The number of people starving to death in protracted conflicts is far greater than the number of people dying as a direct result of violence. It is therefore crucial to consider food security an indispensable link in the process of achieving peace. These interdependencies are underlined by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in the United Nations 2030 Agenda, and their common objective of building peaceful and resilient societies.
Conflict and Food Crisis: A Mutually Reinforcing Partnership
Recent investigations reveal the intimate linkages between conflict and food insecurity; each can be the cause or result of the other. In their joint report on “Monitoring food security in countries with conflict situations,” the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) updated the Security Council on food security in 18 countries currently in conflict or post-conflict periods.
Using the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), the report shows that countries with ongoing conflicts have the highest numbers of food insecure people. In some, these percentages are alarming, including 37% of the total South Sudan population, 50% in Syria, and up to 89% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
In South Sudan, the breaking of a ceasefire that lasted a few months has aggravated conditions for crisis zone populations. Acute food shortages and the intensification of fighting has forced thousands to flee to UN refugee camps or neighboring countries such as Uganda. The IPC estimates that 4.8 million people are now in urgent need of food, compared with 2.8 million people recorded last January.
The conflict also disables distribution of food supplies provided by UN humanitarian agencies and other non-government organizations. Under uncertain safety conditions and with an extremely deteriorated infrastructure, the response to urgent needs in most affected regions might be interrupted. A plan for maize and sorghum production in the country’s “green belt” areas has also been interrupted due to continued acts of violence.
In Syria, agriculture was the major economic sector before the current war. It contributed up to 24% of GDP and represented on average 20% of total exports. It is noteworthy that Syria had been self-sufficient in wheat production for almost 20 years preceding the conflict, which ended with the five years of drought between 2006 and 2010. Many sources estimate that these years of poor production contributed to political unrest and therefore to the current conflict.
According to the WFP, food production in Syria has dropped 40% from pre-conflict levels. This is the result of various factors: In rural areas, where farming was the main source of income, crop production has considerably decreased due to unsafe and unstable work conditions. The lack of fertilizer, machinery, and seeds has also contributed to a harvest decrease. Five years after war started, Syria has lost half its livestock and bread prices have increased as much as tenfold in hardest hit areas, leading to more than eight million food insecure people.
In Nigeria’s Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno state—previously under the control of Boko Haram extremists—a very high rate of acute malnutrition has been recorded. WFP notes that the number of people in urgent need of food aid in northeastern Nigeria has risen to 4.5 million, nearly double the number from last March. Even after being released from Boko Haram’s control, Maiduguri faces the threat of protracted hunger, with about 65,000 people facing famine-like conditions. As a consequence of the extremists’ control over the Lake Chad Basin, which was previously one of the world’s most important agricultural sites, almost a half million children are suffering severe malnutrition.
Food insecurity can also be an issue in less violent contexts, in cases of political instability. In 2008 in Haiti, for example, the rise of food prices by about 40% in less than a year resulted in violent protests and the fall of the government after the parliament voted to oust Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis.
Similar protests have been witnessed in many countries in recent years, including Egypt in 2008, where violent clashes in bread queues caused several deaths. In Tunisia, a presidential decision to raise bread prices also caused a wave of countrywide riots in 1983-1984 that led to more than 100 deaths. This followed the end of subsidies on wheat and semolina, basic ingredients of bread—and the Tunisian diet in general—as part of an International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity program and was especially unpopular in light of a harsh drought that caused a poor harvest in southern governorates.
Integrating Food Security into Peacebuilding
A Security Council meeting in March this year highlighted the close linkages between food security and peace as clearly expressed by the 1945 founding of FAO and unanimously reinforced by UN member states through the 2030 Agenda 70 years later.
FAO’s strong commitment to the issue has led to an alliance with Nobel Peace Prize laureates aiming to tackle the twin problems of hunger and violence. Nobel laureates Betty Williams (1976), Oscar Arias Sánchez (1987), Muhammad Yunus (2006), and Tawakkol Karman (2011) are working with the support of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan and former South African President F.W. de Klerk to support peacebuilding in protracted and geographically wide-ranging conflicts.
The announcement of this alliance came just before the adoption of the so-called “sustaining peace” General Assembly Resolution 70/262 and Security Council Resolution 2282, which enhance the UN peacebuilding architecture by affirming the importance of promoting “an integrated and coherent approach to peacebuilding, noting that security, development and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.” This recognizes that ending conflicts is no longer enough to ensure “that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives,” as promoted by the 2030 Agenda. Prosperous societies consist of well-fed people, safe and secure lives, the fulfillment of rights and freedoms, economic growth, and stable environments.
Earlier, the report of the Advisory Group of Experts on the Review of the Peacebuilding Architecture, “Challenges of Sustaining Peace,” suggested that the creation of employment opportunities could be achieved by jump-starting agricultural sectors in countries where they are major parts of the economy. Restoring food security through promoting farming activities will help communities contribute to their own long-term recovery.
With the input of multiple UN bodies, but especially the FAO, programs are already being implemented in the agricultural regions of Syria, where food production is still possible, enabling thousands of families to have access to food and income. It is crucial to consider a holistic approach in restoring peace, including poverty reduction and good governance promotion, in accordance with the specific characteristics and priorities of societies such as this.
To be successful, prevention must address the entire range of possible causes of conflict. In Syria, a solid plan for achieving food security could have prevented the migration of 1.5 million people from rural areas to urban suburbs in 2006 following the country’s sustained drought, which robbed them of their main economic activity of farming. Some analysts accuse the Syrian government of underestimating this problem and being incapable of preventing it, which, among other factors, led to the unrest beginning in 2011.
The adoption of the principles of “sustaining peace” within the UN system should clearly position food security as a sine qua non condition of achieving peace, particularly in countries where agriculture and food production are key to economic and social development.
Hajer Tlijani is Cooperation Officer for Sustainable Development at La Francophonie’s permanent representation to the United Nations.