Hunger Is a Weapon of War. Food Can Help Prevent It.

As the ongoing conflict in Yemen shows, it’s time to fight starvation not only on humanitarian grounds but as an essential component of military and foreign policy.

Displaced Yemenis receive food aid donated by a British organization in Yemen's western  province of Hodeida on Feb. 9.
Displaced Yemenis receive food aid donated by a British organization in Yemen's western province of Hodeida on Feb. 9. KHALED ZIAD/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration’s recent reversal of U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen is a welcome departure from a foreign-policy agenda that yielded little but suffering—and a reliable market for U.S.-made weapons. But President Joe Biden’s move shouldn’t be hailed as a panacea for the Yemeni people, who have endured immeasurable suffering over the past six years. Rather, resolving the world’s worst humanitarian crisis will require a larger paradigm shift in foreign policy.

The reason Yemen’s humanitarian situation is so acute is because its people are starving. Data from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) reveals that 16.2 million of the country’s 30 million people need food aid. According to the U.N., nearly half of all Yemeni children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth because of malnutrition, with some 400,000 children now in danger of dying from severe acute malnutrition—an increase of 22 percent over 2020.

Hunger has generally been confronted as a humanitarian issue. And rightly so. But it must also be treated as an essential element of military or foreign policy. This means that Biden’s new approach to Yemen must not only focus on arms sales and high-level negotiations but also on helping civilians to meet their basic needs. Doing so is not just morally right but strategically smart: Addressing hunger helps people build the resilience they need to resist militancy and migration pressures and recover from conflict.

Conflict and hunger are intimately acquainted. Six out of 10 people struggling with acute food insecurity live in countries experiencing violent conflict, as do 80 percent or 122 of the world’s 150 million stunted children, who face a lifetime of physical and cognitive challenges. Now, the coronavirus pandemic risks making things even worse. WFP Executive Director David Beasley estimates that 270 million people globally will hover on the brink of starvation after the pandemic—most of them in countries suffering violent turmoil—up from the 135 million acutely hungry people pre-pandemic.

Conflict both creates and exacerbates food insecurity. 

Conflict both creates and exacerbates food insecurity. Syria was once the breadbasket of the Levant, but after nearly a decade of civil war, agricultural output has plummeted, and in the most recent country survey, WFP found that the price of some basic food items had increased by as much as 236 percent. In this same survey, WFP estimated that 12.4 million Syrians, or nearly 60 percent of the population, are now food insecure.

Aside from destroying productive capacity and hindering access to food, violence also displaces people from their livelihoods. This is especially damaging when a large portion of the population’s livelihood is food production, as in many low- and middle-income countries.

When the quotidian is marred by violence and uncertainty, farmers plant smaller areas and lower-value subsistence crops. They also keep small livestock rather than more valuable cattle. And ultimately, they may seek safety and food security elsewhere: The WFP estimates that each 1 percent increase in food insecurity is accompanied by a nearly 2 percent increase in migration. Put together, when faced with an existential crisis, a previously productive food system can quickly become unable to support the broader population—begetting another crisis altogether.

It is easy to understand how conflict creates food insecurity. But it is also possible to reverse the equation and use food security as a weapon against conflict.

Large, targeted efforts to improve the food security of vulnerable populations would almost certainly provide a major point of resistance against conflict’s entrenchment and spread. One reason extremist groups across northwestern Africa have gained so much traction is that they offer suffering communities a source of food and security.

Controlling the cost of food would not just get to the roots of conflict—it would create a preventive mechanism against it. There is an emerging consensus that rising food prices increase the risk of unrest: When global food prices soared between 2007 and 2008, a spike in riots and civil conflict followed. That’s because the specter of hunger drew in much broader swaths of the population—including students and low- and middle-income earners.

Historical data suggests that those unable to afford food before prices rise find little reason to take to the streets when they do. Importantly, food riots don’t cluster in places where chronic food insecurity is the most profound but in urban areas where market-dependent working-class communities feel a sudden change in their purchasing power. As a result, countries experiencing acute food price inflation must prioritize not only relief for the chronically hungry but price-stabilizing efforts for populations traditionally seen as less vulnerable. Doing so can mitigate—or even prevent—riots and violent conflict.

Given all that we know about food insecurity—and how to prevent it—why is the humanitarian situation in Yemen so bad?

