurity and hunger. 

In August 2019, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, published its Special Report on Climate Change and Land. The document looked at the impacts of a changing climate on the land and its ecosystems, focusing on topics like soil degradation and shrinking water supplies, as well as solutions for sustainable land management and food security. The report laid bare the critical issues we are facing as a global community and the life-or-death challenges being faced by the communities with which Oxfam works. 

In fact, more than half of the IPCC document’s authors were from developing countries, reflecting the vital role these nations play in both climate change decision-making and research, particularly when it comes to land and food security. After all, it is the developing world’s communities that are most affected by hunger and food insecurity, both of which are now a greater threat because of climate change. 

Today, our global food system feeds the majority of the world’s population and supports the livelihoods of more than one billion people. Yet tragically, according to the latest Global Hunger Index, some 690 million people remain undernourished while 144 million children under the age of five suffer from stunting – a sign of chronic malnutrition. A further 47 million children are suffering from wasting, severe weight loss that, without the proper treatment, can be fatal. The food system is already feeling the stress of non-climate influences such as conflict, which is the biggest driver of global hunger. The decade-long war in Syria, for example, has led to 12.4 million people – or almost 60 percent of the population – going to bed hungry, while after six years of conflict, 16.2 million Yemenis rely on food aid to survive.

Add temperature increases, unpredictable rainfall patterns and extreme weather events to these non-climate-related pressures and the food system will continue to buckle. Climate change alone will lead to lower crop yields and higher food prices affecting the world’s most vulnerable communities including the 3.1 billion people, or the poorest half of the world’s population, who were responsible for just seven percent of emissions between 1990 and 2015.  

The IPCC report highlights that higher temperatures and more extreme weather events are having a severe impact on food security, particularly in Africa’s drylands, parts of the Mediterranean and mountainous areas of Asia and South America.   

The communities we work with around the world can attest to these changes. In Burkina Faso, for instance, mothers like Ouedraogo Aguiratou have witnessed climate change wreak havoc on the land they rely on for their very survival. The 39-year-old farmer says her land has been getting poorer, and harder to cultivate. When the rains come, they wash away the soil she needs to grow her crops. Widow Aminiata Diallo, also from Burkina Faso, is suffering too as a result of climate change. In her community, water is so scarce that they can only cultivate a third of their land.   

According to the IPCC, adaptation strategies are key to reducing, even avoiding, the negative impacts of climate change on food security. Work is being done by communities with support from organisations like Oxfam to build boreholes and install water pumps in communities struggling with drought as a result of climate change. Farmers are learning adaptation techniques, such as how to fertilise the soil with compost and prevent soil being washed during the rainy season. 

However, the IPCC also warn that there are limits to adaptation if climate change continues unabated. Wealthier countries must play their part in taking action against this deadly threat by urgently cutting their emissions and supporting vulnerable nations with climate finance for new, robust, life-saving adaptation strategies. After all, during a 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth, it was the richest one percent who were responsible for twice as much pollution as the poorest half of humanity.  

In addition to tackling the climate crisis head-on, as was done for the pandemic, global leaders must fund the UN food security appeal to help those most at risk now, and work to end conflict and achieve a global ceasefire. 

Without these interventions, millions more will be pushed to the brink of starvation. 

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