Last week, I met with Aamir, a 29-year-old Yemeni who has been living in Geneva since October 2018 and waiting for his application for asylum to be finalized.
We met outside a cafe on a brisk, overcast autumn day, where I offered to treat him to a coffee or a tea in exchange for the chance to listen to his story, one that he was worried to share. More specifically, he worried for his family back in Yemen.
We sat at a small table among the quiet chatter of the cafe. Although I insisted, he politely declined my offer for coffee or tea. He paused for a moment, shifted his eyes away from mine and began to share his story. A 16-month journey from Yemen to Geneva, via Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Greece – for 14 months in a camp on the Island of Chios – and Italy.
In Yemen before the conflict, Aamir was an apprentice electrician. Now, he is starting over again, beginning first with French classes. Only if his status is fully granted will he be able to start a four-year program so he can eventually gain the credentials to practice his trade in Switzerland.
Aamir left the country that he loves. Alone. "People have no food, no jobs, no more money, and of course, no security. The war created all this," he told me. "How can I stay without work, without food – unsure each day if I will live to see the next? I decided to leave my country, to leave my family and take my chances, far away from that violence."
Hundreds of millions of people around the world caught up in armed conflict are living out stories that are similar or much worse, having been pushed into hunger because they are stuck in the middle of a fight that is not their own. Some like him decided to leave the country. Many others stay hoping for help. Your help, our help.
The fact that conflict fuels hunger is no secret. Today, there are 815 million hungry people on the planet – roughly 100 times the population of New York City. Some 60 percent of these people, around 489 million, are living in conflict-stricken areas. That is almost half a billion people that are more than twice as likely to be undernourished as those living in countries at peace.
In 2018, conflict and insecurity were the primary drivers of hunger in 18 countries where 74 million people require urgent food aid: 11 countries in Africa home to 37 million, four countries in the Middle East with 27 million and two countries in Asia with 8 million.
There is a growing understanding that hunger may also contribute to conflict when coupled with poverty, unemployment or economic hardship. People who have no other options to earn money and thus nothing to lose may be more easily convinced to join armed groups that they otherwise may not have.
This is the reality in Somalia where a study by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) of why people joined al-Shabab found that economic reasons were the biggest single factor. For some, these financial incentives may be the only way they can feed themselves and their families. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is reported to pay up to $600 to recruit members to its movement and in recent studies by ISS, economic incentives have been demonstrated to be a stronger driver of recruitment than religious extremism.
I met some of the youths involved in armed groups or violence during my two years living in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, while working for the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MINUSCA. Most of these young people are, in fact, very positive and kind parents, sisters and brothers, who unfortunately reached a point where they have no other way to feed their families – a situation that can be exploited by armed groups.
At times, parties to a conflict may also exploit conflict-induced food insecurity and attempt to leverage the threat of famine to their advantage by targeting farms, markets, mill storage sites and other infrastructure needed for food production and distribution – an act that is condemned and may constitute a war crime.
Once this vicious cycle gains momentum, humanitarian agencies like the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) and its partners face increased challenges in stopping it. As conflict-affected regions slip further into violence, access to vital supplies is often severed, leading to more people suffering from hunger, disease and societal collapse.
Prevention must be at the heart of development. Earlier and longer-term interventions to improve food security and investment in agriculture is one way to address the growing connections between conflict and hunger. In a world where we have the finances and technology to ensure that nobody goes to bed hungry, this goal is more realistic today than it has ever been before.
The final battle against hunger and conflict will occur in the minds of people and our political leaders and involves tackling the fundamental factors that fuel hunger and conflict. Until then, the WFP will continue to operate every day in Yemen, Somalia, the Central African Republic and many of the world's toughest active conflict zones, delivering food and saving lives. However, it shouldn't have to be this way.
* Senior spokesperson for the U.N. World Food Program