By: Ludovica Aicha Brambilla.
The Global Humanitarian Overview 2021 has projected a historic level of food insecurity, with famine looming in several countries, due in large part to conflict and systemic violence. This forecast took into account the rising trend of the last two years; in 2019, in fact, seventy-seven million people in over 22 countries have experienced starvation due to armed violence. The new 2021 Global Report on Food Crises has confirmed that conflict has been the main driver of food crises also in 2020. Throughout the past year, up to 100 million people in 23 countries have experienced starvation because of violence and insecurity. The evidence that conflict causes food insecurity is well established. For instance, the FAO reports of the past decade have highlighted a recurring figure: The proportion of undernourished people is almost three times as high in countries in conflict than in other developing countries. This is also the result of the rapidly increasing civil displacements which can result in conflicts between social groups, causing food insecurity and a significant loss of income, resulting in acute famine and poverty.
However, these factors can sometimes interplay the other way round. Often poverty fosters conflict dynamics and insecurity; resource scarcity is a key factor of mass migrations and displacements which can result in conflicts between social groups. Economic inequalities are often seedbed for instability and represent a crucial contributing factor of violence together with socio-cultural and political factors. But poverty exacerbates all human vulnerabilities exposing people to a series of different types of risks. The condition of insecurity driven by privation concerns every dimension of life and it binds with multiple factors which reinforce each other and only eventually result in violence.
For instance, poverty is a key element when addressing food insecurity issues. Food security is a condition in which everybody has regular access to nutritious food, thanks to one’s own livelihood or a safety net provided by the state or any other organisation. Ensuring food security means guaranteeing the production of a sufficient amount of food in total and, especially, that everybody can access such vital resources. The Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen stated that the root cause of the continuation of world hunger is the continuation of poverty, despite the increasing total prosperity. In fact, even in periods of tight food markets, there is enough food available, but a large number of people are just too poor to afford it.
Many families, especially in developing countries, are particularly vulnerable to high food prices and they lack proper training on how to produce more food more sustainably. Agricultural development plays a key role in generating the incomes needed to ensure food security. In fact, two-thirds of the poor live in rural areas where agriculture is the dominant sector, but poor farmers are extremely vulnerable to the decline in agricultural output and aren’t able to benefit from basic infrastructures and access to markets. Income growth is necessary but the composition of growth matters too, as more equal growth is likely to lead to long-lasting food security. As a matter of fact, other compliments such as safe drinking water, awareness regarding adequate nutrition and access to health services are vital. In light of this approach, to tackle the causes of hunger, the policy objective should be the implementation of social norms dedicated to improving the conditions of the poor rather than concentrate on the overall agricultural production.
Food insecurity is, indeed, the result of many factors chained together. Some of them include privation and low wages coupled with poor education and inadequate health assistance. Malnutrition can be both a cause and a result of health problems. This depends on the quantity and quality of the food a person eats; the diet which a person can access must be sufficiently balanced otherwise a vicious circle begins. In this context, the crucial matter of health care deprivation and discrimination against women deserves a special mention. In fact, the vicious circle starts with maternal malnutrition and pours out, becoming a mass phenomenon further feeding famine and insecurity. The level of education is an important piece of the puzzle. Education significantly influences the information available and the possibility to obtain a well-paid job by which one can access sustainable and healthy food. But the possibility of having access to education and completing it depends precisely on the state of indigence. Malnutrition affects school performance and the diseases, often related to poor nutrition, reduce one’s opportunities in the labor market. In this way, the vicious cycle keeps feeding itself, pressing people in the tight grip of the poverty trap.
Ultimately, hunger driven by poverty can be both a cause and a consequence of conflict. The threats to food security can trigger unrest and provides a tangible reason for the instigation of violence. The 2015 FAO report Peace and Food Security estimated that post-conflict countries with high food insecurity are 40% more likely to relapse into conflict within a 10-year timespan. The report also highlighted how the increase in food prices in 2008 together with cuts in food subsidies, reduced real incomes triggering food riots in many countries.
Thereby, investing in food security may strengthen the effort to prevent conflict and achieve stability. To build long-lasting peace, it is essential to understand the mutual link among poverty, food security and conflict.