We Can’t Respond to Famine Caused by Conflict in the Same Way as Famine Caused by Drought


In conflict- and famine-affected states, interventions can undermine innate community resiliencies that could offer some protective effect for families and individuals. It is well-understood that violent conflict is a major cause, or the primary cause, of each of the globe’s four most pressing food security crises — in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen — that could deteriorate into full-scale famine in 2017. The conflict dynamics are unique to each country, but all are characterized by lack of civilian protection, mass displacement, and disrupted provision of humanitarian assistance, which compound preexisting food security problems. Addressing these challenges is essential to prevent these four emergencies from developing into full-blown catastrophes.

Many countries prone to food insecurity have invested in building household and community resilience to the shocks that can cause famine. Roads and water infrastructure improvements, new agricultural techniques, and market diversification can mitigate the impact of drought, crop failure, and supply chain disruptions that lead to food insecurity. This type of resilience-building is most likely to succeed where there is a degree of functional governance. Even when those measures fail, or have not yet taken hold under a nascent government like Somalia’s, basic governance can still support the provision of humanitarian assistance when the food system fails. In open conflict, this is far more difficult if not impossible.

In light of the slow (or absent) progress towards peace in these four countries, it is important that donors, governments, parties to the conflicts, and the international community intervene to improve food and physical security in a way that is sensitive to the conflict. Practicing conflict sensitivity in these contexts means evaluating immediate and second-order impacts of actions in conflict-affected countries, anticipating risks, and taking steps to minimize impact on civilians. There is an implied assumption in the practices below that there is political will to end conflict and protect the populations.

Maintain and promote indigenous social connections and resilience

Studies of the 2011 Somali famine, which killed an estimated 280,000 people, found that those who fared best were from tight networks in select geographies, linked to Somalia’s ancient system of clan and family allegiances. This innate resilience allowed them to pool resources as well as call on connections in non-famine-affected parts of the country and overseas to solicit resources and overcome supply route challenges. This innate resilience can be threatened by displacement in the form of people fleeing fighting or dispersing to humanitarian aid locations.

Prioritize protection of civilian infrastructure and supply routes

In South Sudan, the national government has intercepted humanitarian shipments, ostensibly because rebels could steal and sell them to fund their operations. In coastal Yemen the vital network of ports, at one time used to import 90 percent of the national food supply, have become sites of contestation, attacked by each side and rendered unserviceable. This has compounded already dismal food insecurity and added to the extreme difficulty relief agencies have had in reaching many of Yemen’s 18 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. In Nigeria, an estimated 262 medical facilities have been destroyed by the insurgency, making it difficult for Nigerian authorities and international aid agencies to treat malnutrition or widespread cholera.

Support normal civilian movement

Though the government of Nigeria claims to have technically won the war against Boko Haram, large tracts of arable land are littered with land mines. Populations are fenced in to relatively small sections of Borno state, cut off from normal livelihood activities and unreachable by aid agencies because of Boko Haram operations, compounding starvation risk. In Yemen, normal livelihood activities like cultivation and marketing have all but ceased because people are unable to move during aerial bombardments.

This is not to say that we should not hope to achieve meaningful security gains or even resolve the seemingly intractable conflicts in these four countries. Rather, it is important to recognize that in the meantime, security operations and famine prevention interventions could actually be harmful if not implemented in a conflict-sensitive way. By prioritizing civilian infrastructure, social connections, and normal movement and access to traditional ways of life through a lens of conflict sensitivity, governments, parties to conflicts, and international donors can tap into community resiliencies that might hold off disaster for a little longer.

Michele Piercey is the senior vice president of Chemonics’ Strategic Solutions and Communications Division and an expert in political transition and countering violent extremism with more than 10 years of field experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Tunisia.

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