Winning the Peace: Hunger and Instability

By Charles W. Elliott

An increasingly hungry world is increasingly unstable. A new report issued by the World Food Program USA—Winning the Peace: Hunger and Instability—presents an unprecedented view into the dynamics of the relationship between hunger and social instability.[1]

Based on exhaustive interdisciplinary queries of a database of 90,000,000 peer-reviewed journal articles, the report explores the underpinnings and drivers of humanitarian crises involving food insecurity and conflict.

The dominant driver of today’s humanitarian crises is armed conflict. Ten of the World Food Program’s thirteen “largest and most complex emergencies are driven by conflict”, and “responding to war and instability represents 80 percent of all humanitarian spending today … stretching humanitarian organizations beyond their limits.”[2] Ongoing conflict not only drives humanitarian crises, but complicates the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach those in need and to provide assistance.

Violence, conflict, and persecution have resulted in the displacement of 65,000,000 people, more than any other time since World War II.[3] The average length of displacement is seventeen years. In such circumstances, measures of food insecurity are nearly triple that found in other developing country settings.[4]

The current humanitarian situation confronts these stark realities:

  • For the first time in a decade, the number of hungry people in the world is on the rise. In 2016, 815 million people were undernourished, an increase of 38 million people from 2015. Almost 500 million of the world’s hungry live in countries affected by conflict.
  • The number of people who are acutely food-insecure (in need of emergency assistance) rose from 80 million in 2016 to 108 million in 2017—a 35 percent increase in a single year.
  • Over 65 million people are currently displaced because of violence, conflict and persecution—more than any other time since World War II.
  • For the first time in history, the world faces the prospect of four simultaneous famines in northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. Each of these crises is driven by conflict.
  • Increased migration and the spilling of conflicts beyond borders has led to a proliferation of “fragile states”—states defined by “the absence or breakdown of a social contract between people and their government.”
  • By 2030, between half and two-thirds of the world’s poor are expected to live in states classified as fragile. While a decade ago most fragile states were low-income countries, today almost half are middle-income countries.

At the same time, the nature of conflict and the global system of governance are undergoing transitions that undermine the international community’s ability to address and reduce conflict. The report highlights the rise of non-state actors as powerful participants in armed conflict while also recognizing the significance of activities such as the weaponizing of information to undermine the legitimacy of traditional nation-state institutions.

The report also describes how threats such as food insecurity can drive recruitment for terrorists and rebels, worsening destabilization. (Report, p.7) Military strength cannot adequately address these kinds of threats. Rather, appropriate responses to such threats must address their actual nature. Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades will never be a long-term solution to food insecurity-driven instability. Recognition of this basic reality drives the use of so-called “smart power” in the form of foreign assistance, especially food assistance and agricultural development, to address the underlying causes of this instability.

“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” U.S. Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, Congressional testimony in 2013, when he was serving as Commander of U.S. Central Command.

“Show me a nation that cannot feed itself and I’ll show you a nation in chaos.” Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS).

The report supports the use of this kind of smart power by empirically examining the relationship between food insecurity and conflict-driven instability. Because food insecurity is also related to other forms of poverty and disruption, it is difficult to rigorously establish that causal relationship. Thus, it often rests upon anecdotal evidence. Examples include: failed government responses to drought as contributing to regime change in Ethiopia; the contribution of food price riots to the overthrow of governments in Haiti and Madagascar in 2007-2008 and violent protests in dozens of other nations across the globe; food production and price shocks as drivers of the unrest in the Arab Spring (e.g., food strikes nearly every week in Algeria in 2007-2008); and the prolonged drought in Syria reducing agricultural yields and food supplies as a factor in its ongoing crisis. More recently, the world’s attention is drawn to the “four looming famines in northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen” (Report, p. 7), each of which is torn by civil war and ethnic conflict. As World Food Program officer Challis McDonough observed, “Almost all famines, at least in our modern era, are manmade. Fundamentally, conflict is at the root of it[.]”

While these are powerful examples of the connections between food insecurity and instability, efforts to identify and understand the important linkages require a broader base of evidence. WFP drew from a body of over 3,000 peer-reviewed journal articles, finding the clear weight of evidence to establish the link between food insecurity and instability.

The Drivers of Food insecurity and the Manifestations of Social Unrest

WFP identified eleven unique drivers of food insecurity—from land competition and food price spikes to rainfall variability—and nine separate manifestations of social unrest, ranging from peaceful protest to violent interstate conflict.

Drivers Manifestations
Land Competition Social Unrest
Water Competition Political Instability
Food Price Spikes Riots
Food Price Volatility Isolated Violent Conflict
Food Price Uncertainty Homicide
Agricultural Production or Wage Loss Terrorism or Extremism
Undernourishment Armed Conflict
Economic Reliance on Agriculture Civil War
Drought Interstate Conflict
Rainfall Variability
Temperature Fluctuations

The eleven unique drivers of food insecurity were “linked to at least nine separate types of instability ranging from peaceful protest to interstate conflict, with riots and civil war in between.” (Report, p. 24). Such conflicts are usually caused by multiple factors. For example, it found that natural disasters can rapidly catalyze manmade crises due to the failure of governing institutions to mount an effective or appropriate response.

Unique, situation-specific combinations of these drivers and individual motivators characterize each instance of food-related instability. Individual motivators for involvement in unrest and violence vary between contexts, but generally fall into three categories: “grievance”, “governance”, and “greed” (economic).

“Grievance” is perceived injustice, which is especially relevant where food insecurity arises within a context of existing social fault lines, causing society to break apart along existing lines of division.

