NAIROBI, Kenya -- In Afghanistan, starving children stream into hospitals. In the West African country of Burkina Faso, a mother weeps for the child she just lost during an arduous trek out of a conflict zone. From Syria to Central America, families go to bed hungry.
The ship carrying grain that left the Ukrainian port of Odesa on Monday, the first since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, also carried fragile hopes that it might stem a global tide of hunger. Ukraine's bulging stores hold 20 million tons of grain -- trillions of trapped calories with the potential to relieve a food crisis that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has warned could last years.
But experts say the immediate effect of Ukrainian grain exports on the global food crisis may be modest -- if it is even felt at all.
Aid officials say it's unclear how much of the grain will reach suffering people in places like the Horn of Africa, where a four-year drought has left 18 million people facing severe hunger.
And they say that the scale of the crisis -- years in the making and fueled by wars, climate shocks and the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic -- is so immense that no single gain would be a silver bullet. As many as 50 million people in 45 countries are teetering on the brink of famine, according to the U.N.'s World Food Program. In the 20 worst-hit countries, the situation is likely to worsen substantially by the end of the summer, it said.
That is just the extreme suffering in the expanding spectrum of hunger. Across the globe, as many as 828 million people -- one-tenth of the world's population -- were undernourished last year, the highest figure in decades, the Food and Agriculture Organization recently estimated.
Yet funding for humanitarian and development aid lags far behind the need. In Yemen, where 60% of the population relies on food aid, aid workers have slashed rations to make them go further.
"This is the only country where I've worked where you take food from the hungry to feed the starving," said Richard Ragan, the World Food Program director in Yemen.
Not long ago, the world was on track to eliminate hunger.
Between 2005 and 2014, the number of undernourished people, as measured by the Food and Agriculture Organization, fell nearly 30% to 572 million from 806 million. Rates of child stunting fell, and the prevalence of breastfeeding began to climb. An ambitious goal of eliminating world hunger by 2030, agreed on by world leaders at a summit in 2015, seemed within reach.
But much of those gains came from China and India, where economic booms lifted tens of millions out of poverty. In Africa, where 20% of people are undernourished, progress was grindingly slow. After 2014 the hunger figure flatlined for several years, until it suddenly shot up.
Wars and climate shocks were the primary drivers. A rash of conflicts worsened across Africa and the Middle East, including Yemen, in the Sahel region of Africa -- and in Afghanistan.
Just ask Saad Ahmed.
Since the Taliban seized power there one year ago, triggering an economic collapse, life has become a battle for survival, Ahmed said. The father of six recently sold a carpet to buy food for his children.
And as he lined up for food aid alongside hundreds of others in a once-wealthy district of the capital, Kabul, Ahmed said he couldn't even turn to his relatives for assistance.
"They have nothing left either," he said. "How can I ask them for help?"
(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)