Providing Humanitarian Assistance

For the world’s most vulnerable people, the UN functions as a global 911 service—a first responder that helps deliver food, shelter, clean water, medical assistance, and education to those caught in the middle of deadly conflicts or suffering in the aftermath of natural disasters. Given its high degree of international legitimacy, capacity, and reach, the UN is uniquely positioned to coordinate and lead these types of relief efforts.

Members of the Jordanian battalion of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) rescue children from an orphanage destroyed by hurricane "Ike".
Photo Credit: Marco Dormino/UN Photo

2022, unfortunately, demanded more from the UN’s diverse network of first responders than any year in recent memory, and the needs in 2023 are again expected to outpace the preceding 12 months. In fact, the UN’s Global Humanitarian Overview for 2023 calls for $51.5 billion to reach 230 million people in need—an increase of $10.5 billion from the initial 2022 target released before the invasion of Ukraine.

While the world’s most desperate crises share many traits—violent conflict, economic instability, health disparities—one collective challenge unites them all: severe food insecurity. Across the planet, the largest food crisis in modern history is quickly exploding, creating compounding challenges and reversing critical development gains. As many as 828 million people go to bed hungry every night and the number of those facing acute food insecurity has soared from 135 million in 2019 to 345 million today. Below are four examples of how the UN tackled these complex food insecurity challenges in 2022 and is working collaboratively to mount expanded responses in 2023.


Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, Haiti has been trapped in a severe political, economic, and humanitarian crisis.

Armed gangs have transformed Port-au-Prince into a sea of lawlessness, paralyzing the lives of ordinary citizens who struggle every day to evade random killings, rape, torture, and—most prevalent of all—extreme hunger. In one of the most stunning developments, in September 2022 gangs seized control of a critical oil terminal that supplies the country with 70% of its diesel—an essential commodity in a nation with no working electrical grid. Although police regained control of the site two months later, fuel costs have continued to soar and, as of December 2022, public transportation prices were 200% higher than the previous year, putting immense upward pressure on food prices and severely limiting Haitians’ ability to procure even the most basic dietary staples.

In that same month, two of the four warehouses run by the World Food Programme (WFP) in Haiti were looted, pillaged, and burned; $6 million worth of relief assistance, including 2,000 tons of food, was stolen. Against this chaotic backdrop, however, the UN and its partners have continued their work. WFP reached over 1 million Haitians in 2022 with food commodities, hot meals, cash-based transfers, and other forms of lifesaving assistance. WFP also leveraged its UN Humanitarian Air Service to deliver fuel to hospitals and health centers that are treating people suffering from a deadly resurgence of cholera. Other UN humanitarian agencies, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and UN Population Fund, distributed hundreds of thousands of gallons of drinking water, baby supplies, therapeutic foods, and other essentials.

The needs, however, continue to rise. Haiti began 2023 with half of the country’s population (approximately 4.7 million people) in all-out food crisis, with nearly 20,000 people suffering “catastrophic” levels of food insecurity, and half of all children children (2 million) not in school. Absent a significant improvement in the security situation, the UN is scaling up its response to these mounting challenges. The UN has set a goal of reaching 3 million people over the year, which will include expanding school feeding programs and take-home rations, increasing treatment of severe acute malnutrition in children, promoting infant and young child feeding practices, and improving access to sanitation and hygiene services, among many other key targets.

Sri Lanka

2022 was a disastrous year for the people of Sri Lanka. The country suffered an all-out economic collapse, triggering nationwide shortages of food, fuel, and medicine.

 Beginning in April, lines for gas and cooking fuel snaked miles around Colombo, and families were forced to significantly reduce their food portion sizes, with many reporting they were skipping meals entirely. The lack of these necessities and a disastrous national experiment in organic agricultural practices, in turn, sparked social chaos and political turmoil. In April, the parliament declared a state of emergency. In July, the Prime Minister declared that Sri Lanka was effectively bankrupt. A week later, the president fled the country on a military jet.

