Food Insecurity and Unrest

A protestor watching a burning vehicle in Caracas, Venezuela. PHOTO: Andrés Gerlotti on Unsplash (CC)

Food price fluctuations over the last decade and the corresponding unrest in several countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have led to a renewed interest in the link between food and unrest. A recent policy brief highlights some of the main findings in the field and suggests avenues for future research related to conceptual clarity of both food insecurity and unrest, the link between suggested theoretical mechanisms and empirical tests, and reversed causation.

During the latest food price spikes in 2007-2008 and 2010-2011 unrest occurred in several countries, where the reactions to the increasing prices ranged from peaceful demonstrations to widespread violence. These events have put the question of whether food insecurity is a driver of unrest at the forefront of the academic debate, and there is an emerging consensus in the literature that food prices increase the likelihood of unrest, especially in urban areas. Building on a substantial case-based literature, the literature has produced several strong and nuanced findings within the field. However, there are still unresolved issues and room for further conceptual and empirical clarity within the field.

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Does hunger cause conflict?

One of the consequences of war is disrupted food provision. The connection between conflict and hunger is indisputable when we look at today’s locations of the major global hunger emergencies: Rakhine in Myanmar, the Kasai Region in DR Congo, north-eastern Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It is estimated that 80 percent of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) resources are deployed in conflict-affected areas. But what about the opposite relationship: does hunger cause violent conflicts?

PHOTO: Share the World’s Resources

The many protests after global food prices rose sharply in 2008, and the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings in the aftermath of a second peak in food prices at the beginning of 2011, are often cited as evidence that many of today’s conflicts are fundamentally about scarcities of resources and food shortages. A common assumption is that reduced food security leads to hunger and desperation, which in turn trigger protests, violence, and increased risks of radicalization. The growing concerns about the social consequences of climate change are helping boost this view of the world.

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Climate and Security: Bridging the Policy-Academic Gap

In March, I argued that the connections between climate change and security are complex, contingent, and not fully understood.  Most of the academic literature has firmly focused on conflict onset with the broader security consequences largely understudied. For policy audiences, the nuance can be frustrating. It is difficult to know what to do with such complexity, other than talk broadly of climate change as a “threat multiplier.”

However, the policy community does not have the luxury of waiting for academics to reach some consensus on climate-conflict links that might never materialize. What’s more, they have other preoccupations other than conflict to worry about such as humanitarian emergencies, interstate jockeying over hydrocarbons freed up by melting Arctic ice, and people on the move for many reasons, climate among them. How can climate security academics who aspire for policy relevance seek to orient their work without compromising academic rigor?

Although most states and societies have managed to adapt to recent environmental changes, there is no guarantee that this will continue. This is the question I sought to address in remarks at a recent conference organized by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO), which accompanied the public event at the Wilson Center I blogged about several weeks ago. Here are my thoughts on bridging the policy-academic divide on climate and security, which represents a distillation of the wider theme I explored in the latest issue of the Texas National Security Review.

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A Path to Peace and Stability Through Food Aid

Constant war drove Fazle, his wife and four children away from their home and farm in the Khyber region of Pakistan eight years ago. They loved their home, but with all the shooting and the armed extremist groups, he had to leave or endure the death, destruction and instability that comes with war.

David Beasley chatting with Fazle, a farmer and father of five who fled his home for 7 years because of conflict in Pakistan. Photo: WFP Asia-Pacific

But seven years later, Fazle came back home, where I talked to him while visiting the area shortly after Easter, and he’s doing well. After getting six months of food aid, he got into a program that helped him set up a nursery. Now he’s earning about (US)$130 a month, four times his previous income.

What’s happening to Fazle and the area where he lives is an important sign of progress for how humanitarian efforts can build peace and long-term stability in countries where conflict and hunger intertwine.

In the year since I became the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, I’ve travelled to many of the areas with the highest food insecurity – Yemen, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, Somalia. I have met many people who worry about food, but they often ask me first for help in creating peace.

It’s easy to see why. Ten out of the 13 largest hunger crises in the world are conflict-driven, and 60 percent of the people in the world who are food insecure live in conflict zones.

