By awarding the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme, the world's largest humanitarian organisation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has shed the much-needed spotlight on hunger and conflict. The Committee described the link between hunger and conflict as a vicious circle in which "war and conflict can cause food insecurity and hunger, just as hunger and food insecurity can cause latent conflicts to flare up and trigger the use of violence." Hunger can be used as a "weapon of war and conflict".
So why are these concepts important or even relevant for Bangladesh, which is not in a protracted armed conflict currently?
A region does not have to be in conflict itself to experience the impacts of it. It should be easy for us to imagine the relationship between hunger and conflict, especially, as Bangladesh now hosts over 910,000 Rohingya refugees - a result of conflict in neighbouring Myanmar.
CONFLICT HAS BECOME THE MAIN DRIVER OF GLOBAL HUNGER: More than enough food is produced in the world to feed the global population-yet more than 690 million people still go hungry. Hunger is socially constructed and it has many reasons including food waste from farm to plate which reduces the amount of consumable food, poverty which prevents access to food, gender discrimination within households which affects utilisation of food, and climate change which exacerbates the situation.
For the past three consecutive years, the number of people suffering from hunger has been increasing. The main driver behind this surge, which is setting back decades of progress, is conflict. According to the Global Report on Food Crises, in 2019, 60 per cent of the 690 million suffering from hunger (i.e. chronically food insecure population) were living in conflict-affected countries. Currently, 8 out of the 10 worst food crises have been driven primarily by conflict in the Middle East and Asia. Economic shocks and impacts of weather events are other main drivers of current food crises. Places like Yemen are victims of compound crises. A combination of conflict, macroeconomic crisis, drought and crop pests, has made Yemen suffer from the worst food crises in the world.
In our own backyard, conflict has driven thousands of Rohingyas since the 1970s out of their home in the Rakhine state of Myanmar to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Amidst a genocide, the largest refugee influx consisting of around 745,000 people including 400,000 children came in 2016-2017, making Bangladesh one of the top 10 refugee hosting countries. In Ukhia and Teknaf Upazilas, not far from Cox's Bazar town where local tourists flock every year, thousands of refugees are living in 34 congested makeshift camps. This is the largest refugee camp in the world situated in one of the most densely populated countries.
REFUGEES FACE SPECIAL FOOD SECURITY CHALLENGES: Conflict-driven refugee populations find it difficult to access food often due to legal restrictions on their rights to work, access to land to cultivate food, and freedom of movement. In turn, refugees largely rely on humanitarian assistance as the main source of meeting basic needs. WFP, the UN's specialised agency which has been operating in Bangladesh since 1974, provides general food assistance to over 95 per cent of the entire Rohingya refugee population through a combination of in-kind and E-voucher modalities of food assistance, and operates nutrition activities targeting children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. WFP has been transitioning from in-kind non-perishable food assistance to E-voucher modalities which allows refugees to shop their own food including fresh items from WFP contracted retail outlets with a pre-loaded Assistance Card, thus serving refugees with a greater variety of food of their own choice.
Despite the efforts by the Government of Bangladesh and the humanitarian community, and the resilience of the Rohingya refugees, malnutrition among the refugees remains a grave concern. Yet, 32-39 per cent of refugee children under five years old are stunted-- meaning their growth and development is impaired often with lifelong, irreversible consequences
Rohingya refugees have to resort to unsustainable coping mechanisms to supplement their minimal income opportunities. Many are in debt after depleting savings and monetising assets. On the other hand, there are also reported incidences of tensions with the host community. The major influx of refugees since 2017 caused the population in the area to almost triple putting constraints on local resources. Tensions may rise as the Bangladeshi host population lose access to previously available farmlands and face competition with cheaper refugee labour supply.
HUNGER AS A WEAPON OF WAR: Hunger or starvation is not only a result of conflict but can be used as a deliberate weapon of war to humiliate and destroy the population and take power. Acts include active commission of a crime such as attacks on food production, markets and humanitarian aid, as well as restrictions on movement. Indirect acts such as deliberately not taking measures when basic supplies for survival of the civilian population are blocked (omission) or selectively allowing aid to one side of the conflict (provision) are also considered illegal methods of warfare.
