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Conflict: a cause and effect of hunger

Summary of draft review1

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is currently working on a review of what is known about the linkages between hunger. Some of the key findings of the review are outlined in this summary.

At the end of 2000, violent conflict and its aftermath had left nearly 24 million people in 28 developing and transition countries and territories food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance. In addition, some 35 million war-affected refugees and internally displaced persons showed high rates of malnutrition.

Armed conflict leads to the destruction of crops, livestock, land, and water, and disrupts infrastructure, markets, and the human resources required for food production, distribution, and safe consumption. Combatants frequently use hunger as a weapon: they use siege to cut off food supplies and productive capacities, starve opposing populations into submission, and hijack food aid intended for civilians.

The largest number of people in need of assistance (over 18.5 million) live in Sub-Saharan Africa. The figure below gives a breakdown of numbers on a country by country basis.

In an earlier study IFPRI compared actual mean food production per capita with "peace-adjusted" values for 14 countries. The study found that in 13 countries, food production was lower in war years, with declines ranging from 3.4 percent in Kenya to over 44 percent in Angola, with a mean reduction of 12.3 percent.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations adopted a similar methodology to calculate conflict-induced losses of agricultural output in the developing world as a whole over 1970-97. In Sub- Saharan Africa, agricultural losses accounted for 75 percent of all aid received by conflict-affected countries and far exceeded the level of foreign direct investment.

Even after wars have ceased, landmines continue to exact high costs in terms of human life, economic and social development and agricultural production. Safe removal of 60-70 million unexploded landmines from 70 poor countries could expand agricultural lands; by 88-200 percent in Afghanistan, 11 percent in Bosnia, 135 percent in Cambodia, and 4 percent in Mozambique.

As well as being a consequence of conflict, food insecurity can also lead to conflict. Most of the countries currently experiencing conflict are classified by FAO as "low-income food deficit" and have high proportions of food-insecure households.

Environmental scarcities and food insecurity do not inevitably lead to conflict, but may provide an additional impetus.

The trigger condition for violent conflict may be natural, such as a prolonged drought or economical, such as the change in price of the principal food (rice in Indonesia) or cash crop (coffee in Rwanda).

Econometric studies provide additional empirical evidence of a link between food insecurity and violent conflict. These find a strong relationship between such indicators of deprivation as low per capita income, economic stagnation and decline, high income inequality, and slow growth in food production per capita on the one hand and violent civil strife on the other

However, more research is needed to learn about the dynamics in which alleged environmental or food scarcities have not contributed to violence.

Preventing cycles of hunger and conflict

Sustainable agriculture and rural development, with an emphasis on small farmers, should contribute to reduced risk of conflict in resource-poor areas and countries. Broad-based development offers an antidote to the hopelessness that often leads to violence and agricultural development assistance should be part of conflict-avoidance. Yet official development assistance dropped 21 percent over 1992-97, aid to Sub-Saharan Africa fell 13 percent during 1994-97, and aid to agriculture plummeted almost 50 percent in real terms over 1986-97.

Even as the total aid pie has shrunk, emergency needs have claimed ever larger slices, due to the proliferation of crises. In 1996, emergency assistance came to 9.5 percent of all development aid, compared to 3.5 percent in 1987, and 41 percent of food aid tonnages were devoted to emergency relief, as opposed to 10 percent in the 1970s.

The way in which projects are administered can also be important. Inappropriately administered aid can exacerbate tensions, as in Rwanda, where would-be beneficiaries perceived unfairness in the distribution of agricultural-programs.



The linkages between conflict and food insecurity are more and more evident in the post-Cold War era and a topic of concern to peace and food-security advocates inside and outside of government and international agencies. Food security and development programs must include conflict prevention and mitigation components. Savings from conflict avoidance need to be calculated as "returns" to aid. Likewise, relief and post-conflict reconstruction programs need to have food security and agricultural and rural development components if they are to help break the cycle of hunger and conflict.

For further information contact: Marc J. Cohen at the International Food Policy Research Institute, 2033 K Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20006, USA or E-mail:

Alternatively visit their website at for the latest IFPRI news and to access hundreds of food policy research reports.

Show footnotes

1Conflict: a cause and effect of hunger. A draft review by IFPRI, compiled by Ellen Messer, Marc J. Cohen, and Thomas Marchione

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Conflict: a cause and effect of hunger. Field Exchange 12, April 2001. p8.



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