The success of a humanitarian intervention is dependent on access. And in Yemen, access has been very hard to come by. International humanitarian law and protocol require that state and nonstate actors alike must grant adequate access for local and international humanitarian relief providers. Granted, in order to operate, humanitarians require consent of the concerned parties, whether state or nonstate actors. However, parties may not arbitrarily or unreasonably withhold that consent. Where denying access to food results in starvation, no valid reason can justify refusing consent, and it amounts to nothing less than using starvation as a weapon of war.

Yemen is a stark reminder of what happens when humanitarian access is used as a weapon against civilians.

Yemen is a stark reminder of what happens when humanitarian access (or the lack thereof) is used as a weapon against civilians unwittingly struggling to survive on the front lines of war. De facto threatening famine as political leverage by withholding consent is both inhumane and unlikely to yield geostrategic ends. This is true applied to both the well-documented access challenges created by the Houthis and the designation by the United States of the Houthis as a terrorist group. In reversing the designation, the Biden administration rightfully recognized this truth. To starving Yemenis, both actions resulted in an unreasonable denial of their access to food.

When I was executive director of the WFP, I stressed that we must put the people we serve at the center of our solutions. I pleaded for all parties involved in intrastate conflicts from Syria to Somalia to Yemen to provide access for humanitarian groups to ensure that women and children did not die.

Exceptions to humanitarian access—whether through the Saudi-led coalition blockade, the delay or denial of consent by the Houthi government, or the 70 or so armed checkpoints limiting food transport by road—are never acceptable. And our recognition of that fact must go beyond official statements at the United Nations: We must actively provide the political—and, if necessary, military—support that humanitarian operators require to deliver assistance to every conflict area. We can do that if global leaders commit to prosecuting the use of hunger as an illegal weapon of war and crime against humanity.

In May 2018, the U.N. Security Council unanimously endorsed a resolution condemning starvation as a tool of war. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), meanwhile, defines “extermination” to include “the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population.”

In short, decisions and actions that knowingly cause or abet starvation constitute a crime against humanity. We should encourage the ICC’s efforts to prosecute it. This includes discouraging amnesty for war crimes and redefining war crimes to include actions perpetrated under the banner of fighting terrorism. An effective ICC backed by the strong support of the international community, including the United States, is needed now more than ever to send the message that impunity for mass atrocities will not be tolerated.

We also need to increase the global salience of long-running conflicts. Donor governments tend to fund hunger emergencies the same way they fund quick-onset emergencies like natural disasters. After an initial rush of interest, attention on the crisis quickly subsides as the affected community ostensibly returns to normal. But there is no such thing as “normal” food insecurity.

Longer-running conflicts, which ebb and flow between violence and fragile peace, risk becoming orphaned.

For this reason, longer-running conflicts, which ebb and flow between violence and fragile peace, risk becoming orphaned. Somalia has been orphaned for 20 years, Syria for 10. After only six years, Yemen joins a growing list of orphaned conflicts. In cases like these, civilians grind along miserably and experience ever shortened food rations. Now, the operational limitations of quarantines and coronavirus infections have orphaned scores more.

Avoiding orphaned conflicts requires a long-term commitment. This means making humanitarian and development aid a more central part of security policy. Donor governments and peace negotiators should not hesitate to insist that humanitarian aid and access accompany any military investment. Security planning in conflict zones should not treat humanitarian access as an afterthought. Tying aid to the peace process isn’t new, but a policy commitment to long-term financial follow-through would break new ground.

In 2020, the WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for working to prevent hunger from being used as a weapon of war. I’m incredibly proud of my former organization for this recognition. Yet this struggle is a long one. In 1949, John Boyd Orr, the first director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for similar reasons. Boyd Orr had insisted then that “hunger and want in the midst of plenty are a fatal flaw and a blot on our civilization [and] one of the fundamental causes of war.” More than 70 years later, hunger continues to ravage civilians, including those in Syria, Burkina Faso, and Yemen.

In that same speech, Boyd Orr said something else that remains critical today. To fight hunger, he stressed, “we have to build from the bottom upwards.” A foreign-policy lesson most have yet to learn. But as Biden reverses U.S. support for the war in Yemen, he has the opportunity to finally move the country’s approach to conflict prevention in that direction.

Ertharin Cousin is a distinguished fellow of global food and agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment. From 2012 to 2017, she served as executive director of the World Food Program and before that as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Rome agencies. Twitter: @Ertharin1

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