Food Insecurity: A Devastating Consequence—And Weapon—of Conflict

Photo: AP

Bottom Line: Behind the curtain of violent conflict often resides a potentially devastating, long-term issue that demands global attention: food insecurity as both a weapon and consequence of war. Militant groups recruit the hungry with promises of the next meal, and states such as North Korea and Syria control food as a mechanism of internal power and psychological warfare. The problem of feeding the world’s hungry – many of whom find themselves in the crossfire of conflict – is only expected to get worse as climates change, populations grow and the rural migrate to booming megacities.

Background: Given the complex relationship between conflict and those experiencing food insecurity, those most in need of emergency assistance often reside in war-torn countries. This year, 489 million people out of the world’s 815 million hungry were located within countries affected by conflict, according to the World Food Program (WFP).

  • Affected countries such as Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia are in the midst of brutal wars, not to mention the conflicts in Iraq and Syria that have forced mass migration to Europe. In Yemen, 17 million, or 60 percent of the country’s population are in need of emergency assistance, with near 7 million on the brink of starvation. In northeastern Nigeria, where scarcity of food has not historically been a problem, 5.1 million people find themselves food insecure as a consequence of a devastating Boko Haram insurgency. After the drought that hit Somalia in 2011, claiming the lives of an estimated 250,000 people, the country is now undergoing another, leaving 5.5 million in urgent need of food aid. The South Sudanese government has declared famine in portions of the country, while the WFP says that nearly 4.8 million people are staring down starvation. In Syria, after seven years of brutal civil war, some 6.5 million, or 33 percent of the population, now face acute hunger.
  • While natural disasters and severe weather patterns have significant impacts on the availability of food, humanitarian assistance flows have recently shifted from providing global aid to victims of natural disasters, to now primarily assisting victims of violent conflict. Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department earmarked nearly $533 million in food assistance dedicated to conflict areas in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and other countries surrounding the Lake Chad region. The implications are clear: the displacement of persons, disruption of markets, decline of governance, and destruction of infrastructure caused by violent conflict can have a devastating impact on the vulnerability of populations to food insecurity, particularly those vulnerable to climate change.

Issue: Food insecurity is not just a consequence of violent conflict. It’s a tool of warfare and authoritarian control as well as a possible recruitment mechanism for militant groups.

Emile Nakhleh, former member, CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

“Our seemingly ineffective response to these humanitarian crimes is empowering terrorist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or HTS in Syria and AQAP in Yemen. Their propaganda focuses on their claim, which seems to resonate more and more among Muslims, that the U.S. is indifferent to the suffering of Muslim communities, whether in Syria, Yemen or Myanmar.”

  • It is possible that pervasive food insecurity can become a driver of conflict, perpetuating human suffering by prolonging war. David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, has said that food aid is “the first line of offense and defense against extremism and terrorism.”  The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan—the coordinating body of the international community’s efforts there – has specifically said, “There is a possibility that high food prices may be making young men more vulnerable for recruitment by anti-government elements, including the Taliban.”
  • The Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis in Yemen have in the past used an air and sea blockade to isolate the group, placing civilian populations on the brink of starvations with reports suggesting over 50,000 children have died in the country from starvation in 2017 alone. In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad continues to target markets – most notably in Aleppo and most recently in Eastern Ghouta – cutting off access to food as well as to humanitarian assistance, and using hunger as a tool of psychological warfare. North Korea has long used food as a means of control over the population, prioritizing those the state needs to maintain the regime over those deemed expendable. This discrimination for access to and distribution of food is based on North Korea’s “songbun” social classification system, privileging certain individuals, families and parts of the country, such as Pyongyang, over others.

Emile Nakhleh, former member, CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

“Using food as a weapon of control by dictators, such as Assad, constitutes a crime against humanity because causing famine and starvation on a group of people systematically for the purpose of control, according to human rights organizations, is prohibited under international law. The psychological impact is one of fear and desperation, which Assad and his key patron Russia are sowing in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. The Trump administration has mildly condemned the targeting of food supplied by the Assad regime and has not done much, if anything, to stop it. Key Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have also remained silent on this issue, primarily because they are employing a similar weapon against the Houthis in Yemen.”

Response: Knowing where these populations are and reaching them – whether because of inaccessibility from poor infrastructure and governance or due to the threat of violence to aid workers or those in need – is a constant challenge. To overcome these barriers, aid workers must look to advances in technology to better assess the situation on the ground and deliver food aid without fear of violence, corruption or looting. These technologies would augment, not replace aid workers, or other longer-term projects such as infrastructure development.