The factor of “governance” is the failure of the state to prevent food insecurity, and its inability to respond to shocks, provide political inclusivity or to suppress uprising. Additionally, where the rule of law is compromised, economic or grievance-motivated individuals can more easily decide to engage in conflict without fear of punishment.

The motivation of “greed” or economic advantage arises where participants in conflict resort to violence because they believe they will derive a higher social or economic advantage from doing so. As the report notes, “extreme poverty provides a low baseline status quo that can be exploited by violent groups” (Report, p. 29).

Winning the Peace Links

The drivers of food-related instability fall into three interrelated categories:

(1) Competition for limited agricultural resources (e.g. land and water) that are inadequate to sustain agricultural livelihoods. This manifests in conflicts between communities that rely on livestock and those that rely on growing crops. Such competition also manifests in land grabs, forced land redistribution, and other sources of conflict. Increased migration, especially between ethnically diverse communities, and displacement increase the risk of competition-driven conflict. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) estimates that in the last half century, “some 40% of civil wars have been linked to natural resource competition.”[5]

(2) Market failure: Spikes, volatility, and uncertainty in food prices are linked to social unrest, often manifesting in riots and demonstrations, particularly in urban areas. The intensity and duration of food riots are significantly affected by the overall context, including the type of food commodity, the nature of the governing regime, and the perceived cause of the food price rise.

(3) Extreme weather (e.g. drought): Market failure and agricultural resource competition are often caused or exacerbated by changes in weather conditions and climate, which can create desperate conditions for families and communities that are primarily engaged in smallholder farming.

Social and political instability caused by food insecurity has obvious national security implications for the United States and other major world powers. Hunger, insecurity, and hopelessness drive extremism. But diplomacy and development can establish and strengthen the foundations for food security in areas at risk.

“We can continue to provide leadership in the world, or we can turn our back on the world’s hungry. We can empower our neighbors with the tools to put food on the table, or we can watch our enemies fill those same hands with weapons.” – Former U.S. Senators Bob Dole and Tom Daschle, 2017

 “Food Fights Back”: Strategies to Break the Relationship Between Food Insecurity and Instability

As the report notes, just as there is no one single cause of food insecurity, we need multiple strategies combined in a comprehensive approach to address it. These include: emergency food assistance, agricultural development, child nutrition, and social safety net systems.

(1) Emergency food assistance provides immediate relief in crisis situations to save lives and mitigate the desperation of those in desperate situations. In the longer term, U.S. food assistance can reduce price spikes and volatility, build trust in food systems, create work opportunities for those who may otherwise be driven to opportunity-driven violence, improve perceptions of America’s role in the world, and encourage the reintegration of combatants into society.

(2) Agricultural development assistance is often needed to provide long-term food security and economic growth. The report notes that almost half of the world’s hungry are subsistence farmers. “GDP growth in the agricultural sector is more than twice as effective at reducing extreme hunger and poverty than growth in other sectors in developing countries” (Report, p. 63). Investments in subsistence farming increase community self-sufficiency and deter recruitment into extremist movements and violent revolt.

(3) Investment in early childhood nutrition offers the longest-term dividends for communities. Childhood malnutrition can permanently damage physical growth, intellectual and emotional development, and lifetime health. This can create society-wide burdens in health costs, diminished longevity, and heightened risks of violence and aggression. The risks of childhood malnutrition are aggravated by conflict: more than 50 percent of those displaced from their countries by conflict, violence, and persecution are under the age of 18. Addressing the underlying causes of conflict also helps to reduce childhood malnutrition.

(4) Safety net systems, the providing of basic commodities, resources, or services to poor or vulnerable populations on a reliable basis, can dampen societal shocks and episodes of food insecurity caused by conflict, weather, or other events. They provide a floor of support that allows people to preserve their productive assets, prevents descent into deep poverty, and helps prevent further conflict. Such safety nets can include “food-for-work” initiatives that can effectively deter terrorist recruitment, and provide viable livelihood opportunities for vulnerable populations. Food and cash transfers have also proved successful in deterring riots, as the 2007-2008 food price crisis demonstrated. Meanwhile, school meals—the most widely deployed safety net—provide structure, normalcy, and protection against childhood recruitment into armed groups.

The work of Buddhist Global Relief supports all of these strategies. We fund emergency food aid in times of natural disaster and other severe crises, most recently for those displaced by conflict in Yemen, South Sudan, and for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Our partners provide agricultural development assistance, particularly to smallholder farming communities in rural areas in India, Vietnam, Darfur, Kenya, and Malawi. Buddhist Global Relief funds numerous childhood nutrition programs in India, Jamaica, Niger, Haiti, Bangladesh, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and elsewhere. And while we cannot create a societal-wide safety net as a government might do, our work helps stitch together programs such as school meals, providing water wells, education of girls, vocational training, training in enhanced agricultural techniques, and more to help fill the gaps in existing safety nets. In this way, Buddhist Global Relief plays its own part in winning the peace.

Winning the Peace report cover photo: WFP/Karel Prinsloo

[1] WFP USA, 2017. Winning the Peace: Hunger and Instability. World Food Program USA. Washington, D.C., available at: The non-profit World Food Program USA works with U.S. policymakers, corporations, foundations and individuals to help provide financial resources and develop policies needed to alleviate global hunger.

[2] Report, Preface.

[3] Report, p. 15, citing UNHCR (2016). Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015. Geneva, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[4] Id., citing Maxwell, D. (2013). Food Security and Political Stability: A Humanitarian Perspective. Food Security and Sociopolitical Stability. C. B. Barrett. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[5] Report, p. 35, citing The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World 2017: Building Resilience for Peace and Food Security. Rome, FAO.


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