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Beyond access: three considerations for food security and famine prevention during armed conflict

Analysis / Humanitarian Action / Law and Conflict 12 mins read

Beyond access: three considerations for food security and famine prevention during armed conflict

‘The prices of foodstuffs are on a continuous rise compared to recent years, and this has made the situation for displaced people [like me] difficult. Sometimes I don’t pay the rent because all income is directed towards providing food for the family’. - Individual receiving ICRC support in Benghazi, Libya

Over the past year, millions of people living in conflict-affected areas have faced severe and acute food insecurity, and the numbers continue to rise. For many, seasonal food shortages are an intractable reality, but the situation is exacerbated by the increasing intensity and frequency of climate shocks, the long-term economic impacts of COVID-19, as well as the disruptive nature of insecurity and armed conflict on global food systems.

In this post, Policy Adviser Ariana Lopes Morey, Associate Menty Kebede, and Legal Adviser Matt Pollard provide insight into the ICRC’s perspective on the legal, diplomatic and operational dimensions of efforts to prevent food insecurity and famine during conflict, as articulated in its policy brief.  The authors reflect on how addressing the challenge of food insecurity and risk of famine in conflict is complex – requiring speed and long-term commitment, as well as the involvement of many actors – and highlight the ICRC’s three key asks.

In January 2021, the Executive Director of the UN’s World Food Programme David Beasley briefed the UN Security Council and warned of ‘a famine of biblical proportions’ in dozens of countries as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; more than a year later, we see that the numbers of people at risk are only rising.

According to the 2021 Global Report on Food Crises, conflict and insecurity pushed almost 100 million people into acute food insecurity, a driver followed only by economic shocks (40 million) and weather extremes (16 million). These causes should not be seen in isolation, but as mutually reinforcing and often also cyclical in nature, eroding people’s resilience and coping strategies and leaving them unable to recover. The armed conflict in Ukraine is expected to further exacerbate global food basket prices, which will disproportionately impact those in other fragile and conflict-affected communities around the world who rely on imports from Ukraine and Russia.

Food insecurity and famine during armed conflict have long played a foundational role in the history of local and international humanitarian action, dating back to the Biafran War. It has also prompted an ever evolving technical, financial, operational and diplomatic agenda. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) created in 2004 offered an objective tool to monitor levels of food insecurity, with the aim – still elusive – of driving early and preventive action. UN Security Council Resolution 2417 (2018) aimed to activate diplomatic levers to prevent and address food-related crises during conflict. And humanitarian and development actors have invested in innovative tools to improve food production in changing environments. While progress has been made, the numbers are clear – food insecurity is an enormous and enduring challenge.

The ICRC works to address food insecurity by focusing on its three areas of added value: one, its access to underserved populations in hard-to-reach areas; two, its capacity to offer a multidisciplinary response to the interconnected needs and drivers; and three, its proximity to affected people – which allows it to grasp the challenges, capacities and coping strategies of communities, respond to protection risks and needs, and provide assistance. These efforts aim to strengthen the resilience of affected people to food shocks and to enhance the sustainability of humanitarian action. Humbled by decades of experience, the ICRC has developed three key asks to address food insecurity and famine prevention in conflict.

1. Access is a solution, not the solution

There are situations where the availability of and access to food can be directly affected by the conduct of hostilities. For instance, fighting can damage or destroy essential infrastructure (e.g. wells, irrigation systems, dams), foodstuffs, crops and livestock. The risk and degree of food insecurity can also increase in the event of sieges and blockades, or if humanitarian assistance is delayed or deliberately blocked by the warring parties.

Humanitarian actors play a subsidiary – though important – role in preventing and responding to food insecurity where parties to conflict are not in a position to do so. But the primary responsibility of ensuring that the basic needs of civilians can be met lies with parties to conflict including, but not limited to, facilitating rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access.

International humanitarian law (IHL) plays a key role in preventing food insecurity in armed conflicts [see box below]. Full respect for the rules of IHL from the outset of a conflict can help prevent the situation from deteriorating into an acute food crisis. Respect for these rules hinges on the preparation, behavior and decisions of parties to conflict regarding the conduct of hostilities.

Stakeholders with influence over the parties to conflict have a role to play in ensuring respect for IHL, and in reducing many of the other pressures created by armed conflict on food security. For example, sanctions and restrictive measures put in place by States should always provide humanitarian exemptions, including on food and agricultural inputs critical to the survival of the civilian population. Failure to do so can mean that humanitarians face complex legal and logistical roadblocks to ensuring appropriate assistance reaches those in need.

2. Food security is about more than food

Beyond the impact of local fighting, food insecurity can result directly and indirectly from broader social and economic knock-on effects of conflict in other countries, which have local, national and transnational dimensions. Inflation and currency depreciation, and in some cases sanctions, can rapidly increase food prices, decrease people’s purchasing power, and disrupt local, regional, and global food supply chains. The insecurity caused by local conflict, notably displacement and the erosion of community ties, can also alter established livelihoods, trade, agricultural and pastoral practices, as well as the availability of crisis coping mechanisms among communities. These problems are compounded by pre-existing poverty and insufficient, inexistent or inaccessible economic safety nets.

