Blog Post

Armed Conflict and Hunger

The latest Global Hunger Index (GHI) was released this week by the International Food Policy Research Institute, Welthungerhilfe, and Concern Worldwide. Presenting an annual, multidimensional measure of national, regional, and global hunger, the 2015 GHI utilizes data and projections from various UN agencies for 2010-2016 and provides scores from 9.9 or lower to denote “low” hunger to 35-49.9 to denote “alarming” hunger. (For more information about the 2015 GHI and overall global results, please read this new post on the global Food Security Portal.)

This year’s GHI puts special emphasis on the complex relationship between hunger and armed conflict. The report estimates that an average of 42,500 people per day fled their homes over the last year and that approximately 59.5 million people are currently displaced by conflict worldwide. The report also finds that despite the huge numbers of displaced people, more than 80 percent of people affected by armed conflict actually stay in their home countries. While those who flee from the fighting certainly face food security challenges, those who stay behind often suffer from even more severe food insecurity, as shops, banks, and businesses close and farms and livestock go untended in the face of active fighting. Even when a conflict has ended, the disruption of normal agricultural production and other income-generating activities can have lingering effects, making it hard for populations to bounce back and handle future shocks.

GHI scores were calculated in a new way this year, using a revised formula that introduced two equally-weighted indicators, “child stunting” and “child wasting” to replace the previously used “child underweight.” The other indicators are undernourishment (the share of the population with insufficient caloric intake) and child mortality (the percentage of children who die before the age of five). According to the 2015 GHI, the countries with the highest rates of these indicators tend to be those that are currently engaged in or have recently emerged from conflict. Africa south of the Sahara often finds itself at this intersection of hunger and war; with many countries in the midst of or recovering from armed conflict, the region rates the highest in this year’s GHI, with a score of 32.2. In addition to scoring poorly as a region, Africa south of the Sahara also contains many of the report’s worst-scoring individual countries. For example, Central African Republic and Chad are the two worst-scoring countries this year, with scores of 51.9 and 65, respectively. The breakdown of the worst scores by indicator is as follows:

·         Highest proportion of undernourished people: Haiti, Zambia, and the Central African Republic: 48-53 percent of the population

·         Highest prevalence of stunting: Timor-Leste, Burundi, and Eritrea: more than 50 percent of children under age five

·         Highest prevalence of wasting: South Sudan, Djibouti, and Sri Lanka: 21-23 percent of children under age five

·         Highest under-five mortality rates: Angola, Sierra Leone, and Chad: 15-17 percent of children under age five


To accompany the 2015 GHI, Concern Worldwide has also released a pair of country case studies that examine the relationship between armed conflict and hunger. The studies provide evidence from Mali and South Sudan, two countries that have been wracked by conflict in recent years.

Mali is rated 81 of 117 countries in this year’s GHI; one in three Malian children under the age of five suffer from chronic undernutrition. Fighting erupted in Mali in 2012 when Tuareg separatists joined forces with Islamist extremists and took control of the north of the country. At this time, an estimated 4.6 million Malians were already suffering from food insecurity stemming from a 2011 drought. The insurgency only exacerbated this situation, as many farmers and pastoralists fled the region and those who remained were afraid to venture out to tend their fields and herds. Throughout the nine-month occupation, household stocks were gradually consumed, and hunger-related weakness caused many children to die of diarrhea and fever. More than 520,000 people fled their homes in the north; the majority of those displaced lost their livestock and did not have a chance to grow food for the following year. At the end of 2013, between 70 and 90 percent of people in the country’s northern regions needed food rations from international organizations to survive. As the country slowly begins to pick up the pieces, its population remains at serious risk; any further shocks, either man-made or weather-driven, could plunge the country into severe food insecurity once more.

South Sudan could not be ranked in this year’s GHI due to a lack of data. Despite the country’s enormous agricultural potential, however, Concern Worldwide reports that many states currently face crisis-level food insecurity as a result of late rains, rampant inflation, disrupted trade, and a lack of agricultural production due to population displacement. These latter three factors have been driven largely by ongoing violent conflict. As of July of this year, 1.6 million South Sudanese were internally displaced and another 607,608 were refugees in neighboring countries. A total of 4.6 million people face severe food insecurity in the country.  To cope with this hunger, households will often gradually sell off their livestock in return for food; this short-term strategy means a loss of future income. Migration is another way to cope. Sometimes male household members will move away to find seasonal labor and be able to send remittances home; however, often entire households are forced to abandon their land and move away permanently. Protection of Civilian (POC) camps exist throughout the country to provide aid to those fleeing the fighting; while this provides a short-term solution to the immediate effects of hunger, it also hurts the country’s resilience to future shocks by creating a certain level of reliance on international aid.

The cases of Mali and South Sudan illustrate the worrying convergence of conflict, climate shocks, and hunger. They also present some potential actions to reduce the long-term effects of armed conflict. There is an urgent need for political and institutional reform to ensure that more remote regions (such as the northern region of Mali) are included and accounted for in the political process. In addition, policymakers must work to end dependence on foreign emergency aid. Government provisions of seeds or cattle could help people restore their livelihoods and begin again after conflict.

Despite these sobering case studies, there is some cause for optimism. Africa south of the Sahara’s GHI rating has improved between 2000 and 2015, with its overall GHI score falling by 12.4 points. In his essay for the 2015 GHI, World Peace Foundation Executive Director Alex de Waal points out that we are no longer seeing the calamitous famines (i.e., famines that cause more than 1 million deaths) that often used to result from conflict,  and that great famines (those causing more than 100,000 deaths) are also on the decline. So far in the 21 st century, deaths from great famines are estimated at around 600,000; while this number is large, it is a far cry from the 20 th century, which saw 1.4 million deaths in the 1990s alone and a staggering 27 million deaths from famine between 1900-1909. De Waal sees two major tasks remaining in the complete elimination of famine and acute hunger. The first of these is the establishment of stronger mechanisms to prevent and resolve conflicts; the second is the creation of a more efficient international emergency relief system.

The actions recommended by De Waal and Concern Worldwide will require strong political commitment from both individual governments and international governing bodies to prevent famine regardless of the political context. Without such commitment, the global gains we have seen so far in the 21 st century in terms of reducing severe famine will likely be lost.