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‘We have succeeded at keeping famine at bay, we have not kept suffering at bay’, said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres while briefing members of the UN Security Council on 12 October. Explaining the impediments to an effective response to the risks of famine in north-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, and, Guterres named conflict as a root cause of famine.
Guterres is right. In fact, a recent report on the state of the world’s food security—jointly published by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and World Health Organization (WHO)—puts the number of people affected both by hunger and conflict at 489 million. That is about 60 per cent of the 815 million people suffering worldwide from hunger and malnutrition. The report further details that the connection between conflict and hunger is especially notable ‘where the food security impacts of conflict were compounded by droughts or floods, linked in part to the El Niño phenomenon’. There appears to be a general consensus among UN agencies that conflict, as a root cause of hunger and malnutrition, needs to be addressed. Evidently, this is easier said than done.
Complex conflict, comprehensive peacebuilding
Building peace in post-conflict countries is rarely, if ever, straightforward. International actors often face insurmountable challenges when programming and implementing their projects. In addition to stopping violence, the aim of their work is to set states and societies on a peaceful path. Yet, the food-security situation clearly shows that the indirect, long-term effects of war further exaggerate this challenge. Many of these challenges relate to political and social aspects of post-war countries, such as human rights abuses, reconciliation and justice, as well as economic recovery and public health. Environmental and climate change expose post-conflict states further to new risks, exaggerating the human costs of war long after active combat has ceased.
The Lake Chad Basin is sadly one of the key examples of this dynamic. The ongoing insurgency in the region and the continued shrinking of Lake Chad (which is the main source of livelihood for millions of inhabitants) are causing a massive humanitarian crisis, intensifying the fragile security situation and increasing the cross-border displacement of populations. The Report of the Secretary-General points out: ‘Some 10.7 million people across the Lake Chad Basin region currently need humanitarian assistance, including 8.5 million in Nigeria.’ According to the report, 7.2 million people currently suffer severe food insecurity in the region, of which 4.7 million are located in the north-eastern Nigeria.
The interconnectedness of food security, natural resources, peace and conflict is not new to anyone familiar with fragile and conflict-affected states. The question is how to reverse this negative spiral. It is instrumental to focus on the questions of how interventions are interacting with other factors, what negative side effects may appear and how to reduce or, even better, prevent them. But, most of all, the reversal of this spiral involves developing a mindset that goes beyond ‘do no harm’ doctrines. In practice, that means focus and emphasis must be placed on opportunities and synergies to equally end hunger, reduce poverty, foster a healthy ecosystem, support sustainable natural resource management and, ultimately, to help sustain peace.
How can governments and international agencies better respond to food security in post-conflict settings?
Acknowledge complexity. Involved actors must acknowledge the complex underlying dimensions of the problem. While Guterres emphasizes conflict as a root cause, he downplayed the role of environmental and climate change—both in his current and previous assessments. His previous assessment of the humanitarian crisis around Lake Chad fell short of addressing and acknowledging the underlying environmental dynamics that significantly affect the water and food security of local communities in the region and make them vulnerable to insurgent recruitment.
Improve assessment capacity. There is a need for more integrated risk assessments that focus on climate and environmental factors, but also social, political and economics. For example, climate-related security risks are not just related to climate but are part of larger social–ecological processes and interactions that need to be better understood. The assessments must seek to understand the role of women, local contexts and the inclusion of marginalized groups, especially with regard to access to natural resources.
Be prepared. Both states and international state actors have to understand the state–society relationship—before, during and after crisis. One key way governments can increase their ability to cope with shock is to simply be prepared. This is of course difficult in conflict-affected states and, admittedly, often one of the actual sources of post-conflict fragility. Yet, supporting government efforts to focus on the state–society relationship is necessary, because a state that focuses on the delivery of services to those it is suppose to serve is a state that cares about its inhabitants. Service delivery is fundamental in two ways: one, it reduces vulnerability and increases resilience; and two, it reduces distrust towards the government. Without a certain level of trust between state and society, shocks cannot be adequately addressed.
Think holistically. Lastly, there is a tendency, especially among UN agencies—often due to their mandate—to treat issues such as food security and natural resources as technical issues in need of a technical solution. This approach is doomed to fail because, fundamentally, access to food, land and other natural resources—like the conflicts themselves—are deeply political processes. They need to be treated as such.
Unquestionably, within the past year with Guterres at the helm, space has opened within the UN system to more frequently discuss the questions of sustaining peace and conflict prevention. The strategies above are some examples that enable national and international actors to successfully get at the root causes of food insecurity in conflict-affected states. Each of these steps must explicitly include a focus on gender as a crucial, yet often neglected, dimension. Most importantly, in addition to understanding risk, there is a need to further shift the discourse of intervention programming and implementation towards opportunity. Will such an approach stop conflicts and prevent people from taking up arms? Absolutely not. But the evidence is clear that it will make it much harder for insurgent groups to mobilize people for their cause.
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