ROME — With the coronavirus throwing tens of millions of people into poverty, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday was awarded to the World Food Program, the U.N. agency on the front line of battling hunger and dealing with the pandemic's economic fallout.

The Nobel was a recognition of the Rome-based organization’s long-standing role in addressing food supply crises and trying to improve conditions in conflict zones. But by selecting a group emblematic of global cooperation, the 2020 prize was also an admonition in an era of nationalism and skepticism about international projects.

“The need for international solidarity and multilateral cooperation is more conspicuous than ever,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, announcing the prize in Oslo.

She did not call out President Trump by name, but it seemed to be an unmistakable reference to his administration and its questioning and criticism of groups such as United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization and — even amid the pandemic — the World Health Organization.

Pandemic and poverty

The coronavirus, most directly, has infected more than 36 million globally and caused more than 1 million deaths. But in country after country, it also has triggered a broader economic crisis that has disproportionately hit low-wage workers and people in developing countries where there is little social safety net.

Last month, the World Food Program’s executive director, David Beasley, warned of a wave of famine that could sweep the globe, brought on by a combination of conflict and the pandemic. He said WFP needed $5 billion to prevent an estimated 30 million deaths from starvation. Beasley pointedly noted that there are 2,000 billionaires in the world, and asked them to help.

“Humanity is facing the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes,” said Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina.

Reiss-Andersen said that the Nobel Committee hoped that the prize would spur governments around the world to contribute more to the operations of the organization. She cautioned that multilateralism seems to have “a lack of respect these days.”

“Multilateral cooperation is absolutely necessary to combat global challenges,” she said.

Though other organizations have won the peace prize — most recently the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, in 2017 — the World Food Program is particularly sprawling. The organization has 17,000 staff worldwide, works in some 80 countries, and says it has more than 20 ships, 90 planes, and 5,600 trucks on the move on any given day.

The World Food Program relies on voluntary funding, but it appears to have escaped Trump’s financial backlash. The White House has not targeted for U.S. funding reductions such as those threatened for other U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organization.

The United States contributed $2 billion to WFP in 2015, the largest amount by far of any nation. Last year, the U.S. provided nearly $3.4 billion, again the highest figure.

After the United States, Germany and Britain are the next-largest contributors, both at less than $1 billion.

In 2017, the United Nations selected Beasley to lead the agency. At the time, Foreign Policy magazine framed the decision as a gamble by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to retain strong U.S. funding.

'Wow, wow, wow'

“This is the first time in my life I’ve been speechless,” Beasley said in a brief video on Twitter after the prize was announced.

He called the prize a credit to WFP staffers who are “out there in the most difficult, complex places in the world, whether it’s war, conflict, climate extremes. It doesn’t matter. They’re out there, and they deserve this award. And wow — wow, wow, wow. I can’t believe it.”

Because of the coronavirus, the agency estimates that the number of people facing food insecurity will double, to roughly 270 million. Lockdowns and dampened economies are undermining a decades-long — and largely successful — effort to reduce extreme poverty.

That painful backslide can be seen everywhere from India — in the midst of its deepest-ever recession — to Latin America, where the number of people in poverty is expected to rise 25 percent. The World Bank said this month that global poverty would rise this year for the first time in two decades. It said somewhere between 88 to 115 million would fall this year into extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 per day.

“In the blink of an eye, a health crisis became an economic crisis, a food crisis, a housing crisis, a political crisis. Everything collided with everything else,” the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said in a recent report. “We’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks.”

Hunger as a weapon

The WFP’s greatest logistical and humanitarian challenge in recent years has come in Yemen, where nearly six years of conflict have left 20 million people in crisis, with another 3 million potentially facing starvation due to coronavirus.

Many Yemenis remain out of reach of assistance, because of the remoteness of some hard-hit areas, and because of violence that has made it perilous for aid groups to deliver relief. The WFP said that, despite those challenges, it delivers assistance “to the vast majority of the vulnerable people in the country.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee noted the role of hunger as a weapon of war, seemingly a reference to WFP’s criticism of Yemen’s Houthi rebels for diverting food aid and preventing access to WFP and other aid groups.

“It’s one of the oldest conflict weapons in the world, that you can starve out a population to enter a territory,” Reiss-Andersen said. “If you get control over the food, you get also military control and you get better control of civilians. You can also use food insecurity as a method to chase populations away from their territory.”

The deadline for nominations for this year’s prize was Feb. 1 — seemingly a different era in a world that was not yet paralyzed by the pandemic.

Reiss-Andersen said that WFP would have been a worthy winner in any year, but “there is a connection of the increased hunger of the starving populations of the world today and the pandemic.”

With every in-person gathering a risk, this year’s announcement was a stripped-down affair, without the jostling, cheerful crowd of journalists who assembled at the ornate offices of the Norwegian Nobel Institute in past Octobers.

Trump had been nominated for the prize by far-right Norwegian politicians, a fact he trumpeted in campaign advertising but which carried no meaningful weight, since a wide group of people are free to nominate whomever they wish. Trump had long sought the laurel, though given his unpopularity in Norway, where the decision is made, an award always seemed like a long shot.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Germany and Britain had donated less than $1 million to the World Food Program. This version has been updated.)

Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia. Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo contributed to this report.