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Amid UN food ration cuts, how US food aid prolongs civil conflicts

USAID-provided lentils and soy-oil are readied for distribution to citizens of Petonville, Haiti.
USAID-provided lentils and soy-oil are readied for distribution to citizens of Petonville, Haiti.

The UN announced last week that it was forced to cut food rations for nearly 800,000 refugees in Africa. A shortage of funding was behind the World Food Programme (WFP) and refugee agency (UNHCR) making cuts as much as 60%. The impact could be far reaching as people displaced across the continent face hunger.

The hardest hit areas are also places experiencing ongoing conflict. For decades food aid has been provided to people in need due to crop failures, droughts and displacement. The thinking being that immediate food aid can save lives and avert the present crisis so that families can get back on track when the problem goes away.

That might not be the case when it comes to conflicts.  In fact, new research indicates that food aid helps to prolong smaller civil-conflicts. It raises the question as to whether food aid, in the case of countries like South Sudan and Central African Republic, might not be the optimal response to both hunger and ending the problems that led to the spike in hunger.

“An increase in US food aid increases the incidence of armed civil conflict in recipient countries. US food aid does not crowd out other forms of aid or aid from other donors. Thus, the increase in conflict is really due to an increase in aid,” say economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Nancy Qian of Yale University.

They specifically looked at the effects of US food aid. Critics have long held that food aid can make things worse, but this is one of the first research papers that links food aid and conflict. The findings to not necessarily apply to all circumstances and countries. For example, the harm is more likely to occur in countries that have a recent history of civil conflict.

Also, the food aid itself does not cause conflict. For example, providing food aid to stable countries in the Sahel due to its drought this year will not lead to fighting. What remains are more questions about when food aid is the best form of response. Nunn and Qian are careful to say that the findings should not cause direct policy changes, rather should lead to more questions that need to be answered.

“[O]ur study takes only a small first step toward the larger goal of understanding the costs and benefits of food aid and humanitarian aid policies. Much more research is needed on the topic,” they conclude.

Reports from NGOs on the ground in South Sudan and the Central African Republic indicate worrying levels of malnutrition among children affected by the conflicts in the two countries. The joint statement from the UN agencies warns that the cuts are “threatening to worsen already unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anemia, particularly in children.”

A joint appeal from UNHCR and WFP calls for an additional $215 million to plug the gap. The biggest cuts come in the places with the greatest need: Central African Republic, Chad and South Sudan. The three countries have seen supplies cut by at least 50% and home to 450,000 refugees. The other 338,000 refugees in places like Liberia, Ghana and Uganda have experienced cuts between 5% and 43%.

“The number of crises around the world is far outpacing the level of funding for humanitarian operations, and vulnerable refugees in critical operations are falling through the cracks,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. “It is unacceptable in today’s world of plenty for refugees to face chronic hunger or that their children drop out of school to help families survive.”

Alternatives to direct food aid exist, but little is known as to whether they are better than food aid when it comes to effects on conflict. The bottom line is that hundreds of thousands of people are going hungry today. Effectively addressing that crisis today is essential.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]