Reckoning with fragility in the next hunger report

Family living in a box house. Bread for the World.

By Todd Post, Bread for the World Institute

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include the transcendent goals of ending hunger and poverty by 2030. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), predecessor of the SDGs, showed that cutting hunger and poverty in half could be done. The MDGs dealt with the top half, and now the SDGs seek to address the bottom half. The latter will be more difficult to achieve, and nowhere is that more true than in what we call “fragile states.”

There is no universally agreed-on definition of a “fragile state.” However, it’s not hard to guess who some of them are. Syria comes to mind right away. States engulfed in civil war are the ultimate examples of fragility, their fates and those of their populations hanging in the balance as they tear themselves apart.

Fragility doesn’t miraculously vanish once the fighting ends. About half of post-conflict countries revert to conflict, generally because the winning side lacks either the will or the resources to address the underlying root causes of the conflict. More often than not, it’s a combination of both insufficient political will and insufficient resources.

Not all fragile states are engaged in civil war or negotiating a fragile peace. Weak governance and institutions also make some countries extremely fragile and become the precursors to civil war or smoldering levels of violence. Haiti is a good example of this. The 2010 earthquake that devastated the country was actually less powerful than one that struck weeks later in Chile, but the earthquake in Chile caused virtually no damage and few deaths. Poor governance and weak institutions can reveal themselves in all sorts of ways — such as not enforcing building codes that would have prevented destruction on the scale of what happened in Haiti.  

The challenge of ending hunger and poverty in fragile states is the subject of Bread for the World Institute’s 2017 Hunger Report, which will be released in November of this year. At this stage, we are still researching the subject. That includes talking with lots of experts who have more firsthand knowledge than we do as to what daily life is like in fragile countries.

On February 22, Bread for the World Institute and Bread’s church relations department hosted a consultation with leaders of faith organizations that operate in such environments. Faith groups provide emergency relief and development assistance in fragile states. They offer help in places where many other organizations wouldn’t dare to tread, picking up the dead, comforting people who are injured and traumatized, working with survivors to rebuild communities.

Besides the direct humanitarian and development assistance they provide, faith-based groups are able to relate to the recipients of their aid on a spiritual level. We don’t often acknowledge this as a dimension of their work in our discussions of policies and programs, but of course it undergirds everything they do as humanitarians and development actors. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Islamic Relief USA, two of the organizations represented at our consultation, explained how faith leaders defused a conflict in the Central African Republic (often called simply CAR), a country that appeared to be spiraling towards potential genocide a couple of years ago. The conflict was driven by inequalities that, while not caused by religion, manifested as sectarian lines between Muslims and Christians. The turning point in the conflict came when CAR’s top Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, traveled the country together to defuse tensions. With the support of high-level Muslim and Catholic leaders in the United States, Islamic Relief USA and Catholic Relief Services (the international humanitarian agency of USCCB) persuaded the U.S. government to provide assistance to support the efforts of Monsignor Nzapalainga and Iman Layama. 

CAR remains one of the poorest countries in the world and is hardly stable enough to be taken off any list of fragile states. I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that interfaith dialogue is all it will take to end the hunger and poverty caused by conflict. On the other hand, fragile states need more than run of the mill tools. I expect the 2017 Hunger Report to offer many for our consideration.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor at Bread for the World Institute.

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