Armed Conflict and Hunger–How Conflict Causes Hunger

Food Shortages

The most obvious way armed conflict affects hunger is through the deliberate use of hunger as a weapon. Food shortages and famine deaths occur where adversaries starve opponents into submission. Acts of siege warfare include seizing or destroying food stocks, livestock, and other assets in food-producing regions; cutting off marketed supplies of food in these and other regions; and diverting food relief from intended beneficiaries to the military and their supporters. Farming populations are also reduced by direct attacks, terror, enslavement, or forced recruitment and by malnutrition, illness, and death. As farming populations flee, decline, or stop farming out of fear, production falls, spreading food deficits over wider areas. Land-mining and poisoning of wells are additional hostile acts that turn temporary acute food shortages into longer-term insufficiencies; these acts force people to leave and not return, thus interrupting food production and economic activities permanently. Conflict-linked food shortages set the stage for years of food emergencies, even after fighting has officially ceased.


To counteract food shortages and prevent famine deaths, the international community has maintained geographic information/famine early warning systems and food reserves since the 1970s. Where information systems identify impending or actual acute food shortages, the United Nations and bilateral donors, with the IFRC, the World Food Programme (WFP), and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), ordinarily move food and other emergency care into affected zones to prevent starvation and suffering. Such interventions also are meant to forestall involuntary migrations by would-be victims. By the 1980s, early warning and response had been largely successful in preventing famine except in war zones.

Photo: Martin Lueders

Women waiting for food distribution, Bomi Hills, Liberia. People displaced from their land and occupations cannot be very productive. Instead of producing food in their villages (women produce more than 50 percent of the food grown in Africa) they must rely on the assistance of others. At least 700,000 people were displaced by the seven year civil war in Liberia, and everyone else had their lives and livelihoods disrupted as well, even though they continued living in the same place. Photo: Martin Lueders

Moving food into zones of armed conflict to prevent famine deaths, therefore, became a major goal of humanitarian assistance and famine relief (Minear et al. 1990; ICN 1992). Unfortunately, much of the food aid intended for noncombatants is hijacked by warring parties, who use control of food aid to reward would-be supporters, starve out opponents, and keep conflict alive. In Ethiopia the Mengistu government, after starving the opposition, used food aid strategically to remove and forcibly resettle opposition populations (Clay 1988). In southern Sudan both government and opposition forces have used famine as a weapon to control territories and populations since the late 1980s. Government and resistance forces commandeer emergency food, which enables both sides to fight on and also to use food as an instrument of selective ethnic and religious oppression (African Rights, 1994a; Keen, 1994; Minear, 1997). In both situations selective food shortages were first created and then maintained by those who controlled and diverted food aid. Among Rwandan Hutu refugees, control of food distribution in refugee camps has been a chief source of political power. Donated food intended for the most vulnerable women and children found its way first to powerful male interests, enabling them to keep invasionary hopes alive.

Transporting and guarding emergency food supplies in conflict situations also becomes a chief source of livelihood, vehicles, and arms for would-be combatants. Such distortions have led some analysts (African Rights, 1994a; Minear, 1997) to argue that food aid prolongs conflicts and should be stopped unless it can be delivered with more oversight. A continuing challenge for donors is how to deliver food and other essential aid in ways that can relieve food shortages and renew productive capacities without refreshing the fighters.

Food shortages related to conflicts also can be characterized as entitlement failures where political powerlessness or economic destitution-usually both-prevent communities, households, or individuals from getting access to food even where it is available. After being stripped of essential assets including tools, livestock, and jewelry, or parlaying them into food to meet immediate nutritional needs, people find themselves without further resources. Conflict-related destitution thus creates conditions of chronic food insecurity and shortage for households that otherwise may have been temporarily or seasonally short of food.

Food Poverty or Food Insecurity

Less dramatic but more pervasive is the chronic food insecurity created by conflict that usually lingers long after active fighting has ceased. Food insecurity, or poverty-related hunger, follows from armed violence that disrupts markets and livelihoods and leaves households without sufficient resources to access food.

Armed violence destroys assets of civilians and removes whole communities or selected households and individuals from customary sources of income. Where manufacturing and market areas are bombed, or transport disrupted, livelihoods are destroyed over wide areas. In addition, conflicts disrupt migratory labor and remittance patterns over broad regions, as has been shown in the recent conflicts in the Horn of Africa and Iraq.