As a result, it is critical to address points of disruption and drivers of food insecurity across the entire food system from the local to the transnational level, as part of an investment in risk reduction and anticipatory action. This means understanding how different components of food systems are disrupted by conflict (or were already fragile and part of the root causes of the conflict to begin with) and which actors play a mitigating or exacerbating role at local, national, regional and global level. The knowledge and expertise of local actors, including authorities, as well as of development actors and humanitarian organizations working closely with affected populations, can be leveraged to enrich this analysis.

Of course, this information must then be paired with the political will and financial investment to address the identified challenges. Humanitarians play an important role, but they do not have the capacity or expertise to address the complex systems-level issues alone. Without active and sustained investment from national authorities, development actors, and the private sector, many people are likely to remain stuck in cycles of increasingly severe food insecurity. Early and preventive action is one of the most savvy investments that can be made at a time when humanitarian and development budgets are overstretched: some research shows that for every dollar spent on nutrition programs for pregnant women and children under two, there is up to 35 USD in economic return. A sustainable response to the challenge of food security, at the individual and systems levels, requires smart partnerships and the willingness to work together across sectoral silos.

International humanitarian law, starvation, and prevention of hunger and famine

IHL prohibits the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.

It also provides special protection for ‘objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population’. Such objects include, but are not limited to, foodstuffs, agricultural areas, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works.

Many other rules on the conduct of hostilities can also help prevent hunger and famine. These include:

In addition, IHL requires that people deprived of their liberty must be provided with adequate food and water.

IHL assumes that each party to an armed conflict has primary responsibility for ensuring that the basic needs of the population under its control are met, including adequate food and water supply. However, IHL recognizes that impartial humanitarian organizations may offer their services to help ensure humanitarian relief, including when a party is not able or willing to meet these needs in practice.

A party to the conflict must not arbitrarily refuse its consent to such activities. Once consent has been given, the parties to the conflict as well as all other States concerned are required to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief, subject to their right of control.

3. Breaking down barriers with inclusive responses

In conflict-affected settings, vulnerabilities can arise from situational barriers which restrict the ability of people to reliably access food in sufficient quantity and quality. At the individual level, those living in a context of displacement, of heightened communal tensions and stigma, or in situations where movement is constrained (such as people deprived of liberty) face particular challenges to reliably access food. At the community level, people living in places experiencing armed conflict are disproportionately affected by climate variability and extremes. The combined effects of conflict and natural hazards such as epidemics, pandemics, and weather extremes all exacerbate people’s vulnerability to food insecurity, while at the same time limiting their adaptive capacity. Many low-income households, especially those in rural areas, rely on their own food production for survival – to eat and to earn a living. Shocks deriving from conflict, climate, or the global economy impact these individuals especially hard, depriving them of both food and the financial means to buy it or other essential goods.

Conflict also exacerbates identity-based barriers, resulting from individual characteristics and circumstances, which make people more vulnerable to malnutrition in food insecure situations. This includes individuals and groups with special dietary needs – such as children, pregnant and lactating women, and people living with chronic illness – as well as those who traditionally face marginalization and exclusion, such as persons with disabilities or those of diverse gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Prevailing norms and power dynamics can influence who is most at risk of malnutrition when food becomes scarce. And of course, identity-based barriers intersect with situational barriers to create heightened risks.

Addressing these barriers in order to combat food insecurity requires an ability to reach these segments of the population, and to understand the nature of the challenges they face as well as their available coping strategies. Humanitarian and development responses must be designed to be inclusive and equitable. In addition, social protection mechanisms, where they exist, must be strengthened and be designed to reach diverse groups. Finally, climate adaptation financing must reach people living in places experiencing conflict, as they are particularly vulnerable to climate shocks; they must not be left behind in broader global efforts to tackle the impacts of climate change.


Pathways to food security are shaped at the local and regional levels as well as globally. During armed conflict, food insecurity and famine can result from multiple, intersecting factors – some directly linked to the actions of parties to the conflict, and some not. While it is critical to facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access to reach food insecure populations, IHL dictates that other important steps be taken by parties to conflict to prevent famine.

In addition to how conflicts are fought, food insecurity can rapidly or gradually result from their broader social and economic knock-on effects, whether the conflicts are fought locally or oceans away.  As a result, it is crucial to anticipate shocks and invest in risk reduction and livelihood support, as well as to ensure humanitarian exemptions to any sanctions or restrictive measures put in place. Finally, food security is felt differently by different groups of people. Social protection mechanisms and humanitarian programs must be responsive to situational or identity-based barriers that leave some individuals more vulnerable to malnutrition than others. Though food security is an enduring problem that we will not solve overnight, we feel that greater attention in these three areas could have a tangible impact on the lives of those facing food insecurity around the world.

Editor’s note: The authors wish to thank Head of Diplomatic Strategy Filipa Schmitz Guinote for her substantial contributions to the development of this piece.

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