The threat of acute food insecurity is once again growing after years of progress in bringing levels down. An estimated 258 million people experienced dangerous levels of food insecurity in 2022—more than double the number just three years earlier. The majority lived in countries afflicted by a combination of underdevelopment and armed conflict.
The largest populations experiencing crisis-level food insecurity or worse (IPC/CH Phase 3 or higher) lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (27.4 million), Ethiopia (23.6 million), Afghanistan (19.9 million), Nigeria (19.5 million) and Yemen (17.3 million). The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warn that food security will likely deteriorate further in 2023 in 18 global hunger hotspots.
At the 2023 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, researchers, development practitioners, policymakers and civil society representatives explored the links between food security, peace and development—particularly in fragile and conflict-affect countries. This topical backgrounder is inspired by a number of sessions at the Forum, looking at drivers of food insecurity, current challenges to food security programmes, and ways to prevent conflict-related food insecurity or respond more effectively when it does happen.
Drivers of food insecurity
The global rise in food insecurity is linked to a combination of interconnected, often mutually reinforcing drivers. In its reporting on food crises, the Food Security Information Network (FSIN) identifies three main types of driver: economic shocks; conflict and insecurity; and weather extremes. Its annual statistics show how the interactions between these drivers, and their relative impacts, can vary over time.
According to FSIN’s 2023 Global Report on Food Crises, while conflict and insecurity remained the primary driver of acute food insecurity in terms of numbers of people affected, economic shocks were the dominant driver in more than half of 58 countries hit by food crises in 2022, including Afghanistan, South Sudan and Syria. These economic shocks included repercussions of the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, and related issues such as contractions in gross domestic product (GDP), inflation, unemployment and reduced exports increasing food prices.
Crucially, however, although FSIN identifies the primary driver of food insecurity in a given country, two or three such drivers are often present, reinforcing each other and eroding the country’s, or a population’s, resilience.
Challenges to effective food security programming
The worsening food security situation comes at a time when, particularly in conflict-affected countries, food security programming by external humanitarian and development actors faces several critical challenges. Three of these are discussed below: funding constraints; the weaponization of food; and the politicization of food aid.
International development actors and humanitarian agencies involved in food security programming are suffering serious shortfalls in funding. With soaring global food prices—driven by, among other factors, the war in Ukraine and its impact on food exports—this means they can distribute less food and have had to cut back the number of beneficiaries and locations they can service. Earlier this year, for example, WFP reported unprecedented funding shortfalls for its responses to food crises in Jordan, Pakistan, Tanzania and Yemen.
Even though total humanitarian assistance increased by 27 per cent in 2022, there remains a US$52.4 billion funding gap—the largest ever. It is becoming clear that, to be more effective, food security programming needs to go beyond humanitarian assistance alone and include climate adaptation, development, peacebuilding and conflict prevention. Peacebuilding, in particular, has often been neglected and is rarely an explicit objective of humanitarian programmes.
Responses are also being complicated by the ‘weaponization’ of food: the use of food as a weapon of war and political control. Examples abound, despite the UN Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 2417 in 2018 on the protection of civilians, which strongly condemns the use of starvation as a warfare tactic, along with the unlawful denial of humanitarian access.
The use of food to shape conflict dynamics has taken different forms in different contexts. For example, Boko Haram has reportedly been using access to food supplies as part of its recruitment strategy in north-eastern Nigeria. In Venezuela, the armed forces and various non-state armed groups operating food distribution programmes on behalf of the state have reportedly distributed supplies based on loyalty to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. In Somalia, research indicates that al-Shabab operates as a ‘proto-state’ in parts of the country, providing food and humanitarian relief in locations where government presence is limited or non-existent.
Finally, while humanitarian interventions by external actors should be depoliticized, according to humanitarian principles, and not made part of any political negotiations, in reality the main drivers of food security tend to interact with political interests. Humanitarian actors must often balance the urgency of delivering food (and other) assistance to suffering populations against the risk of unintentionally legitimizing gangs or other non-state actors who control the affected areas during interactions. It is nearly impossible to keep humanitarian food aid separate from local and national politics, and engagement with political actors, even illegitimate non-state actors, may well be unavoidable.
Responding to and preventing conflict-related food insecurity: Ways forward
Discussions at the 2023 Stockholm Forum focused on how to ensure that food security programmes provide food and effective access to it, meet people’s dietary needs and preferences, improve food stability, and are also conflict-sensitive, conflict-preventative and sustainable. Four suggestions that emerged are particularly noteworthy.
Integrated food security approaches with a greater focus on peace
Food security programmes in a conflict-affected area may both affect and be affected by conflict dynamics—positively or negatively. Paying special attention to promoting peace and preventing conflict is hence crucial in any food security programming. Particularly in contexts where food supply has been weaponized or politicized, any conflict-related repercussions should be carefully monitored in order to fulfil humanitarian principles as far as possible and limit potential adverse effects.
The humanitarian–development–peace (HDP) nexus approach is based on improving collaboration, coherence and complementarity between humanitarian, development and peacebuilding activities in the same geographic area. In many fragile contexts the approach not only offers increased possibilities to prevent conflict and improve the prospects for peace, but also carries great potential for synergy and cost-efficiency to stem current food insecurity trends. Indeed, a lack of coordination can undermine progress and even put communities in danger. In South Sudan, for instance, food aid has sometimes been diverted or looted by community self-defence groups or other armed groups, fuelling conflict rather than solving food insecurity.