Multiple years of warfare remove entire age cohorts from formal schooling and ordinary socialization and cause longer-term multigenerational underemployment and underdeveloped peacetime work skills. Poverty-related hunger is likely to persist well after the armed struggles have ceased in Southern and West Africa and Central America because more than 20 years of armed violence has left the younger generation under prepared for any vocation other than fighting. After wars have destroyed natural and social resource bases, people must reform and rebuild communities, regain land titles, reconstruct waterworks, replant trees, and recruit seeds, animals, and tools to restore livelihoods. They must also reconcile hostilities and distrust that in some cases predate active fighting. None of these are quick turnarounds, and all contribute to continuing underproduction, poverty, malnutrition, and risk of renewed violence.

To overcome food insecurity and break cycles of conflict, donors such as CARE have focused on restoring livelihood security through programs that attempt to use food relief for development, and create new employment or entrepreneurial skills through training or microcredit programs. Food is not simply given away but serves as payment when people reconstruct roads, or reseed forests. Tools, seeds, and small loans are additional instruments (CARE-USA, 1995).

But such food-for-work (FFW) or income-generation projects in active? or post-conflict situations often suffer from insufficient country-level infrastructure to plan, implement, and monitor them. They may also lack the community-level organizations needed to negotiate labor contracts and food distributions because after wars, communities are still regrouping. FFW programs additionally are criticized on humanitarian grounds because women and children or others most in need of food may be too weak to work.

The case of postwar Ethiopia illustrates all these constraints. In 1994 it appeared that Ethiopia would have to import the bulk of its food for years to come (Davies, 1994; Maxwell and Lirensu, 1994). Good harvests in 1995 and 1996 reduced the food gap but could not create concomitant infrastructure or entitlements to reach all those who were malnourished and too poor to access the additional food. Rebuilding entitlements to food may entail tradeoffs between meeting the immediate food needs of the most food-deprived and malnourished and building food-security capacities over the longer term.

Food Deprivation or Nutritional Insecurity

Individual food deprivation, or nutritional insecurity, refers to protein-energy or micronutrient malnutrition, which may afflict individuals even in situations where communities and households appear to be food secure. Women, children, the elderly, or socioeconomically marginal members of households such as servants or those of other ethnic identity may be deprived of adequate food or suffer malnutrition even where household food supplies are adequate or plentiful. In situations of active conflict, women and children or others who are left behind may have less access to food after men mobilize into armed forces or migrate in search of additional food or employment. They also face elevated risks of illness and malnutrition when health care services and social service institutions are destroyed. Emergency food rations may be nutritionally unbalanced and insufficient to meet their micronutrient and protein-energy needs. In the absence of additional markets and sources of food and income, their food, supplies, health, and care are jeopardized.

Displaced and refugee populations are particularly vulnerable to nutritional deprivation, related respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders, and violence in the crowded and unhygienic conditions of emergency camps. Men with guns can out-compete civilians, the intended beneficiaries, for humanitarian food aid. Women everywhere are the targets of violent physical and sexual abuse. Such terrifying experiences interfere with their postwar recovery and return to normal social and economic behavior (el Bushra and Piza-Lopez, 1994).

Children are also special victims of violence. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (1994, 1996) estimates that more than 1.5 million children have been killed, more than 4 million physically disabled, and more than 12 million rendered homeless in conflicts over a decade. Elevated levels of children’s clinical malnutrition and malnutrition? related disease and deaths persist in war zones even after conflicts have ceased because children have been traumatized and physically and psychologically disabled and because health services have been destroyed. In addition, war-torn countries are less able to plan and implement nutrition programs to overcome childhood malnutrition. The UN Administrative Committee for Coordination- Sub-Committee on Nutrition (ACC/SCN) and UNICEF found progress in eliminating childhood malnutrition to be least evident in 11 countries that were recently war torn. These countries were also classified as least likely to meet World Summit for Children nutrition goals (Mason, Jonsson, and Csete, 1996, 171-72).

Donors have tried to respond to the special needs of the food deprived by targeting food for refugee areas and by trying to address the special food, health, and psychological needs of women and children. Some critics recommend that emergency aid be delivered directly to women, who are more likely than men to feed children (African Rights, 1994a,b, 1995). Aid analysts have also emphasized the need to address the health and care dimensions of nutrition, in addition to food issues.

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