President Macky Sall, of Senegal, West Africa, Puts UNGA on notice, “If there is no fertilizer, we will have a famine”.
President Macky Sall of Senegal addresses the Food Security Summit

Live from the UN General Assembly: Food Security in Focus | The Global Refugee Crisis (UNGA Day 2)

The annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly is always a key moment on the diplomatic calendar. Hundreds of world leaders head to New York to address the General Assembly and participate in various meetings and events around the city. And each day, I will bring you the key highlights from the 77th United Nations General Assembly.

A key focus of events at the United Nations and around New York this week is on food security and food access. On Tuesday, world leaders held a major Food Security Summit to combat soaring food prices and food insecurity around the world. This is the topic of our first segment today, featuring Rob Vos, director for Markets, Trade and Institutions at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

In the second segment, I speak with the Assistant High Commissioner for Operations at the UN Refugee Agency, Raouf Mazou about how refugee issues are being addressed at UNGA this year.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

Live from the UN General Assembly: Food Security in Focus | The Global Refugee Crisis (UNGA Day 2)

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:00:05] Welcome to a special episode of the Global Dispatches podcast, live from the United Nations General Assembly. I’m your host, Mark Lee on Goldberg, editor of U.N. Dispatch, and all week long in partnership with the United Nations Foundation. We are bringing you Daily News and expert interviews from high level week in New York City. The annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly is always a key moment on the diplomatic calendar. Hundreds of world leaders head to New York to address the General Assembly and participate in various meetings and events around the city. And each day, I will bring you the key highlights from the 77th United Nations General Assembly. Today is the Tuesday of UNGA and the start of what is known as the General Debate. These are the leaders speeches delivered from the General Assembly floor. And as always, the speeches kick off with an address from the secretary general, and I think it is notable that this was AntonÍo Guterres’ opening line. [00:01:09][64.0]

Antonío Guterres: [00:01:10] Mr. President of the General Assembly, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. Our world is in big trouble. [00:01:20][10.6]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:01:21] He is certainly not incorrect. And one recurring theme throughout events across New York this week is finding ways out of that trouble. This includes a major food security summit today co-chaired by the United States, the European Union, the African Union and Spain. That summit is the topic of our first segment today, featuring Rob Voss, director for Markets, Trade and Institutions at the International Food Policy Research Institute. [00:01:52][30.6]

Rob Vos: [00:01:53] But also it’s recognition that yeah, if we don’t solve these challenges, trade for security, we may see a lot more conflict around the world. [00:02:01][8.2]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:02:02] And in our second segment, I speak with Assistant High Commissioner for operations at the United Nations refugee agency, Raouf Mazou, about how refugee issues are being addressed at UNGA this year. [00:02:15][13.2]

Raouf Mazou: [00:02:16] We have to make sure that as we respond to the Ukraine crisis, we’ll continue to find the resources that are required for all the many crises that we have around the world. [00:02:25][9.3]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:02:26] Thank you for joining us all week long for this special UNGA series. And now here is my conversation with Rob Voss of the International Food Policy Research Institute, recorded just moments after the public facing section of the Food Security Summit concluded. [00:02:44][18.1]

[00:02:55] Rob, thank you so much for joining me. [00:02:57][1.9]

Rob Vos: [00:02:57] It’s my pleasure. [00:02:58][0.3]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:02:58] So, Rob, you and I just concluded watching the opening session of a food security summit here in New York. To set the scene a little bit. This was an event with several co-chairs and hosts. And we heard opening remarks from the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, followed by Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, followed by Pedro Sanchez, the prime minister of Spain. Then German Chancellor Olof Scholz and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And then to conclude everything, President Petro of Colombia, at this point, they kicked all press out of the room and had a closed door meeting. But these opening remarks for the press were intended to set the tone for this food security summit. What stuck out to you from what we just saw. [00:03:53][54.3]

