Conflicts and food security: a new old challenge for the United Nations

di Mario Ghioldi - 23 Aprile 2019

Rome, Italy

Conflicts and food security, a new old challenge for the United Nations

Conflicts and food security: a link recognized by the United Nations.

The relationship between food security and conflicts is becoming more and more relevant, especially inside humanitarian crises. Yemen, Myanmar and Siria are the most significant examples of how conflicts affect food safety and vice versa (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2018). For instance, the long Syrian conflict has destroyed the entire agricultural infrastructure, the local economy and the supply chain leaving more than 6 millions of people in food insecurity (Humanitarian Needs Overview, 2018).

The United Nations Security Council itself, in a historic vote on 24 May 2018, recognized for the first time that armed conflict and violence are closely linked to food insecurity (UNSC Res 2417). Moreover, the resolution, approved unanimously, pointed out how the risk of famine currently threatens millions of people (United Nations, 2018). The document calls on all parties to armed conflict to comply with their obligations under international law to protect civilians. The protection is also extended to all sites that are necessary to produce food . For example, the document mentions: farms, markets, mills, water systems, food processing, storage sites and other important elements of the food production (GreenReport 2018).

Food security, a complex definition with a multidisciplinary approach.    

Describing food security is not easy. It is a flexible concept; in the last decade there have been about 200 different definitions about this phenomenon. The most used was defined during the World Food Summit in 1996:

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006).   

The link between conflicts (more in general political instability) and food security was already stressed by Amartya Sen, in the book “Development as Freedom”, published in 1999. Starting from the definition, the Nobel winner analysed the Bangladesh food crises exploded in 1974 (Sen, 1999). Despite the high level of food available, the country was affected by one of the worst famines in recent history.  The most relevant aspect of the study developed by Sen concerned his comprehensive approach, considering economic, geographical, social and mostly political aspects (Centro Studi Internazionali, 2018). Since this contribution, the debates on relation between food security and conflicts have continued among universities, International agencies, civil society and all actors directly engaged in this problem.

Food Security and Conflict: a vicious cycle

The link between food security and conflicts was dramatically showed during the “Arab Spring” in 2011 (Centro Studi Internazionali 2018). In such circumstance, one of the most important causes of the turmoils concerned the increase of food prices with disastrous consequences on the population, especially the poorest members of society (Open Democracy, 2012).

According to the “Corporate Framework to support sustainable peace in the context of Agenda 2030” published by FAO in 2018, 27 of the 30 interstates conflicts developed in Africa were focused on rural control (Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, 2018). Moreover, since 2000, 48% of civil conflicts have occurred in Africa, where access to rural land is the basis of the livelihood of many.

Likewise, conflicts could harm the most important elements of the food production and distributions. Beyond damaging mills, water systems, farms or storage sites, conflicts could affect food prices or supply chains, worsening humanitarian crises. The cases of Syria and Sudan, despite their different peculiarities, show how internal instabilities bring to food insecurity. Thus, conflicts can generate food insecurity and food insecurity can create conflicts. According to the most important academic (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2018) and public studies (Permanent mission of the Netherlands to the Rome Agencies, 2017), the relationship between the above mentioned elements is based on a vicious cycle, where each factor could be the cause or the consequence of the other. Discovering methods and ways to break this kind of relation is an important challenge, especially for the United Nations Agencies directly involved in the problem (Inter Press Service, 2018).

The commitment of the Rome Agencies, recalling attention on conflicts and food security.

The resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council was surely an important achievement for all the international organizations which have raised the debates on these issues during the past years. Relevant efforts were expressed by the FAO and the WFP, both situated in Italy.

Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme publish different reports (Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, 2019) and studies (World Food Programme, 2019) on food security and conflicts each year. These call the UN bodies, governments and civil society to concrete actions.

Among the documents, the “Global Report on Food Crises” 2017 (World Food Programme, 2017) and the “Global Report on Food crises” 2018 (World Food Programme, 2018) are particularly relevant. The recent one shows interesting data and inputs on food insecurity and humanitarian crises. First of all, the Rome Agencies registered how in 2017 almost 124 million people in 51 countries suffered from food insecurity, 11 million more than the year before. Secondly, the report forecasts how conflicts will continue to be responsible for world food crises. In particular, the document shows the examples of  Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. In these countries, conflicts are damaging or destroying the supply chains and the agricultural infrastructure, jeopardizing a weak food production and distribution.