When food security programmes incorporate such a nexus approach and are context-sensitive and designed to have long-term impact, they can provide a pathway out of fragility. To do this, they should not only emphasize immediate nutrition needs but also focus more prominently on issues of sustainability, cost-effectiveness and resilience. They should try to address local grievances, for example related to food or fertilizer price hikes, lack of economic opportunities for women and men, or the worsening impacts of climate change, which can all spark social unrest.
The implementation of such a nexus approach relies on creating or strengthening networks of complementary stakeholders and engaging different actors through collaboration and partnerships. Many humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actors are currently grappling with how to make such partnerships work.
Funding: Achieving more through accessible, flexible resources for locally grounded food security initiatives
There are no signs that funding shortfalls are going to go away. Thus, food security programming needs to become as cost-effective as possible. Integrated approaches are one way, especially in (hopefully) reducing future needs. Another way could be through improving funding mechanisms.
Such improvements should include more accessible and flexible funding, in conjunction with locally led resilience building and the empowerment of local actors. Local actors often have a deeper understanding than external actors of specific local food security challenges and conflict dynamics that impact humanitarian and development operations and programme implementation. However, they may lack the necessary resources and technical means to access funding to address food security issues.
A SIPRI study on food security financing in South Sudan found that donors lacked confidence in local organizations’ ability to manage international funds or control the risk of corruption. Empowering local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community organizations through capacity building and opportunities to access flexible funding may reduce donors’ risk perception and allow for more context-specific, responsive and adaptable programming. Under certain conditions, if food security programmes are led by local NGOs or community organizations this may also help to depoliticize food aid.
Gender sensitivity in food security initiatives
Food security interventions need to be not only conflict-sensitive but also gender-sensitive. For one thing, improving the quality of gender-disaggregated data is necessary if programmes are to achieve more effective outcomes and enhance their peacebuilding potential. Women play a key role in both food systems and conflict prevention. Women are crucial in food production and preparation. In many countries, agri-food systems are a more important livelihood source for women than for men. A recent FAO report finds that 66 per cent of women in sub-Saharan Africa and 71 per cent of women in southern Asia are employed in agri-food systems (compared to 60 per cent and 47 per cent of men, respectively).
Yet women often encounter challenges in obtaining resources and making autonomous decisions. In addition, their contributions are typically undervalued. This is despite the fact that strengthening women’s role in agri-food systems can, in many countries, increase food production and improve nutrition for a community. According to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2020–21 only 4 per cent of total bilateral official development assistance (ODA) had gender equality and women’s empowerment as a principal objective.
As to conflict prevention, evidence suggests that women’s inclusion in peace negotiations, agreements and post-conflict reconstruction makes sustained peace more likely. A focus on gender equality can also help foster economic development, a key factor that can contribute to insulating communities from food-related conflict. Inclusive programming that promotes women’s empowerment and livelihoods can alleviate poverty and inequities, while at the same time strengthening social cohesion by reducing women’s marginalization and establishing a sense of shared purpose and prosperity between men and women.
Earlier action through synced and improved early warning
Early-warning systems are critical components of food security programming. They provide timely information about probable surges in acute food insecurity, which can be used to prepare for and possibly even prevent a crisis. There are at least five different food insecurity early-warning systems in operation, alongside multiple agricultural information systems and mixed information systems. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), for example, already provides early warning of acute food insecurity in much of Africa, Central America and Afghanistan, while WFP’s Vulnerability Analyses and Mapping (VAM) covers 80 countries. Mechanisms like the Hunger Map LIVE and the Consolidated Approach to Reporting Indicators of Food Security (CARI) serve to inform WFP’s planning, resource allocation and need for emergency interventions.
But to ensure earlier action is taken that can potentially prevent or mitigate food crises, improvements are needed both in early-warning systems and in how they interact with food security programming. For example, according to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), some early warning systems do not adequately factor in structural vulnerabilities and market dynamics in international food systems. Current early-warning systems tend to give different results as to the severity of food insecurity, depending on their methods and coverage. This can lead to delayed and uncoordinated responses. In addition, national governments may not properly integrate early-warning systems into their food security programming, hindering prevention and responsiveness.
Greater collaboration among relevant international organizations (e.g. WFP, FAO and UN Environment), as well as support from the research community and consultation with policymakers, development agencies and local stakeholders, is required to better sync and improve early-warning systems for food insecurity. Furthermore, integrating such systems more systematically into policy and practice, and paying attention to both national and global food systems and economic interlinkages, could ensure that programmes become more proactive rather than reactive. This would allow for more timely actions that potentially save lives and resources.
The deepening global food crisis, driven by concurrent economic shocks, conflict and insecurity, and weather extremes that are being made more frequent and more intense by climate change, requires urgent action. Food security programming must become both more effective and more efficient. This means not only being more responsive but also having a longer-term, preventive focus. Food security interventions cannot be just about providing food; they need to be part of supporting peace and helping communities to become more resilient, secure and sustainable—and thus less vulnerable to food insecurity in the future.