The price is highest on children. Hunger, malnutrition and poor health often lead to stunting – a phrase used to describe severely impaired growth in these young bodies. Three out of every four stunted children in the world lives in a conflict area.Read More

Three PRIO Scholars Part of the Next IPCC Author Team

Three scholars involved with climate and security projects at PRIO have been included in the author panel for IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report. From left: Halvard Buhaug, Elisabeth Gilmore and Tor A. Benjaminsen.

I reported in this Blog on 25 January on the prospects for coverage of the link between climate and conflict in the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scheduled for release in 2021–22. The number of chapters in the report for Working Group II has been cut to 18, compared to 30 in AR5. The new report will not have a separate chapter on human security. Nevertheless, we must expect that the relationship between climate change and conflict will be addressed in the report, as was the case in all the three preding assessment reports.

A long process for naming Coordinating Lead Authors, Lead Authors, and Review Editors of the three Working Groups is now complete. A total of 2912 experts were nominated before the deadline on 27 October 2017. Nominations were made from national government focal points, observer organizations, and IPCC Working Group bureau members. There were no less than 2858 nominations from 105 countries for the three reports, WG I on the physical science basis, WG II on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and WG III on mitigation, with some overlap. Altogether, 721 authors and editors from 90 countries have been invited. Their names can be downloaded from here.

The lists of authors and editors reflect several concerns, including international academic stature, regional expertise, representation for developing countries and economies in transition, as well as the need to balance experience with previous IPCC reports with fresh perspectives from new authors.

Despite the disappearance of a designated human security chapter in AR6, the author teams include several conflict experts, among them Tor Arve Benjaminsen of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Thomas Bernauer of ETH Zürich (both for Chapter 1, Point of departure and key concepts), Elisabeth Gilmore of Clark University (for Chapter 14, North America), and Halvard Buhaug of PRIO (for Chapter 16, Key risks across sectors and regions). In addition to Buhaug, Benjaminsen and Gilmore are currently attached to PRIO in adjunct positions and all three are part of a Research Council of Norway-sponsored research project on Climate Anomalies and Violent Environments. The Norwegian Environment Agency has posted a list of all AR6 authors affiliated with Norwegian institution, available from here.

In the previous Assessment Report (AR5), statements about the effects of climate change on conflict were not limited to the Human Security chapter but also appeared in other chapters, such as the Africa chapter. Chapter 16 in AR6 will presumably play a decisive role in making sure that there are not too many inconsistencies between the different chapters.

The State of the Field in Climate and Security

PHOTO: Creative Commons/Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

This blog post was first posted on the Duck of Minerva.

After nearly fifteen years of study, what do we know about the relationship between climate change and security? I recently attended a Woodrow Wilson Center event organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) on the state of the field. Along with Geoff Dabelko, Halvard Buhaug, and Sherri Goodman, I offered my take on the field.

In this blog post, I wanted to focus on five different causal pathways that I think represent the frontier of research on the study of climate and conflict, which include agricultural production and food priceseconomic growthmigrationdisasters, and international and domestic institutions.

In most of these accounts, climate hazards or variability affect the likelihood of conflict either through the effects on livelihoods, state capacity, and/or inter-group tensions. In some accounts, extreme weather or variability lowers the rewards to agriculture and/or other livelihoods and makes rebellion or violence more attractive.  These same processes can also deprive states of tax revenue and undermine their capacity to suppress violence and provide public goods. They can also exacerbate tensions between groups.

Whether climate changes and variability contribute to the increased likelihood of conflict has been the dominant focus of this literature, though I myself have a broader view of what constitutes security. 

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Science Meets Policy, Practice, and the Public

Last week, PRIO co-hosted a set of meetings for peers, policy, and the general public at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

These events marked the end of Climate Anomalies and Violent Environments (CAVE), a three-year research project supported by the Research Council of Norway’s FRIPRO program. The project has contributed with important insights into how climate variability affects dynamics of political violence through a large body of publications, reports, and working papers. At the events in Washington DC, these findings were communicated and discussed with other scholars, practitioners, and policy actors.

