Breaking the Links Between Conflict and Hunger Redux

AuthorEllen Messer,Marc J. Cohen
Published date01 September 2015
Date01 September 2015
Breaking the Links Between Conf‌lict and Hunger Redux
Ellen Messer and Marc J. Cohen
This article revisits the authors’ 1998 study on this topic (Messer, Cohen, & D’Costa, 1998). It
employs a “food wars” framing to understand nutritional and political-conf‌lict status in countries
experiencing protracted conf‌lict-related food crises and recent civil-war situations that involve food
insecurity. This framing includes typologies of conf‌lict (pre-conf‌lict, active-conf‌lict, and post-
conf‌lict) and food insecurity (food shortage, food poverty, food deprivation). It also incorporates
related water-sanitation-and-health and land-grab issues that have multiplied since the early 2000s.
Despite growing evidence of two-way causal links between food insecurity and conf‌lict, policy
attention to these connections remains surprisingly modest. The article considers the implementa-
tion of recent major initiatives and programs aimed at addressing food insecurity–conf‌lict links. It
concludes by: (i) examining the implications for understanding and responding appropriately to
recent Middle Eastern and North African conf‌lict and hunger situations and (ii) offering
recommendations for promoting sustainable food security and building peace in conf‌lict countries.
KEY WORDS: conflict, hunger, food insecurity
The year 2015 marks 7 years since the 2007–2008 crisis of global spikes in
food prices caused widespread deterioration in the food-security conditions in
low-income countries, and provoked public demonstrations, some of which
turned violent, in dozens of places (Messer, 2009). These threats to local, national,
and global political stability elicited high-level policy responses from United
Nations (U.N.) leaders (HLTF, 2008), U.N. food agencies (FAO, 2010), internation-
al f‌inancial institutions (IFIs) (World Bank, 2011), and international nongovern-
mental organizations (INGOs) (ActionAid/Environmental Working Group, 2011;
Von Grebmer et al., 2011). Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis, such
responses showed increasing concern with food security as a security issue, the
longer term causal connections linking conf‌lict and food insecurity in both
directions, and urgent inquiries on how to break cycles of food insecurity and
political instability. The idea that food security should and could be main-
streamed into the world’s peace-building agenda, although by no means new
(see, e.g., FAO, 2005), received fresh funding and support, as did the idea that
World Medical & Health Policy, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2015
1948-4682 #2015 Policy Studies Organization
Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ.
peace-building and conf‌lict prevention must be integral to pursuit and meeting of
the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (FAO, 2005). Bold statements
by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (HLTF, 2008), and World Bank President
Robert Zoellick (World Bank, 2011) intimated that high-level policymakers were
poised to make economic and political agendas more conf‌lict-sensitive, which
included closer analysis of context-specif‌ic conf‌lict histories and dynamics in
relationship to hunger in situations that were carefully classif‌ied as fragile or
conf‌lict-affected (e.g., Bell, 2008).
Political and food agencies and think tanks additionally probed ways to break
the links between food insecurity and conf‌lict by considering, in the aftermath of
the food-price crisis, politically destabilizing surges in agricultural direct foreign
investments through which food-importing countries or commercial agents
sought to control or stabilize food supplies, prices, or prof‌its, sometimes by
dispossessing small farmers in developing countries (e.g., Kugelman & Leven-
stein, 2012). Leading food economists analyzed these “land grabs,” along with
other factors, as threats to food security and political stability in selected
countries, as political stability became a dominant term of food-security policy
analysis (Barrett, 2013). Such land-acquisition and food-price volatilities also
energized well-organized political interests to assert these were violations of their
human right to food, a right explored and advanced in a series of legal notes and
discussion papers on land grabs, international trade, and high food prices issued
by the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
(DeSchutter 2009, 2010a, 2010b). Reports in all these cases remarked or warned
that synergistic conf‌lict and food insecurity reduced life expectancies and quality
of life for survivors, especially the youngest, whose long-term human develop-
ment was especially threatened by malnutrition, illness, and psychosocial trauma
during the f‌irst thousand days of life, when exceptional care to protect their
special vulnerabilities would likely be needed but unavailable under hostile and
devastating circumstances. Again, these were not new, but renewed interests
(e.g., Hussain & Herens, 1997).
Below, we provide an overview of these conf‌lict and food-insecurity
literatures, as part of a consideration of where political-conf‌lict concepts and
contexts enter into agricultural and nutrition planning, where food-security
concerns enter into peace-building planning, and where there are gaps in these
assessments, who might f‌ill them. We take as our reference point the working
idea that conf‌lict and the legacy of conf‌lict, which we term “food wars,” are a
continuing source of food insecurity in the world today, but there are ways to
address these concerns, especially by putting food-security programming on a
human-rights basis. The opening section offers a brief critical review of the food-
wars, conf‌lict/peace-building, and food-security literatures, which def‌ines the
various terms used to analyze causation and consequences and indicates certain
gaps in theoretical, policy, and operational analysis. The second section considers
current situations of food insecurity, where conf‌lict enters into causation, and
how international agencies that report on situations of food insecurity or conf‌lict
might better account for the linkages. The third section ref‌lects on why conf‌lict
212 World Medical & Health Policy, 7:3

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