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Resuming Ukrainian grain exports may help reduce food insecurity in the Middle East


Today, some rare good news out of Ukraine.


SHAPIRO: With the honk of a tugboat, a ship full of corn left the port city of Odesa bound for Lebanon. The Razoni is the first commercial vessel to leave the port since Russia invaded in February. The deal took weeks of negotiations and an agreement with the U.N. It's important because Ukraine is one of the world's biggest grain producers, providing food for countries around the world.

Corinne Fleischer is the U.N. World Food Programme's regional director for the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CORINNE FLEISCHER: Hello, Ari. Happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: Last month, the U.N. World Food Programme, your organization, warned that 50 million people across 45 countries are just a step away from famine. How much of a difference do you expect these exports from Ukraine to make in the countries where you work?

FLEISCHER: This is a fantastic sign, an important signal to the markets that, you know, things may go back to normal, that the food that is so much needed and that is stuck in Ukraine can come out. And so we hope that the prices will go down, prices that have gone up tremendously. You know, 70-, 80% for wheat prices have gone up, you know, like in May, June. They're now coming down. And we hope that with this, prices will further go down so people can afford to buy food again. But how quickly this will happen, you know, we can't tell.

SHAPIRO: We're speaking to you now in Moldova, a country not far from where this ship left Ukraine. But I understand last week you were in Yemen, where a civil war has been going on since 2014. Back in April, I spoke with your colleague David Beasley, who is WFP's executive director, and he said this.


DAVID BEASLEY: We are already cutting dozens of millions of people down to half rations, like, for example, Yemen. Imagine telling your child, I can only feed you half of what you need this month.

SHAPIRO: And so, Corinne Fleischer, tell us about what you saw in Yemen last week. How dire is the situation?

FLEISCHER: It is absolutely dire. We are indeed - as David said, we are feeding far less than what the people require now. I was just in Hodeida. And of course, we speak to people. I mean, I tell you now, people assault us at our distribution points. You know, we have 12,000 points in Yemen where we distribute food. And they assault us now and say, but how do you think - I met this woman - how do you think I can feed my three children while you gave me 80 kilos a month and now you give me 40 kilos a month? I simply can't survive feeding my children.

SHAPIRO: That was a woman you met in the Yemeni city of Hodeida.


SHAPIRO: What did you say to her? When somebody confronts you with that kind of desperation, how do you reply?

FLEISCHER: It's hard. It's very hard to answer. It's very hard to take this when, you know, like, you know, we just heard in Syria, you know, a mother tells you, if I had known what's coming, I would not have had my children. I would have spared them this experience. When the father tells you, I only feed my children bread and tea now because I can't afford anything else, or when the mother with a baby tells you I don't have formula, I give her water with sugar - so what can you say? It's heartbreaking. If it was you, how would you, you know, understand when somebody tells you, I'm really sorry, you know, the economic situation in the world is bad? Our donors don't have all the money. They're still very generous. But that doesn't sound with her. She needs the food to feed her children.

SHAPIRO: If these exports do continue and do ramp up, how quickly do you think that food will get to those people you're talking about?

FLEISCHER: Well, you see, this is why the Middle East has been particularly impacted by the war in Ukraine and the wheat not moving out. It's because it takes about 10 days for a ship to come in from the Black Sea to, let's say, Lebanon, while it takes about, oh, up to two months if it has to come across Atlantic or from Australia. So of course, you know, food will move into the region and into the world, you know, much more rapidly because governments have to rearrange their supply chains completely. And if they can now count again on grain coming out of Ukraine, they can start to slowly readjust. But of course, that requires that there is a steady and regular flow coming out.

SHAPIRO: Corinne Fleischer is the World Food Programme's regional director for the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe. Thank you for speaking with us today.

FLEISCHER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.