Scholars, practitioners, policy actors and the public met to discuss the state-of-the-art on climate and security. PHOTO: Wilson Center/Flickr

The main event was a public seminar on “Climate Change and Conflict: New Research for Defense, Diplomacy, and Development” with particular focus on the current state-of-the-art on climate and security and how scientific evidence can be implemented in politics and practice. Three panelists introduced their take on this issue: Joshua Busby, Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin; Sherri Goodman, Senior Fellow at the Wilson Center and former US Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense; and Halvard Buhaug, Research Professor at PRIO and project leader of the sponsoring CAVE project. Under the moderation of Geoff Dabelko, former director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center and Professor of Environmental Studies at Ohio University, questions from the audience paved the way for a engaging and insightful discussion.

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Why did Mali fall into jihadist hands?

Jihadists have succeeded in taking control of more than half of Mali, where many people in rural areas are now adherents of one armed group or another. This situation is largely the result of widespread frustration with the bad governance by the country’s corrupt ruling elites. While the jihadists have managed to take advantage of popular discontent, Western countries have shown little interest in understanding the situation. Rather, aid donors have focused on praising Malian democracy and highlighting desertification and climate change as the greatest threats to the country’s development. This has contributed indirectly to the insurgents’ success. The frustration we see in Mali may generate similar uprisings elsewhere.

Mali has seen a surge in violent conflict events in recent years, with battle-related deaths conservatively estimated at around 2,000 between 2012 and 2016. PHOTO: Screenshot from Uppsala Conflict Data Program

Following the country’s political and economic collapse in 2012, it may take decades for Mali to regain stability. Several factors contributed to the crisis, but one trigger in particular was the bombing of Libya and the assassination of Gaddafi in autumn 2011. Following the bombing, between 1,000 and 4,000 heavily armed Tuareg soldiers, who had been serving in the Libyan army, returned home to Mali, adding fuel to a Tuareg uprising that was already simmering in the north of the country. Together with the jihadists, some of these Tuareg soldiers succeeded in advancing south, before being pushed back by a French counter-offensive in January 2013.

The frustration we see in Mali may generate similar uprisings elsewhere … The national government has become so unpopular that many see the jihadists as a preferable alternative

The jihadists have returned, however, and they now control not only rural areas in northern Mali, but also the central Mopti Region. They have gained control through a process of gradually establishing small groups in the region. These groups have attracted ever-increasing support from smallholders and, not least, nomadic herders. Meanwhile, Mali’s army and government have retreated to the cities. The national government has become so unpopular that many see the jihadists as a preferable alternative. This is despite the fact that Mali has been held up by Western aid donors as a model for democratic development in Africa.Read More

Conflict and Insecurity in the IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is headed towards another round of assessing the world’s climate and how it affects our lives and livelihoods. Last September, the outline of the Sixth Assessment Report was approved and now the selection of authors is underway.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres warns about the effects of climate change. PHOTO: United Nations

‘Climate change is fuelling wars across the world’. Thus, a heading in The Independent summarized the views of UN Secretary General António Guterres in January 2017, shortly after he took office. The potential implications of climate change for conflict remain high on the international political agenda. The reports of the IPCC are broadly recognized as the most authoritative summaries of what we know and what we do not know about the effects of climate change. Yet, there is little scientific evidence in these reports for the view that climate change is an important driver of conflict.Read More

Bringing Different Disciplinary Perspectives to Climate Change and Conflict

PHOTO: Creative Commons

The scientific evidence for climate change is unequivocal, and the scientific community continues to refine our understanding of the impacts of these changes. Many of these physical changes, such as heatwaves, droughts and sea-level rise, are projected to adversely affect human wellbeing. The scope of these impacts has prompted serious concern that climate change may increase or alter the propensity for human violence and conflict. At the time of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2014, however, the relationship between climate change and conflict was highly contested with a relatively small number of high profile papers, such as Hsiang, Burke and Miguel (2013) and Buhaug, Nordkvelle, Bernauer et al. (2014), making divergent claims.

The authors find little evidence for direct pathways from climate change to violence, especially for group-level violence and armed conflict.

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