Remarks by Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D'Oyen McKenna at National Press Club

March 25, 2021

D’Oyen McKenna highlights worrying ripple effects of the pandemic on worsening hunger, poverty and conflict.

Thank you to the National Press Club for inviting me to speak today. 

It’s an honor to address this historic institution at such a pivotal moment in the history of the world.

And to be here alongside you, Lisa. Congratulations on your recent appointment as President of the Press Club. I’m excited for your leadership ahead.

As Lisa mentioned, Mercy Corps, we are a global team of 5,600 humanitarians committed to creating a future where everyone can prosper.  

We work in more than 40 countries around the world. When COVID-19 hit, our team members redoubled their efforts to support communities in need. Despite travel restrictions, supply chain disruptions, and the uncertainty we all experienced in the early days of this virus, Mercy Corps - together with our partners - adapted to continue to provide lifesaving relief and critical development assistance, and to help communities protect themselves against COVID. 

Over the past year we at Mercy Corps have helped more than 37 million people…

....from communicating timely and accurate health information about COVID-19 to over 9 million farmers in East Africa... using 3D technology to produce face shields for local hospitals in Tunisia to protect healthcare workers... providing clean water, soap and other hygiene essentials to help more than 12 million people stay healthy and protect themselves from the virus.

So before I continue with my remarks, let me just say a huge ‘thank you’ to our team and to all the humanitarians around the world who have been working so tirelessly for the past year.

And what a year it has been for all of us as we look at this one year milestone. Every person on earth has been deeply affected by these unprecedented events. 

But as with all things, NOT equally.

Because just as we’ve seen COVID magnify pre-existing inequalities here in the U.S., the same is true and even more so beyond our shores. 

In fact, due to the pressures of this pandemic, extreme poverty is on the rise for the first time in two decades. 

This time last year, one in every 45 people around the world was in need of humanitarian assistance. 

Today, that figure is one in every 33. So, that’s 235 million people around the world who rely on aid to survive, an increase of 40 percent from this time last year.

Never before have we faced a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude.

For millions of people, this pandemic has exacerbated hunger, poverty, conflict and gender inequality — all of which have the potential to be equally or even more deadly than the virus itself. 

The World Food Program estimates that more than 270 million people around the world are either at risk of becoming, or already are acutely food-insecure because of COVID. The disruption of supply chains has led to spikes in the price of basic foods, like grain and dairy, at exactly the same time as millions of people worldwide have either lost jobs or lost their ability to earn livelihoods or are struggling to get by on reduced incomes. In South Sudan, the price of an average family’s food basket has increased by more than 40% - leaving more than 8 million people in need of food assistance. 

When families can’t afford to feed themselves, they resort to extreme measures: selling what few assets they have like their chickens or their cattle, pulling children out of school where schools are still open, or marrying girls away early to reduce the economic burdens on the family. Even as the health effects of the pandemic subside, hunger and poverty will be long-lasting and will take time to emerge.

The pandemic is also reversing progress towards gender equality. Women and girls are enduring the worst of this pandemic - suffering greater threats to their health and livelihoods than men, enduring an increase in physical violence and shouldering more burdens as they care for family members. 

As we look ahead to the coming year, my team and I fear that rising hunger, poverty and challenges for women and girls will be accompanied by a significant increase in violent conflict. 

COVID-19 is already worsening global conflict at every level. Armed groups are exploiting the pandemic, leading to an increased risk of deadly violence. Government responses to the pandemic, including lockdowns and border closures, are fraying community trust; misinformation is proliferating; and competition for resources has intensified. It's a scary mix of conditions. 

In Colombia, progress toward peace was already flagging following the 2016 peace accords. Armed groups were filling the power vacuum left by the FARC….

...Initial findings from Mercy Corps research show the pandemic has driven rural Colombian households to illicit crops like coca, reversing the downward trend we had seen before the pandemic. Farmers are being coerced by armed groups to either grow coca or abandon any plans they had to switch to legal crops. The economic ripple effects of COVID-19 also mean there are fewer options for farmers to get their legal crops to market. So, when armed groups control an area, coca is more profitable and more reliable as an income source.   

...We’ve also seen that school closures and a lack of opportunities for young people have led to an increase in youth joining armed groups. This, again, has reversed the positive trend that we were seeing in Colombia before the pandemic - where there was recruitment of young people to armed groups had been failing.

Around the world, our teams are also seeing that the very measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID are inadvertently fueling violence in some countries...

In South Sudan, communities have told us lockdowns and movement restrictions are undermining traditional methods of addressing and resolving disputes. So, these are the gatherings where communities deal with issues from theft to allegations of sexual assault - and without them, very serious tensions are left unresolved in these countries. 

