Blog Post

The Hunger-Conflict Nexus

With over 64 million people worldwide being displaced from their homes in 2016, understanding the links between conflict, migration, and food security has become even more crucial. Several recent reports have focused on this important topic, including the FAO’s The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report and a joint policy brief from FAO and IFPRI. An additional new related technical study from FAO provides further analysis and empirical evidence to complement the SOFI report and contributes to the debate on how conflict and food security impact one another.

According to the report, the frequency of war reached an all-time low in 2005; since that year, however, conflict has again been on the rise, predominantly in the form of intrastate civil wars, with or without government involvement, whose impacts spill over borders through forced migration. The report also points out that people living in areas affected by conflict are more likely to be food-insecure and undernourished than those who live in stable environments. Of the 815 million people worldwide who struggle with chronic hunger, an estimated 489 million live in countries that affected by conflict, violence, and social fragility. Similarly, 122 million of the world’s 155 million malnourished children live in areas with high levels of conflict and violence.

As many of today’s conflicts are more localized in nature, impacts on food security and nutrition outcomes are also highly localized and context-specific. The study finds that food security impacts tend to depend on how vulnerable a specific population is to crisis, as well as on the nature of the conflict itself. In addition, populations can be affected by various impacts at the same time. For example, conflict can reduce food availability and access and can also disrupt health services and basic sanitation. Impacts can also be direct (destruction of crops and food stocks, forced migration, etc.) or indirect (disruption of markets, leading to increased food prices or decreased household purchasing power, or reduced access to water and fuel for cooking, impacting feeding practices).

The report takes a case study approach in order to examine these multiple channels through which conflict and food security can interact. Looking at nine recent case studies (Colombia, Gaza Strip, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, and the Syrian Arab Republic), the report identifies several main channels through which conflict can impact populations. These are: economy-wide impacts on production, trade, and public finances; direct impacts on agricultural production and assets, food systems, and rural livelihoods; and impacts on populations’ and households’ resilience to crisis and coping strategies.

Disruption of economic activities can occur at the national, sub-national, or sectoral levels. Economic crises sparked by conflict can have long-term negative impacts on incomes and employment, can cause rapid food price inflation, and can erode governments’ fiscal resources, leading to a reduction in government services and social safety nets. All of these impacts can severely reduce both food availability and food access. For example, in South Sudan, ongoing conflict since 2015 has led to tight food supplies and high food prices due to disrupted transportation routes and a devaluation of the local currency. In July 2016, cereal prices were 10 times higher than those seen in July 2015. These impacts have had serious repercussions for food security and nutrition in the country, leading to a declaration of famine in February 2017.

The report finds most conflicts impact rural households dependent on agriculture. In 2015, the agricultural sector accounted for 23 percent of GDP in countries affected by conflict and 35 percent of GDP for countries experiencing protracted crises. Conflicts have a particularly severe impact when economies and livelihoods rely on agricultural systems, with negative effects echoing along the entire food value chain, from production through marketing. Impacts on the agricultural sector can be direct or indirect. Direct impacts include destruction of agricultural assets, seizure of natural resources, and displacement from land or grazing areas. Indirect impacts can include disrupted markets and trade routes and reduced employment opportunities.

As conflicts occur and continue, people engage in a variety of coping strategies to try to mitigate the impact. Short-term strategies may include modifying their diets or skipping meals; as the situation worsens, however, many households engage in strategies that can cause more long-term damage, such as selling of livestock or productive assets. Eventually, prolonged conflict can lead to migration, extreme poverty, and even starvation. The report does find that some households do find ways to cope and live with conflict; however, this often comes with lower incomes. For example, in Colombia, farm households facing prolonged conflict shifted to more subsistence activities to ensure their basic food security. While such strategies may bring short-term benefits in terms of helping households prevent severe food insecurity and avoid the need to migrate, they reduce agricultural productivity and livelihoods in the long term, potentially making it harder for populations and countries to recover from crises.

All of these effects on food security are even more severe when they are compounded by other factors, such as weak institutional capacity to respond to crisis (fragility) and vulnerability to natural disasters like drought. These factors can lead to protracted crises, defined by FAO as when a significant proportion of a population (either national or local) is vulnerable to death, disease, and disrupted livelihoods over a prolonged period of time. Looking at 46 low- and middle-income countries affected by conflict, the study finds that the prevalence of undernourishment is on average 1.4-4.4 percentage points higher than for other countries not affected by conflict; when this conflict is compounded by fragility, on the other hand, the prevalence of undernourishment is 11-18 percentage points higher. When the crisis is protracted, prevalence of undernourishment is two and a half times higher than it is in countries not experiencing conflict.

The relationship between conflict and food security may also work the other way around – while the report did not find a direct causal link, it does suggest that increased food insecurity and rising food prices can play a role in increasing the incidence conflict and instability. The authors call for further research into this link to determine when and how food insecurity drives conflict.

The report concludes that interventions to improve food security and enhance the resilience of rural populations to crises can make an important contribution to preventing conflict and maintaining peace. Such interventions could include cash-for-work programs, expanded food price information systems and more inclusive credit and insurance markets, and community-based programs like youth employment training to increase social cohesion and trust at the local level. At the same time, increased government investment in strengthening institutions and infrastructure will be crucial; this includes investment in food security information and early warning systems, improved transportation infrastructure, rural health and education services, and more equitable and inclusive land rights laws.

In order to reach the Sustainable Development Goals of sustaining peace and ending hunger, further research into the links between conflict and food security continues to be needed in order to help both governments and international organizations prepare and respond to crises. With four countries facing famine in 2017 and with global hunger again on the rise, such informed policymaking has become even more important.