By the end of year, the multidimensional crisis had caused the cost of food to increase by 64.4% and reduced agricultural production by a further 40% as fertilizer, feed, veterinary supplies, and other essential production inputs became increasingly scarce. According to the World Bank, Sri Lanka is now among the 10 countries most affected by food inflation, with an annual rate of 81%. As a result, the UN reports that 36% of the country’s population (approximately 7 million people) are food insecure—a situation that is anticipated to worsen.

Since the start of emergency operations in mid-2022, the UN has leveraged its presence to respond to this sudden, unprecedented situation, reaching 1.8 million people in need across all of its agencies, funds, and programs. WFP has delivered lifesaving assistance to 1.1 million people, including reaching almost 500,000 people with cash assistance and nearly 100,000 with in-kind assistance. WFP additionally distributed rice to thousands of schools around the country, ensuring some 500,000 children weren’t forced to study while hungry. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also scaled up its emergency and resilience interventions, reaching nearly 250,000 people across 62,000 households, including distributing 2,381 tons of fertilizer to over 45,000 farming households and providing cash transfers of approximately $1.4 million to 15,000 households.

Food insecurity in Sri Lanka is projected to continue in 2023, with another poor harvest season forecast and no immediate off-ramp to the country’s severe debt crisis. The UN’s revised response plan for the country calls for immediate food assistance for 2.4 million vulnerable and food insecure people; provision of support and fertilizers for 1.5 million farmers and fishers; and nutrition support for 2.1 million people, including pregnant women and children.


While often underreported, Madagascar is suffering through what has been referred to as potentially the world’s first climate change famine—a massive humanitarian crisis sparked, in part, by prolonged drought, sandstorms, cyclones, and other extreme weather.

The impacts of these conditions have decimated agricultural production and left an estimated 2 million people in acute food insecurity and 500,000 children under the age of 5 suffering from acute malnutrition.

Agriculture is the backbone of Madagascar’s economy, accounting for 25% of its GDP and employing 80% of the population. With lives and livelihoods both severely jeopardized by the crisis, the island nation has become one of the five countries most affected by hunger and malnutrition, according to the 2022 Global Hunger Index. This dire reality has pushed people in the country’s south, known as the Grand Sud, to pursue desperate survival measures such as eating locusts, grass, or leaves, and it has forced children to leave school to help their families forage for food.

Thanks to robust U.S. funding, the UN has been able to significantly expand its response to the crisis, reaching more than 1 million people in 2022 with in-kind food assistance, malnutrition treatment, and direct technical support to vulnerable smallholder households. In 2023, the UN’s focus will remain on saving lives and alleviating suffering due to the drought and cyclone crises, with a focus on food security, nutrition, health, potable water, hygiene supplies, and sanitation services. At the same time, partners will ensure the centrality of protection and education, with schools serving as a safe haven for drought-affected children as well as a vital entry point for referrals to other programs, including nutrition.

Burkina Faso

An ongoing war with extremist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and ISIS has killed thousands of civilians and made Burkina Faso home to one of the largest displacement crises in the world.

The federal government’s inability to stem the violence led to two military coups in 2022, in January and in September. As a result, humanitarian needs in Burkina Faso—already one of the poorest countries in the world—are rising fast. By the end of 2022, approximately 25% of the population (nearly 5 million people) was in need of emergency assistance, an increase of 40% from the beginning of the year. Internal displacement and insecurity have left communities isolated from the rest of the nation, cutting people off from their livelihoods and triggering rampant hunger. The UN itself has been affected by political instability, with Burkina Faso’s government ordering the expulsion of the top UN official in the country in December.

In the face of these challenges, UN humanitarian action is making a difference. In the first nine months of 2022, the UN and its partners delivered food assistance to 1.8 million people in Burkina Faso and supported 740,000 people with access to health care in areas where health facilities have closed and medical supplies are lacking. The UN also provided access to water, hygiene, and sanitation to 550,000 people and nutritional support to 421,000 children and new and expectant mothers.

Unfortunately, though, Burkina Faso is unlikely to see any major reduction in humanitarian demands in 2023, requiring the UN and partners to do more to mobilize resources to reach crisis-affected populations, including providing nutritious food to school-age children and supporting smallholder farmers affected by insecurity and recurrent climate shocks.