The World Food Programme (WFP) was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for its food assistance programs in conflict-affected states and its work to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war. Since it was founded in 1961, the WFP has contributed substantially to reducing global hunger [1,2]. Nevertheless, the Nobel Committee’s decision this year may not appear to be the obvious choice. Within the political space of conflict resolution, what is the role of the humanitarian organization? The answer is: a critical one. A closer look at the WFP’s work illuminates how food insecurity is, in fact, intimately linked to conflict. As a conciliatory and restorative presence in conflict-affected regions, the WFP is a well-deserving recipient of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.
The WFP’s primary objectives are to eliminate hunger, food insecurity, and undernourishment across the world. It currently serves as the United Nations’ (UN) central apparatus concerned with Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger by the year 2030 . The WFP is governed by an Executive Board of 36 Member States . National governments are its principal funding source, with the largest donors being the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom . Much of the WFP’s work consists of emergency food relief in the wake of armed conflicts and natural disasters . However, the WFP also partners with national governments to develop action plans to achieve long-term food security . Considering that the root causes of food insecurity are often political, social, economic, geographic, and environmental, the WFP’s strategies are holistic and include school meal programs, the rehabilitation of agricultural resources, and economic schemes to reduce food price volatility .
The decision to award the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the WFP reaffirms the intimate associations between food insecurity and armed conflict. Indeed, 60% of the world’s 690 million hungry people live in conflict-affected areas . Hunger and conflict are both outcomes of poverty and often coexist because of this common foundation. At the same time, hunger and conflict can mutually reinforce one another in a manner that is independent of poverty. Food insecurity can lead to conflict by cultivating social grievances and providing the impetus to engage in rebellion . Likewise, armed conflict can cause or exacerbate food insecurity through increased unemployment, rising food prices, and disruptions to supply chains . Taken together, conflict can lead to food insecurity, which can further entrench regions within conflict.
When framed within a cycle of hunger and conflict, the WFP’s work takes on additional significance. The WFP not only provides immediate relief to hungry people but also contributes to conditions that will favour the enjoyment of long-term peace. For example, while WFP-led school feeding programs have the immediate aim of strengthening school attendance and students’ cognitive capacity to learn, they have also been linked to peacebuilding . Case studies find that WFP-led school feeding programs can minimize family household costs, boost local agricultural economies, and build social cohesion within communities . In the long-term, the WFP asserts that school feeding programs can address the root causes of conflict by reducing socioeconomic inequalities and fostering economic development. The WFP has implemented school feeding programs in over 100 countries since its founding, representing a substantial commitment to food security and peace .
Notwithstanding the theoretical links between the WFP’s work and peace, in addition to evidence of community-level conflict reduction in case studies, the precise extent of the relationship between the WFP and larger-scale conflict reduction remains unclear. Given the complex and non-linear association between food insecurity and conflict, the establishment of causational relationships between WFP interventions and peace is difficult . Added challenges include the measurement of peace, an intangible, contested, and often fleeting state . Moving forward, the WFP has increased its commitment to establishing evidence-based theories to link its current and future initiatives with reductions in conflict .
Despite the current scarcity of evidence linking the WFP with reductions in conflict, the WFP has played a central role in reducing food insecurity caused by conflict. A closer look at the WFP’s role in Yemen provides an illustration of this. Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war between the government and the Houthi movement, an Islamic political and armed group, since 2015 . Conflict-driven barriers to food availability and accessibility have given rise to 15.9 million Yemeni who are unable to meet their basic food needs – more than half of the country’s population . In 2020, the WFP aimed to provide aid to 13 million people in Yemen monthly in the form of cash assistance, food rations, and targeted nutritional support to women and young children . With the majority of the Yemeni population dependent on humanitarian aid for basic needs, the WFP’s emergency food aid has provided much-needed short-term relief .
That being said, the provision of humanitarian aid in conflict-affected regions is challenging. Aid can be intentionally disrupted as a war tactic, in violation of the laws of war and human rights. For example, aid obstructions in Yemen have occurred through intentional delays in the approval of aid projects, interference with needs assessments, and attempts to divert aid to groups loyal to the Yemeni government or the Houthi movement . These challenges have hampered the WFP’s ability to meet its goal, reaching only 8.7 million people in Yemen as of August 2020 . As a result, important aid is withheld from populations in need. The WFP’s operations are further restricted by an ongoing funding crisis. International donors have withdrawn financial support in light of increasing incidences of aid obstruction. The WFP currently needs over US$500 million to continue its operations in Yemen until March 2021 .
The COVID-19 pandemic adds yet another dimension to the complex picture of global hunger and conflict. Upon the emergence of COVID-19 in December 2019, the WFP Executive Director, David Beasley, warned of a “hunger pandemic” that could occur in its midst – and his prediction was correct . COVID-19 has weakened regions already made vulnerable by hunger and conflict by increasing food prices and unemployment. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the complex interplay between conflict, precariousness, and COVID-19 has driven an additional 6.5 million people into food insecurity, resulting in a total of 22 million people living with food insecurity in the country . The WFP has escalated its efforts to support the growing need, expanding its cash transfer programs and increasing its staff . The WFP also provides governments with ongoing technical and operational support to coordinate national responses to COVID-19 . As the world continues to grapple with the humanitarian consequences of COVID-19, the WFP remains a prominent player in the provision of aid.
The WFP represents a largely effective example of a global health organization which invests in both short-term and long-term health needs and addresses upstream determinants of health. Nevertheless, the WFP is not without criticism. As evident in Yemen, limited aid within conflict-affected regions can quickly transform into an additional point of tension when political groups unjustly divert them towards their own supporters . Furthermore, the WFP is not immune to the common criticisms of international humanitarian organizations: the possibility that aid undermines internal investment and the development of local skills and resources to become self-sufficient. Indeed, the WFP’s projects have been criticized for a lack of sustainability and the absence of a strong strategy to hand off programs to local leadership, thereby fostering dependence in the regions in which it works . In balance, the WFP serves the needs of many, but must take care to avoid exacerbating or sustaining the issues it tries to eliminate.
The UN Security Council resolution 2417 recognizes that hunger will never be eliminated without the establishment of peace . The WFP has made significant strides along the interconnected fronts of global hunger and conflict, work which has been recognized through its receipt of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. As the world looks towards the next decade of the WFP’s work, armed conflict will likely continue to be a defining obstacle in the path towards food security. Nevertheless, in the face of these challenges lives opportunity. The WFP embodies the global leadership and work that promises to transform the cycle of conflict and hunger into one of peace and food security — but only if the world continues to provide adequate attention to this cause.
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