More than half a billion people will be pushed into extreme poverty due to health costs, according to a recent WHO and World Bank report. In addition to coping with financially burdensome illnesses, a majority of these people will also struggle with hunger. 

Late last year, Elon Musk claimed he could help. After the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Director David Beasley suggested that 2% of Musk’s net worth (~$6 billion) could help solve world hunger, Musk tweeted that he would immediately sell some of his Tesla stocks if the WFP could provide a strategy on how they would go about it. He qualified his request by stating that the WFP should publicly account for everyone to see how exactly the money will be spent.

Elon Musk’s tweet in response to WFP’s request

In a World Economic Forum Instagram post, the WFP did in fact outline how they would spend ~$6 billion to help tackle the world hunger crisis. 

  • $3.5 billion would go towards food and its delivery including shipping, storage, and transportation.
  • $2 billion for cash and voucher programs.
  • $700 million would be set aside for building and securing local offices and setting up the voucher schemes.
  • $400 million for large-scale operations. 

This spending approach is consistent with how the WFP typically tackles hunger—by designing and building large-scale infrastructure and operations, analyzing global hunger levels and assessing need,  and hiring thousands of staff who ultimately distribute food to tens of millions of people. In our research, we call this a push strategy. Unfortunately, it is inherently unsustainable.

This is not to say that organizations such as the WFP shouldn’t continue their programs in humanitarian crises such as war, natural disasters, or famines. They should, as many people benefit from these programs. But a strategy designed to alleviate a humanitarian crisis isn’t the same strategy that “would solve world hunger.”

Our research at the Christensen Institute suggests that organizations such as the WFP can more effectively and sustainably address the food crisis by leveraging a pull strategy which creates or connects their programs to a market. Such programs will have a better chance of surviving and growing based on the market’s ability to sustain them.

New markets that make food affordable and accessible are financially sustainable since they generate revenue that can then be used to maintain and grow the market. For instance, consider how innovators are using a market-based approach to tackle another major need: access to clean water. 

In a piece written by my colleagues, Efosa Ojomo and Lincoln Wilcox in CNBC Africa, they highlight an organization, Drinkwell, which provides safe water technology in Bangladesh. 

The country’s clean water crisis reached an all-time high in the late 1990s when arsenic was discovered in its groundwater. In 2013,  Minhaj Chowdhury decided to create Drinkwell to tackle this problem. This organization sells low-cost, high-efficiency water filtration systems–Water ATMs–to local entrepreneurs who build a business around providing safe water. Drinkwell ensures the long-term viability of its Water ATMs by providing entrepreneurs with maintenance support and financial management assistance. The results have been astonishing. 

More than 200,000 people now load “water credits” onto their DrinkWell cards and use them at designated DrinkWell sites in Bangladesh as well as other countries.

What might it look like if the WFP coupled its emergency relief with programs that similarly created new markets? In this case, organizations such as the WFP would be less dependent on the generosity of billionaires or development assistance. 

The World Food Program has undoubtedly been doing important work since 1961 and has helped millions in the process. But to reach their goal of ending world hunger—especially in the face of COVID-19—the organization needs a new approach. 

The most viable way to help people and economies recover and build long-term resilience is through new markets that address unmet needs. Perhaps that’s an approach Elon Musk can even get behind.

Author

  • Jacob Fohtung
    Jacob Fohtung