Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed July 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Ellen Messer and Marc J. Cohen

Time to break the links between hunger and war in Sudan

By Ellen Messer and Marc J. Cohen

Ellen Messer is an anthropologist at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University. Marc J. Cohen is special assistant to the director general at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, DC. They are co-authors of a forthcoming IFPRI study of hunger and conflict.

"Globally, armed conflicts have put 80 million people at risk of hunger, including 23 million refugees, 27 million displaced within their own countries, and 30 million trapped in combat zones"

Once again, Sudan is on the brink of famine, a legacy of 15 years of civil war in which both government forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army have used food as a weapon to control territory and people. Little has changed since 1992, when the late international nutritionist and Tufts University President Jean Mayer decried the United Nations' failure to prevent the deliberate use of hunger as a political tool in that country. Now, according to United Nations figures, 2.6 million people in Sudan need emergency food aid because fighting has made it impossible for farmers in the war-torn south to plant crops. Nationwide, one of every three Sudanese children is malnourished, and child hunger rates are much higher in conflict areas. In the south, warring parties struggle over land, water and petroleum, as well as competing religious cultures. In the Nuba mountains, the Ethiopia-based Inter Africa Group Sudan Rights Programme reports populations identifying themselves as Nuba face subjugation, destitution, forced relocation and threat of cultural annihilation at the hands of government-supported forces.

The once promising Operation Lifeline Sudan, an initiative of the U.N., nongovernmental organizations and the Sudanese government launched in 1989 to build trust and cooperation while feeding civilians, is mired in politics. There is little expectation that food aid can contribute to peace.

Globally, armed conflicts have put 80 million people at risk of hunger, including 23 million refugees, 27 million displaced within their own countries, and 30 million trapped in combat zones.

Food wars, not just drought and inadequate agricultural technologies, are implicated in African famines of the past two decades.

Armed conflict is likewise part of the causative nexus of falling food output chronicled by Lester Brown and other prophets of gloom, who find chronic underproduction and food insecurity in "resource-poor" post-war economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

There is a particularly close relationship between conflict and declining per-capita food production in Africa. Between 1970 and 1993, war-torn African countries produced on average 12.4 percent less food per capita during wars than they did in peacetime. In several countries, food crises in the 1980s due to drought and mismanagement of agriculture and aid led to rebellion and government collapse, followed by even greater food shortfalls in the years of conflict that followed.

Unfortunately, international development and emergency aid appear ill-equipped politically or logistically to prevent or respond to such situations. Moving food to save lives in armed conflict zones provides combatants on both sides with continuing assistance, transportation and even arms. Expectation of emergency aid has allowed leaders, who otherwise would be held accountable, to rely on external sources and forces, and to abdicate responsibility for feeding their people.

Ironically, the U.N. World Food Program and other relief agencies in Sudan appear to be unintentionally supporting the use of hunger as a weapon. In 1992, Sudan bragged at the U.N. International Conference on Nutrition that it was exporting food. This was a year when international food aid was the only hedge against starvation for populations caught in war zones in the south. Subsequently, the Sudanese government, instead of using food to feed its hungry people or storing food for bad years, has exported agricultural products to buy arms. In 1996, the Food and Agriculture Organization tallied Sudan's food imports, including food aid, at $203 million, compared to exports of $243 million.

Another sad irony is that Sudan's president, Umar al-Bashir - who has been using food as a weapon since taking power in 1989 - was elected a vice chair of the 1996 U.N. World Food Summit. The government not only controls what can be exported, it also manipulates how food is distributed at home. Sudan was once hailed as the "breadbasket" of Africa and the Middle East. Today the south is more a "basket case" because of such policies and the ongoing civil war. As the international community responds to Sudan's latest food crisis, and also to African-led initiatives for peace, it must rethink the means by which aid is delivered, so that it leads to peace and does not fuel further fighting. This means working with local people to resolve conflicts and restore agriculture and other productive activities. It also means more careful targeting of both hunger relief and development assistance to reach the most vulnerable or conflict-prone people before problems balloon into more crises or tragedies.