Rob Vos: [00:03:54] A few things. The first was this very strong call and spirit of doing things together. Call for more multilateralism, which we haven’t heard in a long time, particularly from some of the key players on this stage, but also a sense of urgency. And I think that’s maybe the most important thing. First, that food security takes center stage as part of the global challenges, not just because of rising hunger, not just because of the high food prices, but for the sheer continuity of our food systems, the sustainability of our food systems moving forward. So really, the call I felt was going beyond the immediate humanitarian support to fight the costs of living crisis that many people face at the moment. On to looking forward to long term solutions. Yeah, I think it’s also very refreshing to hear that because we haven’t heard a lot of that spirit. It doesn’t mean that everybody agrees on those points that some important players here at the summit emphasized that, and there’s now a big following. So that’s gives, yeah. Good hopes that maybe things will happen. [00:05:09][75.5]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:05:11] That’s an interesting point that typically when we’re at a food security event around the U.N. General Assembly in particular, it’s often just focus on a particular crisis. And the framing is all humanitarian. We need to get food or assistance to curb this impending crisis somewhere. But that was not necessarily the tone, as you said, of the opening remarks to this session, which I think is pretty interesting. [00:05:37][26.1]

Rob Vos: [00:05:38] You’re correct. I fully agree. And also, Secretary Blinken made it very clear that he saw a clear connection with the issue of climate change, he address to Security Council, the links between food security and conflict, and the fact that’s particularly important for two reasons. First, that conflict is one of the main drivers of food crisis. As we see it, not so much. The crisis in global markets was, of course, the Ukraine war is a reflection of it. But it’s particularly also the conflict situations we see in the Horn of Africa, in countries like Yemen and other countries that are already facing severe food crisis for many years. And that that connection is there. So it’s a driver. But also it’s a recognition that, yeah, if we don’t solve these challenges with food security, we may see a lot more conflicts around the world, be it because producing more food will require struggles for water or land and other natural resources. And those typically can be sources of conflict if we don’t address them properly. So I think it’s important to put that center stage to the agenda and as the leader said and that’s what we’re waited for now. We have to go beyond the words. We have to get to the action. [00:06:58][80.2]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:06:59] One recurring issue that came up in each of the speeches and also came up during Antonío Guterres in his opening remarks to the UN General Assembly today, was a crisis around fertilizers and fertilizer access, namely a shortage of fertilizers, presumably resulting from sanctions on Russia and the war in Ukraine. Guterres, in his remarks at the U.N. today, said a fertilizer shortage today will mean food shortages next year. Two questions. One, can you just for for those of us who are unaware, explain the relationship between fertilizer and fertilizer access, particularly in the developing world and food security. And then two, explain what’s the holdup around fertilizers today? [00:07:53][53.7]

Rob Vos: [00:07:55] Fertilize are extremely important for production for yields. So the productivity of how much food we produce and the fertilizer is particularly important for the main staple foods wheat, maize, rice, the old needs with the technologies we have. They need to use of fertilizer in order to have the levels of production that we have now. So that’s a relationship, even though maybe some people don’t like the use of chemical fertilizer, but it is something that helps nurture the ground and keep up productivity when used with the proper amounts and well-targeted to the types of crops when its producing. So that’s why fertilizers are important. But why we’re saying these disruptions in fertilizer markets. First, immediate shock from the war in Ukraine, is first that Russia is a major fertilizer producer in the world. Also, Belarus who has also been hit by export bans in relation to this crisis, is also a major producer of various types of fertilizer. So that’s one reason. The second is that with the invasion of Ukraine, energy prices have gone up. And particularly natural gas is a main inputs for fertilizer production as well as that fertilizer production requires a lot of energy, and that’s either fed by natural gas, or oil, but for most fossil fuels, with the energy network stuff we have the moment. So also now, particularly in Europe, you see additional supply disruptions in fertilizer markets because Russia is squeezing the amount of natural gas that is run through the pipelines. And so even to the extent that’s a number of European fertilizer plants had to shut down because of the high prices and the lack of natural gas. So that’s causing shortages. Then on top of that, a number of countries that also produce fertilizers, including countries like China, they have imposed restrictions on exports of fertilizers. So globally, we see shortages of fertilizer and very high prices. So the fear is that that would affect production. It’s increasing the cost to farmers, so they may use less of it. But also there is an absolute shortage that will also use less of that for that reason, and that’s going to affect the yields and the harvests in the next production cycle. [00:10:25][150.2]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:10:26] President Macky Sall of Senegal at the Food Security Summit said plainly, quote, If there is no fertilizer, we will have a famine. What can be done to increase fertilizer access, particularly in the developing world and in Africa? I noted that with interest that Charles Michel, the European Council president, compared the situation to early on in COVID, when there is this effort to get local manufacturing of vaccines in the developing world, particularly in Africa. Now, the implication was we need to invest more in local development of fertilizer in Africa. [00:11:10][44.0]