Breaking the Cycle between Conflict and Hunger

In order to face this issue, during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly, the Food and Agriculture Organization organized a side event entitled “Breaking the Cycle between Conflict and Hunger”. The meeting was a unique chance to gather public and private stakeholders in order to find potential solutions to break the cycle (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2018). Among the statements, the most relevant was the one released by the FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, who showed the future approach of the Rome Agency (World Health Organization, 2018). First of all, the Director General expressed the primary goal to create conditions for vulnerable people and communities to thrive and live with dignity.

Secondly, José Graziano da Silva drew the new integrated approach to peace and food security (GreenReport, 2018). The new FAO strategy will be built on the following three pillars: 1) Boosting the resilience of the most vulnerable people; 2)  Activating early responses to early warnings; 3) Coordinating interventions. In order to implement the new plan, the Food and Agriculture Organization promoted fruitful collaborations with other international or regional Organizations. The most relevant example is the partnership signed with the European Commission during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly (European External Action Service, 2018). Following the declarations of Graziano da SIlva, the agreement, based on 70 million US$, will be an important tool to implement efficiently on the ground the projects launched by the FAO.

A holistic approach is needed

The need for a different approach, more comprehensive than the ones used in the past is also expressed by different members of the civil society. In general, NGOs and actors of the private sector are calling for political solutions in order to implement the United Nations resolution 2417 (GreenReport, 2018).

Among the statements and comments related to the side event organized by the FAO in New York, one of the most relevant was expressed by Veronique Andrieux, the General Director of Action Against Hunger (Inter Press Service, 2018). This organization is one of the most relevant and active on the humanitarian field, focusing on fighting the hunger.

According to Veronique Andrieux, the UN resolution 2417 should be implemented in a holistic and preventive approach, where technical and humanitarian actions have to be followed by political solutions. Following this new point of view, prevention would be an important key in order to strengthen the nexus between development and humanitarian help.

The academic world is also pushing for a new approach, stressing for a better cooperation among private and public actors in local and global levels. One of the most relevant examples is provided by David Moore, economist and researcher at the University of Johannesburg, who expressed his concerns to the Inter Press Service (Inter Press Service, 2018). Following his interview, conflicts are intricated events, which can not be solved by a simple external mediation. Thus, it is fundamental to have coordinated actions, where local actors interact with global agencies or civil society.

New approach, new future?

As reported by the Global Report on the Food crises, the current relation between conflicts and food instability is becoming stronger (World Food Programme, 2018). The vicious cycle trap (Our World, 2011) is affecting different continents such as Africa, Asia and Latin America. Food is also becoming an important weapon in those conflicts where people are directly involved. For instance, in South Sudan armed groups attack daily the humanitarian convoys engaged in delivering food (New York Times, 2018).

In this context, the outcomes of the meeting held at the United Nations during the last United Nations General Assembly could indicate a new working approach. In particular, the new method should involve more the private sector in local and global levels. Following this strategy, civil society will cover a fundamental role inside the humanitarian crises, implementing projects and plans launched by the International Organizations. In fact, a better cooperation among actors and a special focus on prevention should be the best way in order to improve the aid actions in humanitarian emergencies.

Bibliography (Conflicts and food security: a link recognized by the United Nations)

  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2018), Monitoring Food Security in Countries with Conflict Situations (Online). Available at www.fao.org/3/CA1315EN/ca1315en.pdf (Accessed on March 12th 2019);
  2. Humanitarian Needs Overview (2018), Food Security Situation in Syria (Online). Available at  https://hno-syria.org/data/downloads/fss.pdf (Accessed on March 12th 2019);
  3. United Nations (2018), Adopting Resolution 2417,  Security Council Strongly Condemns Starving of Civilians, Unlawfully Denying Humanitarian Access as Warfare Tactics (Online). Available at https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13354.doc.htm (Accessed on March 12th 2019);
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 Bibliography (Food Security and Conflict: a vicious cycle)

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