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How $6 billion from Elon Musk could feed millions on the brink of famine

A screengrab of Elon Musk's tweet.

The Twitter showdown between Elon Musk and the head of the World Food Programme has made headlines around the world.

In October, David Beasley, head of the U.N. food agency, tweeted a cheeky congratulations to Musk for reportedly earning $36 billion in a single day. "1/6 of your one-day increase would save 42 million lives that are knocking on famine's door," he wrote.

A few days later, Musk tweeted: "If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it."

While Beasley quickly clarified that his earlier tweet referred to feeding "people on the brink of starvation" and not solving world hunger, he invited Musk to meet "anywhere—Earth or space" to discuss the potential donation.

So far, Musk has made no commitments to the agency. Still, the conversation prompts the question: How much of a dent would $6 billion make when it comes to feeding millions? After all, WFP raised $8.4 billion last year, yet the global food crisis has only worsened.

In fact, since Musk and Beasley first started their Twitter conversation, the total number of people at risk of famine has risen to 45 million, along with the cost to help them, which now stands at $7 billion, according to WFP.

"Tens of millions of people are staring into an abyss. We've got conflict, climate change and COVID-19 driving up the numbers of the acutely hungry," said Beasley in a statement this week.

We asked experts in humanitarian aid and global hunger to give their perspective on the $6 billion debate.

Donors should ask for details

Was it fair for Musk to ask WFP to explain how it planned to spend the $6 billion?

Yes, say the specialists we spoke to. "Although some may see the exchange as frivolous, Musk is right to expect WFP to have a plan for putting the money to good use," says Ian Mitchell, a senior fellow at the think tank Center for Global Development. "International organizations should have specific plans that are clear about the outcomes they will achieve."

WFP has compelling details to share about its track record

Researchers are confident that WFP, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020 for its work, can offer a thorough answer to Musk's query.

"What WFP does, and is good at, is dealing with food crises, emergencies and, if it ever gets that bad, famines," says Steve Wiggins, a research fellow who focuses on humanitarian policy at the London-based Overseas Development Institute.

Last year, WFP said it helped provide emergency relief to 115.5 million people in 84 countries. It did so with a massive delivery fleet of 5,600 trucks, 30 ships and 100 planes owned and operated by WFP, which transports food, workers, storage supplies and other supplies needed to coordinate and execute the operation.

Its 60-year experience in delivering aid helps the agency reach some of the world's hardest-to-reach places. In a May study, Wiggins and Simon Levine, also of the Overseas Development Institute, looked at what was done to help people in the biggest, most-drawn-out conflicts over the last three decades — from the conflict in northern Uganda, which ended in 2006, to the current conflict in Afghanistan.

They concluded that WFP made a difference in these situations – but only up to a point. "The scary thing is that so little was done," says Levine — but when there was emergency relief, it came in the form of food aid, mostly from WFP.

This assistance, wrote the authors in the paper, "probably protected recipients from unacceptable hardship."

And what would $6 billion buy?

In response to Musk's request for details, Beasley tweeted him the math: "$.43 x 42,000,000 x 365 days = $6.6 billion."

That's how much it would cost to provide one meal a day for one year to this population in need, says WFP. The agency would deliver this "meal" in the form of food aid, cash or vouchers.

The food aid, says WFP, consists of commodities such as rice, maize and high-energy biscuits.

But there's more to food aid than a plate of food.

Keep in mind, says Levine, it's not entirely accurate to think of 43 cents as just the price of one meal per day per person for a year.

It's the per capita calculation that WFP has made of what it needs to pull off this operation, he adds. So in addition to the actual food, cash or vouchers, it would likely cover the cost of what it takes to make sure the aid is going to the communities that need it the most and monitoring to make sure the money is well spent.

When you look at the figures this way, says Mitchell, it makes you realize "just how little income the world's poorest have. Half a dollar per person per day can make the difference between life and death."

But there's another way to spend the hypothetical $6 billion

Some experts want to move away from delivering short-term emergency relief altogether. "WFP says they want to feed 42 million with a meal a day for 365 days," says Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, a professor, director and chair at the African Research Universities Alliance's Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. "What about on Day 367?"

Sibanda argues handouts can make countries overly dependent on aid. Instead, she says, large donations should go toward long-term solutions that address the root causes of famine and hunger — for example, teaching farmers better techniques, encouraging average folks to grow nutrient-dense crops for themselves and to sell as well, and making sure countries have a stronger social safety net to meet food needs in times of crisis.

Such systemic changes will cost much more than $6 billion, or even the $8.4 billion WFP raised last year. "We've had governments [together] spending upward of $100 billion a year on extreme poverty and hunger, with everyone agreeing it's nowhere near what we need to tackle this problem," says Mitchell.

Nonetheless, $6 billion would be very, very helpful

Despite the debates over the best way to help people on the brink of famine, our sources all agree that $6 billion from Musk could do a lot of good.

For one, it's a pretty impressive amount. "$6 billion would be a very significant single-year charitable contribution for an individual, certainly one of the largest ever," says Mitchell — and targeting that sum to assist the world's poorest and hungriest "would likely make the biggest difference to human welfare."

Now, if other billionaires could get on the bandwagon, that would be great, says Levine. "If Jeff Bezos stumped up another $6 billion, that'd be $12 billion, and we could do twice as much."

Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War Is Boring. Follow her on Twitter: @joannelu.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.