Rob Vos: [00:11:11] Yeah, I think the president of Senegal is right. It’s that they need more fertilizer, actually. Africa is a continent where they need much more fertilizer use than anywhere else, because it’s the country that heavily underutilizes fertilizers, particularly chemical fertilizers to such an extent that it allows usage and with the quality of soils, that’s what any crop production in many parts to extract more nutrients from the ground than that they can put back in, even with rotation of crops. And so on. I would not agree to the extent that he says, well, without fertilizer, we will have famines, that that is the linear causal relationship. It’s more in general that the production capacity and productivity of food production in Africa is way too low for comfort to be able to feed its population and hence explain the food shortages from such food access and also hunger situations in Africa. So it may help if we get more local fertilizer production from its fertilizer production at least with chemical fertilizers that it builds on a large economies of scale. So it’s not something you can do with just doing it in each and every country unless you have major investment of resources. A country like Nigeria has expanded quite a bit it’s fertilizer production also based on its resources of natural gas and also other fossil fuels. But yeah, unfortunately, a lot of that fertilizer production doesn’t feed the needs of African farmers, but a lot of it is being exported to Latin America and other parts of the world. So in just increasing production one would need a lot more to control and ease the access of farmers, particularly in Africa, to fertilizers. [00:13:06][114.8]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:13:07] I’m grateful that we’ve had this conversation about fertilizers because it is just a recurring thing throughout this week. Even last week, Antonio Guterres was late for his pre UN General Assembly press conference because he was on the phone with Vladimir Putin talking about ammonia exports and fertilizer exports. And then earlier today I was at the Clinton Global Initiative. Fertilizers were being discussed in the context of food security. And now, as I said, just about every speaker at this food security summit discussed the sort of urgency around expanding access to fertilizers in the near term. But I wanted to ask you lastly, what would you like to see as a food security expert, as a food systems expert, to come to result from this conference or a meeting like this? What needs to be done from those gathered in that room in New York right now to mitigate a disastrous global food crisis? [00:14:09][62.2]

Rob Vos: [00:14:10] The first thing I would hope for will come from this is that the countries will go beyond their pledges for providing more money for the World Food Program and other mechanisms of humanitarian assistance, that it’s very important that we get that support. But what’s more critical isthat we want coordinated action that would lead us to a lot more investments in food productivity around the world, but particularly in low income countries, a lot more investments in innovations, research and development, and also a concerted effort to reform current agricultural policies. Because beyond what’s been said over trying to add to things that’s already being done, but some of the things that are being done by many governments around the world is to support agriculture systems that are not sustainable and resilient. And the government spends more than $800 billion per year on agriculture support measures that could be much better deployed. So if we can get to a concerted agenda out of this for repurposing of that support, for building more resilient agriculture systems through investments, innovations, supporting farmers to adopt those innovations also support to consumers so they can better access food, but also incentives to improve their diets, such that we can have also more healthy outcomes from the food system. So I would hope that’s part of the discussion. And maybe even better, the central case of this discussion is to embed this action in also reform in taking away the things that we should not be doing, as is happening now with a lot of the agricultural support that we see around the world. [00:16:06][115.9]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:16:07] Rob, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. [00:16:10][2.9]

Rob Vos: [00:16:11] Thank you. [00:16:11][0.2]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:16:20] Thank you so much to Robert Voss for that helpful and timely analysis and explanation of what happened at the Food Security Summit. And now here is my conversation with Raouf Mazou, assistant High Commissioner for Operations at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. [00:16:36][16.7]

[00:16:50] Mr. Raouf Mazou, thank you for speaking with me in the midst of all that is happening here in New York this week. [00:16:55][5.4]

