A new United Nations resolution banning the use of starvation as a weapon of war could be critical in reversing rising global malnutrition rates, according to Arif Husain, chief economist and director of the Food Security Analysis and Trends Service at the World Food Programme.
The resolution, which the Security Council adopted unanimously in May, allows the U.N. secretary general to notify the council of situations where ongoing violence is affecting food security. It also calls for armed actors to allow humanitarian groups unhindered access to civilians.
In a world where 10 of the 13 most severe food crises are being fueled by conflict, Husain said increased recognition of this link could lead to more and better interventions. He spoke to Malnutrition Deeply about how this might happen.
Malnutrition Deeply: What led to the passage of the resolution?
Arif Husain: It’s really the need of the hour, need of the day. If you look at what is happening in the world today in terms of food security, you will see that the number of hungry people is rising. We look at both chronic food insecurity as well as acute food insecurity. In terms of the chronic food insecurity, the numbers had been declining despite population increases for a couple of decades. But in the past three years or so this number has started to rise. Two years ago, the chronically food insecure were 777 million. Today they’re 815 million and rising.
In this 815 million number, 60 percent of these people live in areas affected by conflict. And together with this number goes the number of children who are basically suffering from stunted growth, and that number is 155 million, of which close to 80 percent live in conflict-affected countries. Conflict is a big deal.
When we start to look at acute food insecurity coming out of both natural and man-made shocks, what we see is that this number two years ago was 80 million people. Today its 124 million – a 55 percent increase in two years.
If we take just this 124 million number and break it down, what we find is that for about 74 million of these individuals, the primary reason to be affected is conflict. So, if you consider both the nutrition as well as the food insecurity situation, you could easily see that there is enough evidence that conflict is a very, very big part of it. This is being recognized in the world right now. That’s one big reason behind the resolution.
Malnutrition Deeply: And what is the second?
Husain: Essentially, I would say the migration issue. If you look at the numbers on migration, you’re going to see that right now almost 66 million people are forcibly displaced, of whom about 23 million are refugees, and about 40 million-plus are internally displaced. And you know what the primary cause is of these displacements? Conflict.
On one side, you’re seeing this global increase in the number of food insecure people, a global increase in the number of malnourished people. On the other side, you’re seeing an increase in people who are being displaced, with the driving forces being conflict and climate change. But by far [the most significant is] conflict. What that has done is to essentially make it almost impossible not to acknowledge that there is a relationship between conflict, food insecurity and displacement.
In fact, we did a study on the linkages between food security, conflict and migration. And we came up with two main empirical findings after looking at data for the past 30 years on migration from about 160-plus countries and territories. First, that for every 1 percent increase in hunger you have a 2 percent increase in people who will cross borders and leave their countries.
And second, for each additional year of conflict, about 0.4 or half a percent more people will leave their country.
Malnutrition Deeply: What do you see as the significance of the resolution?
Husain: For me, first and foremost, it hasn’t happened in 50 years. So I think the recognition by the major powers that yes, this is an issue, and yes, it needs to be resolved and yes, it is a human right, are all critically important. We are really excited that this has happened.
For me, living in a globalized world, living in the 21st century, in 2017, we were talking about people dying of famine in four countries. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that. And even today the risk of famine is still there. Why? Because the structural reasons, which were relevant last year, are still there, meaning those wars are still going on, the conflicts are still going on.
So what we are pushing for is that we need two things to happen. One, pressure to resolve some of these conflicts. Two, while that is being done, to have enough resources as well as humanitarian access to assist people who cannot run out of the places where they’re stuck.
This resolution is in a way acknowledging that yes, these are some of the things that are happening today in the 21st century. It should not happen. And while we are trying to get to peace and to resolve these issues, we need to continue to help people who are in a very, very bad shape.
The other thing we think this brings out is that many people will fight because they have nothing to lose. So why is it not possible for us to give people hope and reason to live? I don’t mean just assistance, but proper livelihoods, development, building their resilience, so they have something to protect. But then it’s a different fight, right?
Right now people get exploited [because of] their destitution. We want to be at a stage where that stops and we can show peace dividends, essentially to people in places such as northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. So that’s our objective and we think that this resolution is the first big step in that direction. You have to acknowledge the problem before you solve the problem.