Globally hunger is continuing to intensify in areas effected by conflict. At the beginning of 2018 two United Nation (UN) bodies, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) gave a compelling report to the UN Security Council about food insecurity. In this report the focus was on 16 countries where food insecurity and hunger are extreme with vast swathes of the populations facing crisis. These 16 countries included Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and South Sudan, all of which have diverse and complicated histories but share a common current similarity; conflict. Since 2014 the absolute number of undernourished people, those facing chronic food deprivation, has been on the rise. Totalling an estimated 821 million in 2017 which are levels from almost a decade ago. The majority of those who are hungry live in countries ravaged by war and conflict.
The obvious and seemingly logical relationship between conflict and food insecurity…
Conflict drives hunger. Conflict by nature is destructive creating volatility and insecurity in all aspects of society. Hunger is an integral part of conflict as food is a source of power as it is essential for life. Their relationship seems logical as food insecurity exists when people do not have adequate physical, social or economic access to food or nutrients sufficient for a healthy, active life. Throughout history there are countless examples of the devastating impact conflict has on food security. From the Somalian civil war in late 1990s to on-going contemporary conflicts in Yemen, Syria and South Sudan.
Conflict reduces the access, availability and the utilisation of food. Food shortages and hunger result as conflict destroys the resources necessary for food production; land and water. Moreover, food insecurity and hunger are in turn intensified by:
- high mortality
- displacement of people
- shifts in the focus of government funding
- destruction of economic markets
- price instability
- the use of food as a weapon
The relationship between food insecurity and conflict is complex and dynamic as food insecurity can be both a cause and consequence of conflict. The cause and effect connection is context-specific, varying depending on a country’s level of development in terms of the presence and strength of political institutions as well as social safety nets. Critically, this relationship makes conflict more likely to continue. Countries get trapped in a cycle of conflict and food insecurity. These countries tend to be the most vulnerable, having the least capacity to respond, affecting millions as conflict currently intensifies globally.
How do we break the link?
The need to act to alleviate growing hunger in conflict zones cannot be more stressed. Breaking the relationship is a seemingly impossible challenge as conflict by nature will be a risk in food insecure situations and at the same time food insecurity coupled with other factors such as volatile prices and livelihood insecurity is a risk of conflict. The overriding need for peace is vital but achieving this is another question and one of the most challenging. Conflict has been a staple of human history, present throughout and still on-going today. Seemingly conflict will always exist as peace appears an unattainable target. However, trying to reach reconciliation can be a realistic goal through global diplomacy. Although this maybe the end goal, action and policy can reduce the impact and strength of this relationship in the interim.
Having a full understanding of the relationship is imperative in breaking the cycle and alleviating its impacts. Many interventions and studies have looked at blaming one on the other in a desire to identify ways of improving hunger in conflict regions. However, there is a need to view the relationship differently. Both food security and peace-building policymakers need to rethink their understandings of each dynamic and take into account the importance of context.
Global institutions such as the UN, who are key within programme and policy implementation, need to diminish the potential for conflict not heighten it. Through taking account of the full extent to which food can used as a weapon of war and the conflict factors which in turn effect it. Efforts to aid the immediate need of a vulnerable population in a conflict situation should look at and build upon:
- raising agriculture production
- long- and short-term food aid in its varying forms
- the construction of strong and robust food systems in which there are social safety nets for the most in need.
Food security plans need to take into account the specific contextual histories of conflict, not overlook their legacies and consider all sides. Increased focus should be placed on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged so those who could have the most potential to lose out do not store hatred as this could revive conflict within the location. Plans incorporating agricultural investments to raise food production should consider all communities relationship with land and resources. Involving them in the policy making process and subsequent deployment would dampen the chances of potential conflict, as autonomy and control are shared. Social safety nets are imperative within conflict situations, these need to take into account power and accessibility to resources combined with wider political, ethnic, geographic and religious factors. So, people do not feel disenfranchised or that some groups are only benefitting.
The need for greater policy attention to address the complex dynamics of the relationship between food insecurity and conflict cannot be more demonstrated by the emerging statistics on global hunger. Reconciliation and peace is and must be the main objective for diminishing the link between the two dynamics. This often takes time and in some cases is not currently realistic. Through working and engaging with flexible programmes and policy which dampen the impact of the relationship there would be dramatic improvements to people’s lives in conflict zones. Policy which is appropriate and context specific will not only aid those suffering now but will help work towards peace in the future.