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Food security in Mali: A time bomb for stability?

October 3, 2013   ·   1 Comments


As Mali’s security situation worsens, governments and donors alike should take more heed of the link between hunger and conflict.

With a new democratically elected government and a new U.N. mission keeping the peace, Mali should be getting back on its feet. But the Sahel region is sliding deeper into another serious food crisis, and Mali is suffering from other ills too. The north is seeing the first flare-ups of violence between government forces and the rebel MNLA since the cease-fire and last week, the latter withdrew from ongoing peace talks.

Mali’s inhabitants, already impoverished, are growing more so by the day – and humanitarian emergencies in post-conflict states are never good. The international community needs to recognise the role that food security plays in ensuring stability, before the situation becomes even worse.

A history of hunger

The Sahel is no stranger to hunger. The region has a one of the highest poverty rates in the world and history of food crises, drought and chronic under-nutrition. Since 2012, the situation has grown steadily worse. The U.N. OCHA reports a “significant deterioration” in the food security situation in the north in the past year, and a recent joint survey conducted by the FAO and WFP found 70-90 percent of the countries population will require food aid until the years end at least.

Existing problems have combined with the effects of the latest bout of conflict  – displacement, disrupted production and barriers to aid – to create a lethal combination. This is exacerbated as internally displaced persons (IDPs) return to their homes, increasing strain on already limited resources.

It’s no coincidence that Mali’s northern region suffered most from the fighting, and is now suffering most from the latest food crisis. Likewise, it’s no great secret that conflict exacerbates food insecurity – many academic works and real-world examples support this claim.

But there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that the reverse may also be true. The dynamic between the two factors is more complex than it seems at first glance, and merits attention.

Feeding conflict: a two-way relationship

There’s a general consensus that food insecurity can combine with other factors to worsen instability in societies, economies & politics. A recent issue of journal Environmental Change and Security Reform suggests that situations where recovery post-conflict recovery is going poorly, food insecurity can provide incentives for reigniting the violence; cause for concern in Mali. Evidence from Kenya also suggests that food insecurity can help sustain conflict that is already ongoing.

The interplay between the two factors is convoluted. Conflicts have many causes, which are hard to disentangle. Whether food scarcity alone can provoke unrest is questionable – but food insecurity can act as a catalyst for rebellion over other complaints, and over the long term provide a foundation for wider conflict.

Trouble for Mali

To an extent, this is the case in Mali. The MNLA’s political aims are underlined by a history of unfair distribution of resources. Inequitable development has contributed to the North’s lack of productive capabilities, and the resulting famines have fuelled ordinary people’s dissatisfaction with the government in Bamako.

The food security situation will likely remain poor for some time. This will continue to give fodder to the rebels, contributing to a cycle of instability – the wounds of conflict are still very fresh, and Mali could easily slip back into unrest. Tackling food insecurity may not be a short-term solution for Mali’s unrest, but it’s certainly part of a long-term one.

Money, direction and focus

The international community and the Mali’s new government need to take more notice of this connection.Now that Mali has ceased to be a pressing security concern, the emphasis in Mali has turned from counter terrorism to regime change, national reconciliation and political negotiation. These goals are undeniably important, but limiting the focus risks obscuring the other underlying causes of conflict.

The international aid community also has a responsibility. Donors tend to focus favour short-term fixes and emergency relief, as these bring quicker and more visible results. But building real resilience needs long-term programs which aim at building resilience. Such programs are chronically underfunded – this year, the Sahel only received 23% of the agricultural investment it called for. The international community must recognise this as they meet to discuss the post-2015 development agenda.

Other African states – Somalia and Sudan, to name just two – offer grim portents for Mali’s future is the importance of food insecurity. Both have suffered from a vicious cycle of famine, food shortages and conflict, which have helped leave them high in the ranks of the worlds failed states.

In the absence of a long-term approach that recognises the relationship between food insecurity and conflict, the widespread instability that galvanized international action earlier this year will likely return. Without due care, it may be a lack of the most basic human need that plunges Mali back into a state of war.

Image credit: World Bank

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