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Hunger is again being used as a weapon in conflict-affected countries

When you think of weapons used in countries affected by conflict guns, tanks and grenades may even come to mind. But what about hunger? 

By Sabrina de Souza

Oct 14 2015

The 10 year anniversary of the Global Hunger Index (GHI) was marked with a special release on armed conflict and the global challenge of hunger. Every year, the report highlighted the progress countries are making in the fight against hunger. It shows levels of hunger in the developing countries have declined by more than one quarter since 2000, but there is still work to be done. Despite this progress, 795 million people are still going hungry, many of them young children. Levels of hunger remain ‘serious’ or ‘alarming’ in 52 countries, with South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa regions continuing to experience the highest levels of hunger. 

While there are many causes of hunger, food crisis are often ignited by armed conflict. In some cases hunger is the deliberate outcome of the armed action among the civil population - hunger is being used as weapon.

Hunger as a weapon 

Hunger as a weapon is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, food has been used a weapon. The Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961, resulted in excess of 15 million deaths and the Soviet Famine of Ukraine, referred to as “hunger extermination” in 1932-1933, caused the deaths of 10 million people. 

However, over the last 50 years calamitous famines – those that cause more than 1 million deaths – seem to have been eliminated. This is a major unheralded achievement. So why has this happened?

Advances in medicine, particularly vaccination, public health in general, enhanced agriculture and reductions in poverty are key in this reduction.  The report makes clear that the  adoption of international human rights norms and a more interconnected world  made it increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye or for on-looking countries to be told to ‘mind their own business’ while these atrocities take place. The huge drop in death tolls can also be attributed to humanitarian organisations and the raise of civil society scrutiny who, since the 1970s, have worked hard to minimise the death toll from hunger crises and hold leaders accountable for their actions to prevent hunger. Thanks, in part, to the work of humanitarian organisations, the world has not experience great hunger crises since the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.

 

The rise of ‘New Wars’

While calamitous famines are a thing of the past, conflict and hunger are not. Today’s ‘new wars’ tend to be less lethal than old wars, both in violence and hunger, but they are far more complex. They are complex humanitarian emergencies caused by armed conflict and exacerbated by natural disaster and international politics. ‘New wars’ are increasingly civil wars that are often untraceable and display seemingly pattern-less violence in a highly polarised contexts, from which no one is safe. They involve not only state armies and insurgents, but also paramilitaries and ethnic militia, criminal gangs, mercenaries and international forces. Under such circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult for humanitarian actors to reach those in need of aid, even more so given the tremendous personal danger they face.

In these ‘new wars’ we see hunger again being used as a weapon, but in new and different ways. These armed conflicts disrupt food systems, destroy livelihoods, force people from their homes and leave those who stay unsure when they will next eat, making it even more important to reach people with life-saving humanitarian assistance. 

The GHI urges world leaders to be mindful of the warning signs. The number of deaths from severe hunger crisis have been on a steady rise since around 2006, around the same time conflicts began to rise. Between 2013 and 2014, the most 20 conflict affected countries saw violent fatalities rise by 28.7%, of which Syria is by far the largest contributor with more than 70,000 recorded deaths in that one year alone. In a time of prevailing terrorism, it is imperative that international world leaders make conflict prevention, mitigation and resolution a much higher political priority. 

If the world is serious about eliminating hunger and malnutrition by 2030, then we must get serious about peace efforts in war-torn countries. Economic development, better food and nutrition policy, and international humanitarian response must all continue to play important roles in moving us to the next level. Unless the prevalence and persistence of armed conflict can be curtailed and the needs and rights of both visible and invisible victims of violent conflict can be addressed, the gains of the last 50 year could be lost. 

 

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