In the wake of food riots in more than 30 countries in 2008 and the Arab Spring, in which food prices played an instigating role, the relationship between food security and instability demands a closer examination. “There is a lot of data on conflict, and a lot of data on food security, but it’s rarely brought together,” says Emmy Simmons, the author of the latest edition of ECSP Report.
Harvesting Peace: Food Security, Conflict, and Cooperation attempts to bridge the gap. The launch of the report on September 12 at the Wilson Center brought together development practitioners and researchers to discuss the relationship between food and conflict and explore the implications of Simmons’ findings.
“I think the report brings out what we do know about the connections between conflict and food security” and “a great deal of what we don’t know,” said Edward Carr, professor of geography at the University of South Carolina and a former AAAS fellow with USAID.
“How does conflict affect food security?” said Simmons. “It disrupts production, it causes people to flee, it puts landmines into the land people need to produce on…it disrupts the flow of food. Even markets can’t operate where conditions are insecure. Conflict invariably leads to food insecurity.”
“Conflict doesn’t only undermine the actual flow of food, but it undermines people’s confidence,” said Susan Bradley, division director for the Technology, Country Strategy, and Implementation Office at USAID. Simmons noted that children who are born and raised during periods of conflict and food scarcity suffer both physical and mental trauma that diminish their intellectual capacities, physical health, and earning potential throughout their adult lives.
Global Trends Spread Vulnerability
While the effects of conflict on food security are well documented, the reverse relationship – how food security affects conflict – is more complicated.
The fundamental role of food in people’s daily lives makes pricing and access an issue of great sensitivity. When price spikes or shortages take communities by surprise, the likelihood of conflict is increased, said Simmons. She noted at least 40 instances of food-related demonstrations and riots throughout the world following the global inflation of food prices in 2008. Notable examples include protests in Yemen that led the government to deploy tanks into the streets, and nationwide strikes in Cameroon that touched off the most violent demonstrations the country has seen in 15 years.
Further, waves of urbanization across the world mean higher percentages of people now live in cities and are unable to produce their own food, leaving them vulnerable to price spikes and making political instability more likely, said Simmons. Other trends, including population growth and climate variability, are converging to threaten production capabilities and the food security of rural communities.
Conflict From Food Insecurity? Unpacking Causality
Though some link between food security and conflict clearly exists, the relationship may not be direct. “Food security does not cause conflict in the way that applying heat causes water to boil,” said Joseph Hewitt, technical team leader in the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at USAID.
Determining the causality of conflict is a difficult endeavor. “The nature of conflict is changing dramatically in the world we live in,” said Henk-Jan Brinkman, chief of the Policy Planning and Application Branch of the UN Peacebuilding Support Office:
The kinds of forms of violence we see are much more amorphous and diverse. Food insecurity is often not a direct cause or the only cause; it’s what we call a “threat multiplier” and is only relevant in combination with other factors. It’s that contextual approach that is so important.
According to Brinkman, it is these other factors – such as very young age structures, endemic cultural and economic inequality, and politically unaccountable regimes – that lay the foundation for conflict. Given pre-existing fractures in society, a food crisis may become the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back,” and in doing so, incite violence.
What if [food security] is the seventh, eighth, or tenth most important thing going on in a particular conflict situation? If it’s that far down the line, is this something that USAID or any other donor organization should be looking at, or should they be dealing with the first six problems?
Carr described a hypothetical scenario in which unusually heavy rains, followed by drought, destroy crops in a sub-Saharan African village, leaving farmers unable to meet their food needs. To request assistance, the community marches on the local government headquarters. When the government is unresponsive, the protest erupts into a violent riot.
“In this scenario, do we want to say that food security was the cause of the riot?” Carr asked. “Or was it a state that lacked capacity to maintain its infrastructure in the face of climate variability or meet the emergency needs of its people?”
Recalibrating the Food Assistance Agenda
If conflict is rooted in inadequate state capacity or the perception of an unresponsive government, how can the food security development agenda evolve accordingly?
Equity is critical, said Brinkman. One of the fundamental causes of civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, he said, was the disparity in government services and food assistance between the capital cities and outlying rural areas. Making equity a priority of food assistance programs can decrease the likelihood of conflict by strengthening a population’s trust in its government. For example, Brinkman noted the confidence-building effect of the Nepal Food Security Monitoring System, which has given the government an early warning capability and shortened its emergency response time:
What was so important was that all different groups in society knew now that the government was actually monitoring their food insecurity, regardless of where they were or what ethnicity they were. You can cause as many problems by providing food assistance as you solve by providing it to one ethnic group.
Bradley also urged the development community to respect culturally specific concepts of food security. While serving as a member of USAID’s emergency response team following the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999, she noted that perceptions of food scarcity varied widely from her experiences elsewhere in the world. “For a Kosovo family, if they did not have a sack of grain in their basement for each person in their family, they were starving,” she said.
“People’s own ideas of what food security is and isn’t are very different, and have nothing to do with the household hunger index,” she continued. “It’s something more specific to cultures and households.”
In what has become a complex and growing sub-field of conflict analysis, Harvesting Peace underscores the need to expand our understanding of how to address food security in a time of fragility and weak governance around the world, said Simmons.
“I think this is an area in which the conflict and peacebuilding people have actually made a coherent and focused effort to understand causality,” she continued, “but I do believe that those folks that are doing conflict analysis could actually incorporate more explicitly elements of the food security picture.”
Drafted by Jacob Glass, edited by Schuyler Null.
- Division Director for Technology, Country Strategy and Implementation Office, Bureau for Food Security, U.S. Agency for International Development
- Chief of the Policy, Planning and Application Branch, United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office
- Professor, Department of Geography, University of South Carolina; Former AAAS Fellow, U.S. Agency for International Development
- Author, Harvesting Peace; Independent Consultant
- Technical Team Leader, Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, U.S. Agency for International Development