In Northwest Nigeria, COVID-related closures of the border with Niger have increased unemployment and reduced trade for border communities, making it harder for farmers to get their food to market, and for families to buy the basic supplies that they need….

...Communities tell us this has strengthened armed groups, who have exploited rising economic hardship and grievances to recruit new members and collaborators….

...which, in turn, has fueled a spike in kidnappings, including of schoolchildren - as I’m sure we’ve all seen reported by you over recent weeks.

These challenges are widespread. In fragile countries, COVID has magnified the challenges that already existed - to the cost of their populations.  

And, not surprisingly, these are the same countries that are at the back of the line waiting for vaccine access.

Of the 20 countries worldwide that saw the highest levels of violent conflict last year, only two are projected to achieve widespread vaccination of their populations by the middle of next year. 

So, the remaining 18 countries are unlikely to reach widespread vaccination until the start of 2023 or even later.

The longer these conflict-affected countries wait for vaccines, the greater the risk that violence will increase, and that hunger and poverty will worsen, making it more difficult and more time consuming to recover in the long run.

The challenges are immense - so how, together, can we meet this moment? I don’t want to end on a feeling of hopelessness; we are definitely not hopeless. 

First, we must fight for COVID-19 vaccines to be distributed equitably around the world.

This is critical to ending the pandemic and beginning recovery. 

Yet higher-income countries continue to secure agreements for vaccines above and beyond what’s needed for their populations. Residents of wealthy and middle-income countries have received about 90 percent of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered so far.

At Mercy Corps we are urging the U.S. and other higher-income countries, as well as pharmaceutical companies, to take concrete action to address vaccine inequity and ensure vaccines can reach everyone, everywhere. 

Many higher-income nations have stepped up with generous financial contributions to COVAX, but money doesn’t address supply and production issues. 

You can bring money to a grocery store, but if the shelves are empty you’ll leave empty handed and hungry.

Wealthy countries that have purchased excess vaccines should donate those supplies through COVAX as they become available, and take action to boost vaccine production. 

We also need strong collaboration between governments and global health actors to ensure people living in conflict zones and other hard-to-reach areas are not left out of vaccination efforts. This must include vulnerable populations such as migrants and refugees or populations within countries that suffer discrimination. 

Beyond ensuring access to vaccines, we must make sure communities around the world have trust and faith to engage in their public health systems when vaccines do arrive. 

Action to create vaccine acceptance is needed now to lay the groundwork for a successful vaccine rollout. 

Building public trust will require an enormous, united effort from governments, public health officials, humanitarian groups, civil society organizations, the private sector, and local community leaders. 

We need deep and inclusive community engagement to build trust in public health systems as well as the vaccines themselves, particularly after so many have seen their public health systems and governments to contain the virus. 

And while successful global vaccine rollout is critical, it’s not a cure-all solution for post-pandemic recovery. 

Along with vaccines, we need sustained assistance to prevent millions more people from slipping deeper into poverty and hunger, and to prevent the unraveling of the development gains we’ve worked so hard for. 

Unfortunately, foreign assistance is not keeping pace with the ballooning need we see across the globe. 

Only one-third of one percent of U.S. COVID relief thus far has gone to global assistance. 

Nearly all of that money, all of that one third of 1 percent of U.S. relief, has been for medical relief and vaccine distribution, with little support for the devastating economic, social and other ramifications. 

Mercy Corps, we have joined with more than 70 international NGOs in calling on Congress and the White House to support a comprehensive global response to the COVID-19 crisis... 

...not only for global health but also for humanitarian, development and conflict prevention work.

Because conflict prevention programs work. 

Mercy Corps has consistently found that they enhance security and promote stability that can break devastating cycles of violence.

These investments are more critical now than ever. Mercy Corps worked with Congress to pass the first-ever peacebuilding law - the Global Fragility Act - and we need to make sure it’s funded to address the violence emanating from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The difficult truth is that for many people around the world, the worst effects of the pandemic will only be realized in the years to come.

At the start of the outbreak, when one of my colleagues met with a West African woman at the start of the outbreak, she asked “Am I supposed to let my family go hungry, because of a cough?

Right now, millions of people around the world are asking the same question. They are being forced to choose between their health and feeding their children, their health and sending their children to school, their health and going to work. 

Millions of people will need significant support over the next several years to rebuild and to prevent mass hunger, extreme poverty, and violence.

The time to rise to the occasion is now. And we must do so in a very sustained way. 

If we do not take action, hundreds of millions of people will suffer as a result - not only now, but for years to come.

But if we work together and start now, we not only help to protect our neighbors from the worst of COVID’s impact, but also ensure a brighter future - for all of us.

Thank you.