Raouf Mazou: [00:16:56] Thank you very much. [00:16:57][0.6]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:16:58] To kick off, I would appreciate it if you could help situate the global displacement crisis for me and for the audience. As leaders gather in New York this week. What does the refugee and displacement crisis look like around the world? [00:17:12][14.6]

Raouf Mazou: [00:17:13] It doesn’t look good because what we have now is a bit more than 100 million people displaced all around the world. That’s the largest of the number that we’ve seen over the past ten years. We’ve seen an increase. And, of course it’s the result of conflict, it’s the result of climate change, it’s the result of a number of factors. So that’s definitely one of the number one issue, because the U.N. is also about peace, about partnership, about conversation. So that’s definitely one of the issues that is going to be discussed here. [00:17:45][31.3]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:17:45] Of all the displacement crises around the world today, is there any of particular concern to you perhaps that’s not getting the attention it deserves? [00:17:54][9.0]

Raouf Mazou: [00:17:55] I would say quite a few. The number one problem is the fact that we have more and more crises and less and less solutions. In the past, what you would see, that you would see some crises, some solutions, new crises, but some. But what we see now is an accumulation of crisis, orcrises that are worsening. The worst crises that we have is, of course, the Syria situation. It has lasted for the past 11 years. It’s several millions of people in neighboring countries and less and less options for solutions. Countries beginning to show asylum fatigue is evident. So I would say that’s the problem. So we have that in a number of situations around the world. I would also make reference to the situation in Bangladesh with the Rohingya refugees who’ve arrived for the past, it was 2017, so five years. You have all crises such as the one in the DRC where you have 5 million internally displaced persons, a situation, a crisis that is not often spoken about. It’s the situation in Yemen where you have also about 5 million people internally displaced, plus refugees from neighboring countries. So there are quite a few, I would say, forgotten crises around the world. [00:19:07][71.1]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:19:07] So one of the key recurring themes this week is food insecurity and a worsening global food crisis as leaders are engaging in this issue during a high level week. What should we know about how the food crisis is impacting UNHCR operations around the world? [00:19:26][19.3]

Raouf Mazou: [00:19:27] The first thing is that the food crisis has been impacting refugees for quite some time. The fact is that it has been more and more difficult to mobilize the resources that are required to provide food assistance to refugees in camps, there are quite a few refugees around the world, in camps who require monthly food assistance, so it has been very difficult to mobilize the resources that were required. And that has been the case for quite some time. For quite some time we’ve seen regular cuts in food assistance being provided. What the current crisis is provoking is the fact that it is even more difficult to find the resources because food assistance is more expensive than it was in the past. And in addition to the cost of food assistance, there is the fact that we have more and more crises that are operating. So what we did earlier last week, we had the side event before the high level week, and the purpose was to have member sit. So an event that was actually co-sponsored, sponsored by the Swiss Permanent Mission, and the idea was to have around the table governments, civil society, the UN, and see what the issue is and how we can try and make sure that we provide better responses to the food crises that we are facing. [00:20:40][72.6]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:20:41] Were there any meaningful outcomes from that pre-high level week meeting? [00:20:45][4.0]

Raouf Mazou: [00:20:46] Quite a few. First, a recognition of the fact that there are a number of situation where there is urgency in making sure that we avoid situations where food assistance is being cut by 50%, there are quite a few places around the world where we’ve seen food assistance being cut by 50%, such as the Horn of Africa, where on top of that you have the drought and the famine. So to really put these situations to the fore and make sure that we will provide the food assistance that is required. There’s been a commitment made by key donor countries. That was one. [00:21:19][33.1]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:21:19] It seems sort of shocking that a goal would be to not cut food assistance by 50% as opposed to a goal being a 100% funding of food assistance. [00:21:31][11.2]

