A toxic mix of conflict, regional instability and the impact of climate change is halting the progress we have been making towards ending hunger around the world. Unless we commit ourselves to a better path, millions more will be hungry and the places they call home will become even more dangerous.
Since I became the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) in April 2017, I have travelled to the three countries and one country region most in danger of famine: Northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen; all are filled with people who are desperately hungry due to conflict. I have also seen the wounded Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. I have talked to the people who fled fighting in Burkina Faso, and those who are desperate to return to their small farms in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I have visited hard-to-reach, war-torn areas of Syria and talked to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
People in all these places worry about food. But they also desperately want peace, the kind of peace that will allow them to live stable lives in the communities they have always called home. They know instinctively that food security means fewer community tensions, less violent extremism and more mutual co-operation. While hungry people are not necessarily violent, it is clear that persistent hunger creates the kind of instability that leads to more conflict.
The number of chronically hungry people worldwide hit 821 million in 2018, up from 777 million just three years before. Ten out of the thirteen largest hunger crises in the world are conflict-driven, and 60 per cent of the people who are food insecure live in conflict zones.1 Hunger fuels longstanding grievances and disputes over land, livestock and other assets.
Countries with the highest levels of food insecurity coupled with armed conflict also have the highest outward migration of refugees. WFP research shows that for every 1 per cent increase in hunger, there is a nearly 2 per cent increase in migration.2 Refugees and asylum seekers are on the move because they feel they have no choice. Nearly every Syrian we talked to for our 2017 study, “At the Root of Exodus,” said they wanted to go back to Syria if and when it was secure and stable at home.3 This is not surprising. People want to stay with their families in familiar surroundings, and they will do so sometimes at great risk to their own personal safety. But there may be a tipping point, too. In mid-2015, asylum applications to Europe from Syria spiked from 10,000 per month to 60,000 per month, when humanitarian assistance was slashed. That, plus the conflict, prompted people to decide to take the risk and move.
Truly effective humanitarian assistance also addresses the root causes of conflict and the re-engagement of people in productive economic activities.
Food and other forms of assistance help people remain in their countries despite difficult circumstances to earn a living and provide hope for their children. Truly effective humanitarian assistance also addresses the root causes of conflict and the re-engagement of people in productive economic activities.
A place where this work is paying off is Niger. There, WFP partners with several organizations to help more than 250,000 people in about 35 communes, or towns,4 through a multi-sector approach, working closely with local communities to build resilience and stability. Examples include land regeneration and water harvesting projects, working with women’s groups to plant tree nurseries and create community gardens, school meal programmes, and leveraging WFP local purchasing to help support local markets. Research from WFP and external parties shows land vegetation increased from zero to 50 per cent, and to as much as 80 per cent in some areas.5 Agricultural productivity doubled and, in some cases, tripled, from 500 kg to 1,000/1,500 kg per hectare. After the first year, we saw a 35 per cent increase in land planted by very poor households.
We are also seeing greater social cohesion and a more hopeful future. Inter-communal conflict is down because animals are not invading agricultural lands, thanks to the increased fodder or vegetation that has been planted. Sixty per cent of very poor household members have reduced stress migration down to three months per year, while 10 per cent have stopped migrating altogether. Furthermore, women are no longer leaving their children behind to search for fodder and firewood. Instead, they are participating in the economy themselves and helping to ensure that their children go to school.
These kinds of concerted, focused efforts create conditions that help families, communities and regions take care of themselves. The work begins with food, because nothing else can happen when everyone is hungry, but it also means improving schools, water, roads and governance, and supporting communities in many other ways.
WFP does not do this work alone. Key to the success is collaboration among the three Rome-based United Nations agencies with a mandate to alleviate hunger and develop agriculture-based economies: WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). I tell my team all the time that no one should care who gets the credit, as long as we can be effective. All three agency heads have twice been to Africa, including a trip in the summer of 2018 to Niger to evaluate our projects and programmes.
Our teams know that we expect the agencies to work together, along with the local governments, and I believe this is paying off. For example, in support of agricultural development in Niger, WFP helps recover degraded land; FAO and IFAD complement this by providing enhanced seeds along with advice and training to help farmers boost production.
For WFP school meal programmes, we buy products from the smallholder farmers who have been trained by FAO through an IFAD value chain support programme. These collaborations help develop and diversify the agricultural economy in Niger, as well as improve nutrition and food security.
WFP wants to learn more about how our efforts contribute to peace. That’s why we are working with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) to find and build an evidence base through case studies in the field. There is plenty of information on how conflict impacts food security, but there is very little evidence on how food insecurity can drive conflict or how food security might contribute to the building of more peaceful societies.
Research, of course, is productive, but the most important thing is to remember that this work affects real lives and real people, like Fazle, a man I met in Pakistan last year. Eight years earlier, war drove him, his wife and their four children away from their home and farm. They loved their home, but with all the shooting and armed extremist groups in their area, Fazle and his family were forced to leave. Seven years later, Fazle and his family returned home and are now doing well. They received six months of food aid from WFP and the Government of Pakistan. This gave the family a cushion that allowed them to enter a programme with FAO that helped Fazle set up a nursery. Now he is earning about $130 a month, four times his previous income. Fazle and his family want to live, work and pursue their dreams. Food security was the cornerstone upon which the rest of their new start was built—not just saving lives but changing them.