Humanitarian work, workers or relief, such as those of WFP are not spared from these deliberate acts. As reported in the Accountability for Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law, these "range from attacks against humanitarian workers in South Sudan, to the imposition of sieges and the cutting off of relief supplies in Syria, or the adoption of a combination of different acts such as the imposition of blockades coupled with impediments of humanitarian relief and the targeting of agricultural areas in Yemen". According to a UN Security Council report, in Yemen where 80 per cent of civilian population rely on humanitarian aid, 2,570 counts of access related incidents were recorded in 2019 alone, leading to delays or impediments in humanitarian aid.
In 2018, the Associated Press and Amnesty International reported from interviews with Rohingya refugees that food deprivation was used as a second stage weapon to drive the dwindling number of Rohingyas out from the Rakhine state. Deliberate acts of deprivation included denial of access to rice fields or markets, restrictions on food access, and theft of harvest.
For centuries, starvation in times of conflict has been tacitly accepted and considered inevitable. Yet legal frameworks exist. In 2018, the UN Security Council Resolution 2417 explicitly recognised the link between food insecurity and conflict emphasising "that using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime". In 2019, the International Criminal Court included non-internationally committed crimes within this context, thereby filling an important gap in the law.
DOES HUNGER RESULT IN CONFLICT? Hunger or food insecurity increases the risk of conflict, can flare up latent discontent, and is a determinant of the intensity of armed conflict. Even positive changes in food security, such as when marginal areas benefit from good harvest or aid is distributed to food insecure victims, can ignite violence. But hunger or food insecurity is hardly ever the sole reason for conflict.
The international media has often resorted to simple resource-scarcity based explanation of conflict and riots, outlining a direct pathway from food price increase to hunger to riot and conflict. In the wake of the 2011 Arab spring and the riots after the 2008 food price hike, this narrative came into more prominence. However scholarly research shows the causal effect of hunger on conflict is much more complex and context-specific. A 2013 research on media perspectives on the causes of food protests in Africa shows discussions in the local media as opposed to those in international media are more complex-- linked to dissatisfaction in political structure, desire for reforms, unemployment in urban cities where the youth have more resources to organise protests, and general rise in the cost of living.
Even though hunger may not solely or directly result in conflict, it can change the course or consequence of conflict resulting in a "conflict trap". Narratives and information shape policies and responses. Providing simple cause and effect narratives can hinder the process of addressing the root causes of both hunger and conflict. And without addressing root causes, there cannot possibly be lasting solutions.
ADDRESSING STRUCTURAL CAUSES: "No one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well"- Warsan Shire.
WFP can use its Nobel Peace Prize recognition to work further towards bringing awareness and raise much needed funds to address the needs of food insecure people. But inaction towards addressing the root causes of conflict can only mean continued and prolonged reliance on aid, and aid becoming a substitute for peace building efforts. As the root causes of the conflict in Myanmar have not been addressed, Rohingya refugees remain displaced in Cox's Bazar and reliant on food assistance. Yet the Rohingyas have made it clear they would like to go back home with proper dignity and recognition of rights, none of which are foreseen in the near horizon.
Meanwhile, organisations like WFP working to address conflict driven hunger, face day to day challenges in reaching out to the needy without worsening the cause and consequence of conflict. They also face the challenge of democratising their efforts among communities hosting refugees. WFP has made commendable efforts in this regard in Cox's Bazar by introducing E-voucher modalities of food assistance with an aim to integrate existing local and national markets with the supply chain in the E-voucher outlets.
There is also much more room for improvement in coordination between humanitarian and development efforts. Understandably, addressing the consequences of conflict is costlier than addressing long term development goals. Thus, aligning efforts increases delivery efficiency. COVID-19 has also laid bare the many faults in existing systems, and the need for social protection systems to be readily adaptable to crisis.
The world is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030. With 60 per cent of the nearly 700 million chronically food insecure people living in conflict affected countries and with COVID-19 threatening to exacerbate the situation, the achievement of ending hunger and achieving food security in all its forms largely hinges upon addressing conflict-driven hunger and the root causes of conflict.
Kayenat Kabir, PhD is an independent applied economist and development practitioner. She is a former Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping Officer of WFP Bangladesh office.
Views in the article are those of the author.