  • Humanitarian aid workers must walk a fine line in the provision of food assistance without appearing as compromising their neutrality in a conflict and risking the safe passage of aid workers to deliver assistance to vulnerable populations, particularly those that might be party to the conflict themselves. Should certain factions view the delivery of assistance as detrimental to their efforts, or seek to siphon the aid for themselves, both state and non-state actors could turn to violence against aid workers. At least 79 aid workers have been killed in South Sudan since the beginning of the civil war in 2013. As of March, only 1.9 million of the 5.1 million in need of food aid in northeast Nigeria are being reached, in part, because of the Nigerian military’s heavy-handed response and restrictions on civilian movement.

Amb. Jack Chow, former Assistant Director-General,

World Health Organization

“The barriers to providing humanitarian aid are numerous and evolving.  Chief among them are extensive operational obstacles that involve myriads of personnel, assets and supply chain links. Complications and breakdowns among any operational components will cause delays and losses of aid. Chokepoints and tenuous routes invite corruption and pilferage. In addition to vulnerable cargoes, aid workers are prone to threats and attack as well. Active conflicts, which provoke both displaced populations and disorder, impose dangerous conditions that often make it nearly impossible to deliver aid to any adequate degree.”

Emile Nakhleh, former member, CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

“The key concession that some of these humanitarian organizations are making in their negotiations with the Syrian regime include muting their strong criticism of the regime’s bloody repression of its people. Some of them also cooperate with regime operatives and ‘thugs’ as they enter the affected areas, thereby inadvertently giving these pro-regime operatives access to the identities of families that are involved in anti-regime activities. While saving children and the elderly from starvation, these organizations are providing regime operatives who accompany them on these ‘humanitarian’ convoys with the opportunity to identify and target members of the resistance.”

  • Satellite imagery can help identify isolated populations and inform aid workers of the impending crisis. One initiative is the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which aggregates atmospheric and meteorological data, satellite imagery and other information and then leverages predictive analytics tools to give early warning to emerging or likely crises.
  • The negotiation of humanitarian access in conflict and post-conflict countries often includes tradeoffs between an organization’s freedom of movement and concessions made to local authorities operating in a vacuum of formal government control. To sidestep government corruption and or militant pilfering – as well as risking violence against humanitarian workers – drones could be used to deliver food aid.
  • They could also be a source of information about the conditions on the ground, such as collapsed bridges, as well as detect the presence of danger. Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Chinese responders used drones to locate downed bridges, collapsed tunnels, and other chokepoints hindering aid efforts.
  • However, the association of drones with military intelligence collection creates a stigma not easily avoided, and governments and militants may fear footage could be shared with human rights organizations documenting war crimes. In contested airspace, humanitarian drones can be targeted by the anti-aircraft systems of belligerents purposely using starvation as weapons of war. Potential advances in artificial intelligence (AI), however, could allow swarms of small drones to slip by air defense systems to individually deliver small packages of cargo—possibly even create impromptu networks for Wi-Fi and establish phone signal availability.

Scott Aughenbaugh, Deputy Acceleration Portfolio Manager, MD5

“These emergencies represent not only humanitarian crises, but also a serious threat to U.S. national security. Military experts, as well as those in the development sector and academia, have long observed the relationship between resource insecurity, political unrest and violent extremism. Some of the latest technologies in surveillance and data analysis deployed today on the battlefield can help policymakers understand the needs of desperate people vulnerable to exploitation.”

Amb. Jack Chow, former Assistant Director-General,
World Health Organization

“Artificial intelligence and other forms of systems with feedback learning capabilities could dramatically empower drones to become the prevailing surveillance system for crisis managers. As costs come down and AI-driven avionics accelerate in power, flotillas of drones over vulnerable regions can provide constant coverage for the early detection of and rapid response to humanitarian crises. Analogous to how geologists use networks of ground detectors to predict earthquakes, humanitarian groups might create a mutual network of drones to serve as aerial detectors against flare ups of violence or disaster.”

Looking Ahead: Continuing instability with predictions of more to come should drive the U.S. and other governments in the developed world to step up the investment in technologies like vertical farms to produce more food, and drones to deliver aid more safely and quickly. They also need to start planning for population flight from the conflict-ridden countryside to urban areas, stressing out-of-date urban infrastructure and food supply.

Johanna Mendelson Forman, Distinguished Fellow, Managing Across Boundaries, Stimson Center

“Food security requires complex, multi-system approaches that still seem out of reach to most of the countries slated to be megacities by 2030. Plans for addressing these needs must consider how food production and consumption can be transformed to be both carbon neutral, abundant, and available to the world’s growing appetite. Failure to address these challenges in the short run will create conditions that are ripe for more conflicts and more climate migrants. We could be looking at new era of urban food wars if we do not address the issues of how to feed 9 billion people by mid-century.”

Levi Maxey is an analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.


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