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Feeding peace

Feeding peace
WFP Food Drop Operation in Bentiu, South Sudan. UN Photo.

Ahead of the 2021 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, SIPRI is pleased to share a blog from the Food, Security and Peace Programme. Discussions centred around this topic will feature throughout the Stockholm Forum.

The impact of conflict on food security is well documented. But does food security and feeding the hungry really contribute to peace, or is it an exaggeration? Some argue that food insecurity can contribute to political instability and renewed violence in conflict-affected environments. In contrast, others say that brokering peace is a complex process, determined by many variables. To explore this question, this blog describes the instrumentalization and weaponization of food insecurity in conflict, addresses the role of humanitarian interventions, and the key role of government in building lasting change.

Food as a weapon

In 2019, 690 million people went to bed hungry and an estimated 2–3 billion people suffered from nutritional deficiencies—unable to access balanced diets. The Covid-19 pandemic has raised these numbers. The causes of localized food and nutrition insecurity are many, ranging from low yields, poorly developed markets and low incomes. However, conflict as a driver of food insecurity is increasing in importance. At the extreme end, food can be weaponized. Opposing actors in a violent conflict can disrupt or stop their adversaries’ food from being transported or produced, effectively starving them and their support base into surrender.

Starvation has been used as a weapon of war throughout history. However, after World War I, the use of starvation against civilians as a method of warfare was prohibited under international humanitarian law. Starvation strategies are in contravention to both the Right to Food, which recognizes that individuals have the right to feed themselves in dignity, and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2417, which protects civilians in conflict from the weaponizing of food. Starvation tactics include restricting the delivery of food into an area under siege and destroying essential objects, such as food production infrastructure and food storage. Starvation as a method of warfare also extends to preventing humanitarian workers and aid from reaching communities in need.

Nonetheless, both state and non-state actors still employ starvation tactics in warfare. Two recent examples of this are the Syrian and Ethiopian conflicts. A World Peace Foundation report documents that starvation was used as a tactic during the ongoing Syrian conflict. The report details events during 2012–18 whereby towns and cities were besieged—often for months—with the movement of food, aid and people restricted. In the current conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia, it is suspected that forces aligned with the federal government and with the Tigray regional government are using starvation as a method of warfare. These forces have impeded the movement of food and destroyed or seized stored food, livestock and farming assets. From these two examples, it is evident that despite prohibition, starvation as a method of warfare is still used in conflicts.

Humanitarian interventions—saving lives, diffusing tension?

While the effectiveness of food as a weapon of war and the lasting effects of conflict on food security are acknowledged, food-based interventions can counter these negative effects. These interventions are typically implemented by humanitarian actors who commit to doing no harm. Their operations focus on saving lives and alleviating suffering, which limits the scope of their interventions, in line with humanitarian principles. Typically, humanitarian actors provide assistance in cash or in-kind depending on the context and may also introduce activities to strengthen existing livelihood strategies or to bring diversity to livelihoods through training and capital investment. As humanitarian actors provide food and livelihood assistance to affected communities in conflict-affected environments, it is important for them to analyze the effect of their actions on local peace and conflict dynamics.

But does saving lives through food assistance have the ‘unintended benefit’ of contributing to peace? To answer this question, the factors that cause food insecure communities to resort to violent conflict—or conflict drivers—need to be considered. Excluded and marginalized communities often reside in areas that are underserved by governments and are characterized with low employment opportunities, poor transport and communication infrastructure, limited access to health, education and security services and substandard service delivery. People in these communities are usually poor with most households living on less than a dollar a day and they may often go to bed hungry. Worsening climate change and variability, low overall economic performance and other factors may force marginalized communities deeper into poverty and increase their food insecurity. When food insecurity intersects with other grievances, it can increase the likelihood of riots and protests which can degenerate into violent conflict as communities fight for inclusion and better access to jobs and services. Providing food assistance to hungry communities contributes to peace by alleviating food insecurity, but this alone is not enough to address the wider range of grievances often experienced by these communities.

A holistic approach

The livelihood activities introduced by humanitarian actors are often designed to address some of these grievances. They may build resilience into local economy through improved agricultural production and diversification of livelihood activities to lower risk. Often these livelihood activities have a market-based component and include means to establish linkages between project participants and well-paying value chains to develop local economies and increase people’s incomes. Local and international humanitarian actors have employed these strategies with mixed results. Where the activities have resulted in increased income, communities can invest in assets and facilities which improve the local quality of life. At the household level, an increase in income results in better access to food, health and other basic services where affordability was previously a barrier to access. These positive changes to the quality of life, however, may be difficult to sustain in the medium- to long-term without government support because humanitarian interventions are temporary; changes may dissipate when projects end and humanitarian actors leave.

Initiatives by humanitarian actors must be complemented by long-term national development strategies which extend to excluded communities. In addition, the reach of national institutions and laws should be extended to these communities accompanied by more efficient service delivery mechanisms, which are both people-centred and tailored to specific contexts. It is only when these multidimensional improvements in food security and livelihood opportunities translate into sustained improvements in people’s quality of life that the attraction of negative coping strategies will be reduced. These initiatives may also empower communities to use non-violent approaches to engage with governments and address grievances.

Food assistance can reduce tensions and grievances which may escalate into political unrest, showing that there is some merit to the claim that food security contributes to peace. However, the process is complicated and often food-based interventions alone are not enough. Instead, food-based interventions are more likely to improve the likelihood of establishing lasting peace if they are part of thoughtfully designed interventions with the aim of developing food secure, better serviced and functioning communities.


Dr Vongai Murugani was a Researcher in the Food, Peace and Security Programme at SIPRI.