Harvesting Peace: Food Security, Conflict, and CooperationSeptember 3, 2013 By Emmy Simmons
Since 2008 – a year in which rapid increases in the global prices for major grains helped to trigger outbreaks of civil unrest in more than 40 countries – scholars and policymakers have paid increased attention to the potential influence of global food prices on social and political instability. Since that time, spiking prices have periodically sparked public protests and governments have struggled to respond.
In September 2010, citizens in Maputo, Mozambique, rioted over a government decision to raise the price of bread. Efforts to control the crowds resulted in deaths and injuries. In 2011, governments in the Middle East reduced subsidies for bread, a critical staple for the majority of the population. This decision was blamed, at least in part, for the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring.
But the compelling headlines associating rising food prices, hunger, political instability, and conflict are likely to be only part of the story. People reacting to unexpected food price increases may use these opportunities to give voice to other grievances – unemployment, inadequate incomes, or government policies more broadly. When national governance fails, as in Somalia, recurrent food scarcity and famine become part of a vicious cycle of instability. Food insecurity both results from and contributes to repeated rounds of armed conflict in that country. In other countries, such as Sudan, food shortages and hunger have been intended outcomes of confrontation and armed conflict.
Food and Conflict, Conflict and Food
Harvesting Peace: Food Security, Conflict, and Cooperation, the latest edition of ECSP Report, explores the complex linkages between conflict and food security, drawing insights from scholarly work to help inform more effective programming for practitioners. There is no doubt that conflict exacerbates food insecurity. Conflict can reduce the amount of food available, disrupt people’s access to food, limits families’ access to food preparation facilities and health care, and increase uncertainty about satisfying future needs for food and nutrition.
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Deaths directly attributable to war appear to be declining, but war and other kinds of conflict continue to take a toll on human health, often through food insecurity. Conflict induces the affected populations to adopt coping strategies that invariably reduce their food consumption and nutrition. Poor nutritional status in individuals of any age makes them more susceptible to illness and death.
But the acute food insecurity caused by conflict has especially potent and long-lasting effects on children. Children whose nutrition is compromised by food insecurity before they are two years old suffer irreversible harm to their cognitive and physical capacities.
Analysis of the causes of conflict and war has been an area of growing academic interest. Both theoretical work and empirical analyses substantiate the many ways in which food insecurity can trigger, fuel, or sustain conflict. Unanticipated food price rises frequently provide a spark for unrest. Conflict among groups competing to control the natural resources needed for food production can catalyze conflict. Social, political, or economic inequities that affect people’s food security can exacerbate grievances and build momentum toward conflict. Incentives to join or support conflicts and rebellions stem from a number of causes, of which the protection of food security is just one. Food insecurity may also help to sustain conflict. If post-conflict recovery proves difficult and food insecurity remains high, incentives for reigniting conflict may be strengthened.
Given the complexity of factors underlying food security, however, we do not yet understand what levels or aspects of food insecurity are most likely, in what circumstances, to directly contribute to or cause conflict. More explicit integration of food security variables into theories of conflict could help inform external interventions aimed at mitigating food insecurity and preventing conflict.
The high human and economic costs of conflict and food insecurity already provide substantial incentives for international humanitarian and development organizations to intervene in order to alleviate food insecurity in fragile states and conflict-affected societies. Experience suggests, however, that effective efforts to address food insecurity in these situations may require external actors to reconsider the ways in which they intervene.
Modifying operational approaches to ensure greater complementarity and continuity between humanitarian and development interventions, for example, could help to improve effectiveness and impact. External support could help to strengthen institutions critical to food security and conflict prevention in fragile states. Engaging more closely with households caught in conflict-created poverty traps could alleviate persistent food insecurity and potentially sustain conflict recovery. And mobilizing civil society and private businesses as partners could enable both humanitarian and development organizations to broaden the capacities for conflict recovery and food security.
But experience also shows that actions taken without an adequate understanding of the complex and confounding events associated with conflict and food insecurity may fail to achieve those goals and could make things worse. There is, therefore, broad agreement that rapid assessments conducted on the ground in specific situations are essential to guide short-term interventions that address acute needs. To break a cycle of recurring violence and food insecurity, rapid assessments must be complemented with cross-country and multi-location analyses that take a broader and longer view of the causes and consequences of conflict, especially violent conflict.
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Approximately 1.5 billion people live in conflict-affected, post-conflict, or fragile countries. In recognition of the fact that violent conflict can impede or even reverse the processes of economic, social, and political change, organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have developed comprehensive approaches to conflict prevention, management, mitigation, and recovery.
USAID programs nearly 60 percent of its total resources as humanitarian aid or development assistance in fragile and conflict-affected countries. USAID, therefore, has a huge stake in better understanding the dynamics of conflict. To the extent that food insecurity is a causal or contributing factor for conflict, USAID’s efforts in fragile countries to improve access to food and increase the availability and stability of food supplies could also help to reduce the risks of conflict.
Since 2009, the United States and the other Group of Eight (G-8) members have made significant commitments to improving global food security. They have committed more than $22 billion over a three-year period to expand investments in agricultural development. The United States launched its flagship initiative, Feed the Future, in 2010 and USAID has taken the lead in the program’s implementation.
Of the 19 priority countries initially targeted for Feed the Future assistance, 11 have experienced violent conflict within the last 10 years. At least five experienced food riots or demonstrations in 2008.
The immediate challenge for USAID is to integrate analytical efforts on conflict and food security, with a view to shaping more effective interventions. This report provides a first step toward meeting this challenge.
Drawing on some of the findings that emerge from a review of both experience and analysis, this report lays out the following broad observations and recommendations to guide USAID’s future engagement:
- USAID has immediate opportunities to apply and refine its guidance on program implementation related to conflict and food security in Feed the Future focus countries. USAID is already programming both humanitarian and development assistance in 16 of the 19 countries. Nine of them are currently identified as “fragile or conflict-affected.”
- USAID will, however, need to pay close attention to setting its priorities for work in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Of the 10 countries ranked at the top of the Failed States Index, only 1 (Haiti) is a Feed the Future country. All, however, are recipients of other USAID assistance. Expanding commitments in these fragile or failing states will pose serious trade-offs in terms of policy, staffing, and funding.
- USAID could build on its long experience with community-based food security programs, using a mix of emergency and development programming to expand grassroots efforts in other conflict-vulnerable contexts.
- USAID should clarify its learning goals on conflict and food security, deliberately supporting additional research, improving food security monitoring and evaluation efforts in conflict-affected areas, and partnering with others to deepen knowledge on violence, fragility, food security, and development.
Emmy Simmons is an independent consultant.
Photo Credit: “Transporting Goods and Services,” courtesy of USAID.
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