World's largest food program is in 'desperate situation' and running out of money as quickly as October

"There's a great malaise right now within countries about foreign aid."

September 17, 2023, 1:11 PM

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP), the largest anti-hunger initiative around the globe, is grappling with the worst funding shortage in its 60-year history and "we are in a desperate situation," Executive Director Cindy McCain said on Sunday.

"It's a combination of things -- it's COVID, it's climate change, it's conflict and also the cost of being able to do business," McCain told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Jonathan Karl about the reasons behind the lack of money. "Those things combined and, of course, a world that has kind of grown tired of all this. There's a great malaise right now within countries about foreign aid and giving."

"The bottom line is those that are going to suffer [are] those who can't afford to," McCain said.

In September, the WFP said it "has been struggling to meet the global need for food assistance .... And for the first time ever, WFP has seen contributions decreasing while needs steadily increase." The organization has already had to make "significant cuts in hot spots such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Jordan, Palestine, South Sudan, Somalia, and Syria."

McCain warned on "This Week" that in Afghanistan, for example, the food program doesn't "have enough money to even get through October."

The WFP has been providing crucial services to the needy in the country, which was taken over in 2021 by the Taliban, who then imposed a wave of restrictions.

"Unless we can build up some funding for Afghanistan, we'll have to pull it completely out," McCain said.

Emphasizing the urgency, she said, "Right now, women can't work. They can't hold jobs of any kind. And in the case of WFP, we've been feeding women, feeding women and children. And if we have to pull out, starvation and famine is going to be the result of this."

Karl asked, "Who's not giving money that used to give money? What's happened?"

In this Jan. 5, 2023, file photo, U.S. Ambassador Cindy McCain, wife of former Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, smiles as she arrives for an event at the state Capitol in Phoenix.
Ross D. Franklin/AP, FILE

McCain said other international conflicts had, in a way, overshadowed the broader needs of the hungry around the world at the same time that voters have become warier of sending money overseas.

"Ukraine, for better or worse has sucked the oxygen out of the room. And I -- we certainly understand the need to support Ukraine. But there's other hot spots in the world that are deeply and as much desperate as Ukraine is," McCain said.

"So we have to make sure that we remind the world the importance of taking a look around the globe," she continued. "But people are talking to their parliaments, their parliaments are saying no, their constituents are saying no. And we are facing some of the same things here in the United States."

There were national security implications to supporting at-risk communities abroad, McCain said: "The terrorist groups are feeding people. And it's primarily a lot of the stuff they steal from us."

"We have to pay attention to it because we're either going to feed them now or fight them later. And there's no way about this. And ... as a human being and a humanitarian, we cannot turn our backs on this," McCain said. "We can't. If we don't do it, who will?"

McCain, widow of late Arizona Sen. John McCain, said her husband "would be furious" at the current state of affairs.

"I know he'd be traveling the world to make sure that people got the message and understood the importance and the desperation of the situation we're in," she said.

Cindy McCain, a Republican, has been vocal about her critical views of former President Donald Trump. But asked by Karl about what she thought would be the outcome if he won the 2024 election, she declined to answer specifically, citing her current work with the apolitical WFP.

Still, she said, "We have to consider what's at stake and why and the influence and impact a single human being can have on this situation."

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