Food Security, Nutrition, and Peace

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) peacekeepers from the Mongolian Battalion (MonBatt) provide security as the World Food Programme (WFP) drops food in Bentiu. Since September, WFP has dropped close to 1,500 metric tons, with food drops expected to continue through to December so as to meet various shortfalls. So far, there have been 67 WFP flights with MonBatt providing a protection force of 1,021 troops. 21 October 2015 ©UN Photo/Isaac Billy

Sarah Cliffe

What do we know about the links between food security, nutrition and peace? What makes countries resilient to these risks? And what does this mean for global policy development in future?

There are four points worth making between the links between food security, nutrition, other natural resource issues, and peace:

First, conflict of course has a deep impact on food security and nutrition – people living in conflict-affected countries are more than twice as likely to be malnourished as those in stable environments, and countries in prolonged conflict fall on average 20 percentage points behind in poverty reduction.

Second, there is some evidence that food insecurity can play a role in increasing conflict risk. In particular, food price shocks can increase the vulnerabilities. Studies have found that rainfall shocks in 41 African countries significantly increased conflict risks: a 5 per cent decline in economic growth due to rainfall costs increased the risk of conflict the following year by half. Countries in the Sahel have been notably vulnerable to this type of risk.

However, current research does not yet indicate a clear link between climate change, food insecurity and conflict, except perhaps where rapidly deteriorating water availability cuts across existing tensions and weak institutions. But a series of interlinked problems – changing global patterns of consumption of energy and scarce resources, increasing demands for food imports (which draw on land, water, and energy inputs) can create pressure on fragile situations.

Food security – and food prices – are a highly political issue, being a very immediate and visible source of popular welfare or popular uncertainty. But their link to conflict (and the wider links between climate change and conflict) is indirect rather than direct.

What makes some countries more resilient than others?

Many countries face food price or natural resource shocks without falling into conflict. Essentially, the two important factors in determining their resilience are:

First, whether food insecurity is combined with other stresses – issues such as unemployment, but most fundamentally issues such as political exclusion or human rights abuses. We sometimes read nowadays that the 2006-2009 drought was a factor in the Syrian conflict, by driving rural-urban migration that caused societal stresses. It may of course have been one factor amongst many but it would be too simplistic to suggest that it was the primary driver of the Syrian conflict.

Second, whether countries have strong enough institutions to fulfill a social compact with their citizens, providing help quickly to citizens affected by food insecurity, with or without international assistance.   During the 2007-2008 food crisis, developing countries with low institutional strength experienced more food price protests than those with higher institutional strengths, and more than half these protests turned violent.  This for example, is the difference in the events in Haiti versus those in Mexico or the Philippines where far greater institutional strength existed to deal with the food price shocks and protests did not spur deteriorating national security or widespread violence.

What are the implications for global policy?

First, consider food security - and in particular food price volatility – as one of the structural risks that may merit inclusion in a better strategic risks analysis at the UN.

Second, help countries develop scalable social protection programs that can help citizens when food shocks occur.   Good examples would be Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program, which since 2005 has helped the rural poor resist shocks and create assets, increasing their resilience to chronic food security. More recently, the UN has helped countries surrounding Syria scale up social safety net programs to assist both their own vulnerable citizens and refugees, such as the work WFP, UNHCR, UNDP and UNICEF have done in support of the Lebanese Government’s national poverty targeting and education programs.

Third, and relevant for the UN Security Council, make efforts to ensure that peace operations can complement the restoration of food security and livelihoods. This may mean ensuring that peace operations can protect civilian cultivation and principal local trade routes; it may mean helping governments assess the impact of internal and border security measures on agricultural producers and the consumers of basic foods.

Fourth, support structural measures designed to reduce the risks of exceptional price volatility in global food markets.

This is an edited version of the remarks made by CIC Director Sarah Cliffe to the Arria Formula meeting on food security, nutrition and peace in the UN Security Council on 29 March 2016.

Sarah Cliffe is the Director of the Center on International Cooperation at NYU. | Twitter: @sarah_cliffe