Conflict and fragility are hunger issues

Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. About 5,000 people have been crossing borders daily to leave Venezuela over the past year, according to UN data. Colombia, April 2019. UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

By Jordan Teague

“Fragility” has a special meaning in global affairs. It’s sometimes summed up as the inability of governments to protect and provide basic services to their populations. During armed conflict, governments are unable or unwilling to protect the lives of their people—it is a severe level of fragility. For much more on fragility and its main causes, see Bread for the World Institute’s 2017 Hunger Report, Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities.

The world has overwhelming—some would say exhaustive—evidence that conflict causes hunger. The number of forcibly displaced people has soared in the past several years to nearly 71 million, according to the latest data. The largest number of conflict-related deaths, especially those of women and children, are caused by hunger and disease, not by weapons. Most of the world’s remaining hungry people live in conflict zones, and this proportion is increasing as low-income countries at peace make further progress against hunger.

Bread for the World has envisioned a world without hunger since our earliest days in the 1970s. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which preceded the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), called for cutting hunger in half—a goal that was very nearly attained. The SDGs, adopted in 2015 by the United States and 193 other countries, call for an end to hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. But continued conflict will make this impossible.

As often mentioned in Institute Insights, global hunger has been on the increase since 2015. Data from 2019, once complete, is expected to show another increase, and 2020 does not look brighter. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) projects that 88 million people in 46 countries will need emergency food assistance this year.

That is 2 million more people than the expected total for 2019—and a staggering 87 percent increase since 2015. These figures do not include millions of Venezuelans now suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Political upheaval, violence, and an economy in freefall have quadrupled Venezuela’s hunger rate and produced 4.6 million refugees.                                                                              

Other areas of greatest concern include South Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria. In some cases, including South Sudan and Nigeria, the hunger crisis began due to conflict but was later worsened by natural disasters and climate change.

But is it all doom and gloom? In God’s world, the answer is always no! The global community can take actions in 2020 that help people in need now while also enabling them to prepare for post-conflict recovery and progress. To that end, Bread for the World has just launched our guiding principles for policies to address conflict, fragility, and hunger.

First and foremost, we support efforts to prevent conflict from breaking out or spreading and to keep fragility from worsening or becoming entrenched. U.S. assistance should include investments to build community capacity to solve problems and identify the root causes of hunger, poverty, and violence, and then to begin to address those they are able to influence.

U.S. assistance alone cannot support such initiatives everywhere they are needed, so the U.S. government should encourage other donors to prioritize building strong local institutions as they work to meet people’s basic needs. Resources must go first to the most vulnerable people, who often belong to groups that have been systematically oppressed for generations or centuries.

Clearly, prevention efforts do not always succeed. When prevention fails, Bread for the World supports effective humanitarian assistance, diplomacy efforts, and equitable foreign policy to meet immediate humanitarian needs and lay the groundwork for durable and sustainable peace. Ensuring that humanitarian programs have the resources needed to provide appropriate food assistance quickly to all in need must continue to be a top priority.

U.S. foreign policy should include a strong emphasis on resolving conflicts. Building community capacity to solve problems, as mentioned earlier, is one way to do this. Supporting peace processes is a vital element of an equitable foreign policy, as is penalizing parties who prolong conflicts, particularly those who prevent humanitarian assistance from reaching people in need and/or commit war crimes. U.S. foreign policy as a whole must support peace; U.S. military, intelligence, and/or security support should not go to such actors.

Finally, we support responsible engagement in conflict-affected and fragile countries that helps them rebuild and then move forward. The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 elevated the understanding that it is not effective to separate humanitarian and development assistance; organizations working in these areas should no longer work separately. Integrating development efforts into emergency assistance can reduce the risk of recurrent crises. All efforts to address humanitarian and development goals should also strengthen the capacity of local systems and institutions through long-term and comprehensive strategies of partnership with fragile countries.

Bread for the World urges U.S. leaders to follow these principles in 2020 and beyond. U.S. influence and resources, when properly targeted, can do a great deal to prevent and end conflict, which is responsible for much of the hunger in the world today.

Jordan Teague is senior international policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.

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