Why has food security made it to the party so late?

by Marta Quadrini Mosca Moschini · August 31st, 2022.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Food security is a crucial aspect of sustainable peace, stability, and development. Addressing food insecurity is not just about fulfilling the nutritional needs of populations, it is also about addressing one of the root causes and consequences of conflict. Food security is at the core of Security Sector Governance and Reform (SSG/R), an approach that promotes safety, security and the Rule of Law around the world.

Several locations bear out food security related challenges. In South Sudan, one-in-two people faced acute food insecurity in 2019. Communities reported that burglaries and robberies were the most common risk for them outside of their home, including livestock raiding. As such, there have also been instances of violent intercommunal conflicts amongst farmers and cattle-keepers.

In Burkina Faso, food insecurity is intertwined in conflict, as both cause and consequence. Struggles over land use between farmers and herders stymie effective use of the land by both groups, in an area where demographic growth implies increasing nutritional demand. Meanwhile, militias exploit these tensions, emphasising inter-communal grievances in order to drive recruitment and gather local support.

In Somalia, clan conflicts have emerged over scare resources and land shortage, in large part caused by a severe dry season in 2022 that affected agropastoral livelihood systems and prompted acute water shortages. Similarly, in Mali, the looting of food warehouses has become a recurring security problem. This issue has arisen due to the increased frequency of droughts and the growing population, forcing people to look for alternatives to feed themselves.


These examples from Sub-Saharan Africa show the multifaceted links between food and people’s security challenges. Yet, the link between food security and SSG/R in programming is, unfortunately, rather neglected. This is in large part due to the fact that most of current SSG/R programming tends to be focused on building state capability for security and justice services delivery. The 2013 UN PBSO Thematic Review found that that 93% of their funding was on train and equip and infrastructure projects. For this reason, there is a need to go beyond state-centric approaches to provide sustainable outcomes in fragile and conflict-affected environments, and to adopt people-centred approaches to security in order to truly address the primary concerns of local populations in the long term. People-centred approaches aim to address issues related to people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities linked to economic, social, political, or security and justice deficits.

ISSAT’s recent stocktaking study People-Centred Approach and SSG/R: Linking Policy with Programming reflects on how SSG/R programming can be redesigned to meet the needs of the local populations, including those needs relating to food security. It involves the convergence of top-down, state-based approaches and bottom-up people-driven solutions. In practice, this would include contextual analyses to understand how non-state actors operate and how their role could be leveraged to benefit communities at the local level. Whilst international actors’ involvement with non-state actors comes with its challenges, limitations, and risks, they are very often key stakeholders in the provision of food supplies or in mediating inter-communal conflicts. Local actors, including civil society, have better access to remote and marginalised communities, and can not only advocate on needs but can also facilitate national security forces in the distribution of food supplies to these harder-to-reach areas in emergency situations. This would also entail engaging with SSG/R programming from a preventive angle, looking to project potential food security related threats and exploring how to mitigate them, before it is too little, too late. This involves introducing food security into national threat assessments and preparedness plans, as well as, regularly analysing meteorological data and harvest predictions .

People-centred approaches also advocate for better advocacy and influencing efforts at the provincial level. Situated between the top-down and bottom-up approaches, this middle intervention level focuses on bridging the gap between local needs and national service delivery. This interaction between local and national actors can positively influence government perceptions about people’s needs and priorities, influencing reform policy and programming towards people’s safety and security. Whilst most SSG/R programming has assumed that building state institutions is the cornerstone of legitimacy, people-centred approaches argue that people’s needs and perceptions are in reality the basis of legitimacy. Programming at the provincial level thus aims to influence the level at which the social contract is constructed between the population and the state.

Ultimately, food, livelihoods, health and other areas related to people’s safety are becoming increasingly factors of destabilisation of communities, as well as of countries and regions. People-centred security and justice reform offers a potential roadmap for transforming state-centric SSG/R programming towards a stronger focus on the populations whilst considering the state’s key role. The way our world is evolving and given the increasingly scarce global resources, we have no choice but to design multidimensional solutions to our current multifaceted challenges. SSG/R has an opportunity of growth towards a holistic conflict prevention tool through a better focus on human security needs through programming.

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