Raouf Mazou: [00:21:32] No, that’s where we are. And that’s why it is important to at least make sure that the humanitarian imperative of providing the minimal food assistance and that’s not a lot that’s 2010 kilocalories today to make sure that this is guaranteed. So that’s the number one thing that was on the line. And then of course, to try and make sure that we use that dependency. There are places around the world where we could invest in food production. For populations which have been immigrant for a long period of time, protracted situation where you can invest and there are possibilities, there’s land available and fertile land available, possible. But that requires investment, which in most cases humanitarian partners do not have. And that’s why you also bring to the table development actors. And in this case, what is interesting to see is that they don’t just provide support to refugee situation. You also provide assistance and support to the populations that are hosting them. So I would say quite serious, but quite some hope listening to all the partners and and also the understanding that we all need to work together, whether it is development actors, humanitarian actors, private sector, the U.N., everybody working together to try and address these issues. [00:22:42][70.7]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:22:43] Another key theme through high level week is the role of education. The week kicked off with a Transforming Education summit convened by the secretary general. What’s the relationship between your work on refugee issues, UNHCR and this broader movement towards broadening education opportunities around the world? [00:23:07][23.8]

Raouf Mazou: [00:23:08] The first thing is that unfortunately what we know and what we see around the world is that when there is a crisis with a displacement crisis or any crisis, children do not go to school. Education is one of the sectors that is suffering the most in this kind of environment and the least prioritized. I spoke about should just before, what you can also say is that education support is often also deprioritized. So the summit that is taking place this week, the Transforming Education Summit, is key for us because it’s an opportunity for us to underline the importance and the necessity of including refugees, including internally displaced persons in the response that is being provided. We did ourselves launch last week our appeal education report, and our point was to underline the importance of including refugees in government response, in government plans. In terms of a few figures that I can provide. If you look at the current numbers, you have about 68% of refugees in primary education, 37 in secondary education, and only 6% in tertiary education. If you compare these numbers to the numbers of the known displacement forcibly displaced people, you can see a huge gap. So investing in that, and what is also interesting and the fact that we’ll have the summit doesn’t just bring governments or UN agencies also brings the private sector, civil society and other partners to make sure that we respond to this challenge. So our message is to say that as we are talking about transforming education, as we’re talking about improving the quality of education, we should not forget the situation of forcibly displaced people. And I think our message was heard. [00:24:58][109.7]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:24:59] Finally and you referenced this earlier, funding constraints are very real, not only for UNHCR, but across the humanitarian space. What are you doing this week during high level week to try to shore up your funding in order to continue your operations around the world? [00:25:21][22.1]

Raouf Mazou: [00:25:22] We have mobilized, I think, last year with the money amount that we never mobilized before to about $5 billion. So that remains about half of what we actually need to respond to the needs of the population. But that number is the highest that we have been able to mobilize. So that’s the first thing to do. We are managing to to fundraise, but not enough. Not enough because, as I said, crises are increasing and cost of the humanitarian assiatance that is being provided is also increasing. So what we are saying first is to tell donors, our traditional donors, on the importance of continuing to provide the humanitarian assistance that is required when they tell us, but what are you doing more to make sure that you reduce the dependency on humanitarian aid? We’re telling them that we’re bringing to the table development actors, World Bank and others to try and make the refugee population, IDP population, more resilient. That’s what we’re saying. And we’re also saying that new partners have to come to the table. Private sector has been very active. I think we are hoping to get by the end of the year, $1 billion from the private sector. That’s also unprecedented. So that’s a positive sign. But we are arguing and we are advocating for more of these resources and the other countries around the world, which we believe would have the possibility of also contributing, and in this place, the General Assembly, where everybody is, is an opportunity for us to underline that. One last point. We’ve had very, very successful response to our appeal on the Ukraine situation. And what we’ve also been saying is that this should not be done at the expense of other crises around the world. So that’s the point that we’ve been underlining for quite some time. We have to make sure that as we respond to the Ukraine crisis, we’ll continue to find the resources that are required for the many crises that we have around the world. [00:27:14][112.0]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:27:15] Well, Mr. Mazou, thank you so much for your time. [00:27:18][3.1]

Raouf Mazou: [00:27:19] Thank you very much, Mark. [00:27:20][0.8]

Mark L. Goldberg: [00:27:28] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharpe. If you have any questions or comments, please email us using the contact button on or hit me up on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg. Please rate and subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts.