The 13th McGovern Lecture: Remarks by Kimberly Flowers

Kimberly Flowers, Director of the Global Food Security Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Remarks by Kimberly Flowers, Director of the Global Food Security Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies

November 22, 2016

Good morning.

It is my honor and privilege to deliver the 13th annual McGovern Lecture. To be among the ranks of development leaders and anti-hunger advocates such as Raj Shah and Ambassador Tony Hall is both humbling and surreal.

My talk today will explore the linkages between food insecurity, political instability, and conflict. The core purpose behind this examination is ultimately to sustain the momentum and political will needed to reduce hunger, poverty, and malnutrition in the world.

That is what inspires me to work on agricultural development and foreign policy. And it is certainly what drove Ambassador George McGovern in his life’s work to alleviate hunger. I can tell you that U.S. Congressional members and staff that care about global food security may have a steep learning curve in terms of long-term agricultural development programs, but most are well aware and supportive of the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program that has feed over 30 million children since its inception.

The world is a different place than it was when the McGovern-Dole program started in 2002.

Today between 1.2 and 1.5 billion people are living in fragile and conflicted-affected states. Conflicts have pushed over 56 million people either into crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. An astonishing 65 million people are estimated to be internally-displaced within their own countries or refugees in other countries – which is more than ever before. Global chronic malnutrition is becoming increasingly concentrated in conflict-affected countries.

These numbers continue to grow with the escalating conflicts and violence we are witnessing in Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan, causing enormous social and economic devastation and increasing the number of people who are dependent on humanitarian assistance, which is already stretched thin. Projections indicate that more than two-thirds of the world’s poor could be living in fragile countries by 2030.

On the other hand, we don’t see the same kind of catastrophic famines that once plagued countries like Bangladesh, North Korea, or Ethiopia, even in light of extreme climatic conditions like El Nino that sparked some of the worst droughts we have seen in 50 years. In the last few decades we have seen tremendous progress on a number of development indicators. Since the early 1990s more than 700 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. In that same time, we have seen the absolute number of people who are hungry decrease by over 200 million.

Another positive trend has been a dramatic shift in international attention and funding to address the root causes of hunger and poverty. This shift is directly due to linkages between food insecurity and political instability. Sharp rises in global food prices in 2007 and 2008 and the unrest and violence it provoked jolted political leaders out of any complacency they might have had regarding the future of food and agriculture.

Let’s unpack that for a moment. Because households in many developing countries spend over 60 percent of their budgets on food, even modest price fluctuations can make a big difference in their livelihoods. A 2008 World Bank report estimated that an additional 100 million people in the developing world were pushed into poverty because of higher food price imports.

Following a 20-year period of relative stability in world food markets, the price spikes of 2008 sparked riots and street demonstrations in more than 40 countries across the world. Food price-related protests toppled governments in countries such as Haiti and Madagascar. Notably, in Haiti, rising prices coupled with deteriorating political and social conditions fueled migration attempts to escape the conflict. Food prices increased nearly 20 percent in 2007 in Haiti; the same year, U.S. Coast Guard interdictions of Haitians rose 34 percent.

The food price crisis of 2007 and 2008 made it remarkably clear that food insecurity is inherently intertwined with political stability and national security. Political leaders across the world started paying attention.

In 2009 at the G-8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy, leaders agreed to reverse decades of decline in international support for agricultural development, pledging $22 billion in global food security investments. The L’Aquila Food Security Initiative brought new funding and energy. It was a pivotal moment.

It was then that President Obama announced the United States would invest at least $3.5 billion over three years in global food security, laying the foundation for Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Since then, the United States has invested $6.6 billion in Feed the Future to reduce hunger, poverty, and malnutrition in 19 focus countries. Feed the Future is not food aid – it is long-term development programming focused on reducing poverty and stunting – increasing incomes of smallholders, teaching new agricultural techniques, improving market systems, increasing access to quality inputs, improving nutrition – particularly in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. There has been a meaningful impact: in the targeted areas where it works, Feed the Future has contributed to a 7 to 36 percent reduction in poverty and a 6 to 40 percent reduction in stunting.

Food security is not divided among party lines in the United States. This summer, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly supported and passed the largest development authorization in nearly a decade by enacting the Global Food Security Act. This was an important and profound statement about the importance of U.S. leadership on food security. Passed by Congress on a bipartisan basis in a particularly contentious political year, the new law makes clear that addressing global hunger and poverty is—and should remain—a top U.S. foreign policy and national security objective.

U.S. Congress gets it. The Global Food Security Act talks about the crisis in Syria and says that it has “has triggered one of the most profound humanitarian crises of this century and poses a direct threat to regional security and the national security interests of the United States … It is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the needs of displaced Syrian persons … including with food assistance.”

It is also critical to note that the Global Food Security Act codified Feed the Future, authorizing it for two more years – a critical move during an election year. This means that despite the stunning election results in the U.S. and the uncertainty of what a Trump administration means to U.S. foreign assistance, long-term food security investments will continue for the time being.

The Act required the White House to write a U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy, which was submitted Oct. 1. The strategy examines emerging trends that provide both challenges and opportunities for food security in the future; the first trend being instability and conflict. It states that food insecurity presents major national security challenges and that growing concentrations of poverty and hunger places countries and communities vulnerable to increased instability, conflict, and the potential for violence.

So what does the U.S. plan to do differently to address this trend? The new strategy has elevated resilience as one of its key objectives. This means strengthening the ability of vulnerable households and communities to reduce, mitigate, adapt to, manage, and recover from frequent and intense shocks. The greatest source of resilience is good governance, as responsibility ultimately resets it hands of the government.  It is too soon to tell how this reframing will take shape in the form of programming, particularly when there is unlikely to be additional funding, but it is a step in the right direction.

The U.S. intelligence community is also paying attention to global food security – for the first time. In November 2015, the National Intelligence Council released an assessment that linked food insecurity to political instability and conflict. The report states that the overall risk of food insecurity in many countries will increase during the next 10 years. It recognizes the demographic shifts and constraints on key inputs, such as land and water, compound the risk. The assessment concludes that in some countries, declining food security will almost certainly contribute to social disruptions and large-scale political instability or conflict.

We saw this in Algeria and Tunisia in 2011, where the first signs of the Arab Spring were riots in the street over dramatic increases in the prices of dietary staples such as sugar, oil, and flour. Sharp hikes in the price of bread in Egypt triggered a similar outbreak of unrest. In fact, bread became so central to the Egyptian protests that one individual improvised a helmet made from bread loaves taped to his head. Although food insecurity due to rising prices was not the sole cause of the Arab Spring revolutions, it was an important catalyst.

Food insecurity is both a cause and a consequence of conflict, making it inexorably linked with political stability at regional, national, and international levels. Addressing food security goes well beyond a moral obligation or a humanitarian plight. It is a national security imperative.

Food accessibility, or rather a lack thereof, can both spark unrest and be used as a tool used against populations. It is a powerful political commodity. Food is often used as a strategic instrument of war, with evidence spanning from clashing groups in 1990s Sudan to Bashar al-Assad’s war-torn Syria today. Agricultural markets sustain and stabilize many economies around the world, as well provide food to hungry populations that may already be dissatisfied with high levels of unemployment, government corruption, or violence in their communities. Hungry populations are more likely to express frustration with troubled leadership, perpetuating a cycle of political instability and further undermining long-term economic development.

In Syria, food aid is being weaponized. Government and rebel forces alike have been accused of using civilian suffering, such as blocking or controlling access to food, water, and health services, as a method of war. President Bashar al-Assad is waging a starvation campaign as a war tactic, deliberately cutting hundreds of thousands of Syrians off from humanitarian assistance. The Islamic State is using food as a recruitment tool, luring in weak citizens desperate for food and then folding vulnerable young men into their ranks. Points along the Turkey-Syria border that are used as aid-distribution sites have become violent hot spots controlled by armed men ready to use humanitarian aid as valuable leverage. And due to the tightened siege and intensified airstrikes and violence in opposition-held areas like eastern Aleppo, food assistance deliveries have become more challenges.

The war in Syria is devastating. More than half of the Syrians left in the country are unable to meet their daily food needs. The country’s cereal yield has dropped 52 percent since the beginning of the conflict, and the country has lost half its livestock in the same amount of time. It has been estimated that damage to the Syrian agricultural sector is more than $1.8 billion (and that estimate was done a few years ago). A report issued by the United Nations in the 2013 found that Syria has lost 35 years of development as a result of just its first two years of conflict.

Syria was once a developed agricultural power. But the continued conflict coupled with hyperinflation, drought, and the collapse of an economy that once heavily subsidized food and guaranteed purchase prices, has resulted in enormous devastation to the country’s agricultural sector, with farmers fleeing and land rendered unusable. Now the country’s food production is at a record low. Farmers have lost their ability to cope.

Nigeria has seen food insecurity rise as the result of instability and unrest. The number of people in need of food assistance in north-eastern Nigeria has risen to 4.5 million, nearly twice as many as in March of this year. More than 65,000 people are estimated to be facing famine-like conditions.

Food insecurity is worse in the areas most affected by attacks and violence from Boko Haram, such as Borno. Boko Haram’s actions are preventing food production: they have placed landmines in farmers’ fields, stolen cattle, and forced civilians to flee, leaving land unfarmed. Borno is now entering its third season without a harvest.  Where food is available, prices have soared: the prices of some staple grains have tripled in Borno’s capital.

Even the Nigerian Army has been accused of exacerbating food insecurity by closing markets and blocking passage of supplies in their efforts to fight Boko Haram.

Many Nigerians rely entirely on external assistance for food. Further burdened with spiraling inflation, families beg, run up debts or skip meals to survive. Many are reduced to consuming low-nutrient foods – and even then only once a day.

Venezuela is another example of linkages between lack of food and lack of stability. President Nicolas Maduro’s government faces growing discontent from a population that lacks access to basic goods. Ninety percent of Venezuelans report that food has become too expensive to buy.  Hungry mobs are rioting and looting bakeries and food supply trucks.

Venezuela’s instability is not linked to insurgent groups, but economic mismanagement. The global drop in oil prices has led to immense economic turmoil, since Venezuela remains highly depending on oil revenues, which account for almost all export earnings and nearly half of the government’s revenue. This is a serious problem for a country that relies on food imports for 70% of its needs. The inability of the government to pay for imports has created food shortages, massive protests, and a growing opposition movement calling for Maduro’s removal from power.  Sadly, the government has resorted to increasingly authoritarian response tactics, such as the imprisonment of opposition leaders and violent responses by the police and military to food riots and looting.

South Sudan has likewise experienced an increase in food insecurity due to the ongoing conflict between government and opposition forces. Similar to Venezuela, South Sudan is highly dependent on oil as a source of government revenue. Disruptions in its production due to conflict have caused the economy to suffer tremendously, and food prices have been skyrocketing as a consequence. Conflict has affected food availability directly as well; in active conflict areas, an estimated 50 percent of all harvests have been destroyed and farmers remain unable to plant for the upcoming season due to insecurity and/or displacement.

Up to 95 percent of the population in South Sudan in is dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, yet there is no underlying state infrastructure—roads and irrigation systems, for example—to support the agricultural industry. The dangerous combination of armed conflict, weak infrastructure, devalued currency, and soaring staple food prices could result in famine conditions if South Sudan does not receive sufficient humanitarian aid.

Instability has a chilling ripple effect. The 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Violence, and Development reminds us that “people in fragile and conflict-affected states are more than twice as likely to be undernourished as those in other developing countries, more than three times as likely to be unable to send their children to school, twice as likely to see their children die before age five, and more than twice as likely to lack clean water.… The average cost of civil war is equivalent to more than 30 years of GDP growth for a medium-size developing country…In other words, a major episode of violence, unlike natural disasters or economic cycles, can wipe out an entire generation of economic progress.”

How might food insecurity, political instability, and conflict impede, or perhaps derail, progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals?  Are ending poverty and eradicating hunger realistic global goals when conflict and political instability are still such a common threat?

Personally, and sadly, I don’t think so. The highly ambitious and inter-dependent global goals embodied in the SDGs seem to be seriously at odds with the realities of the food insecurity and political instability seen today. The SDGs underestimate the difficulties of helping more than a billion people living in fragile and conflict-affected states to regain a sustainable path of equitable economic growth and reconstruct a torn social fabric within 15 short years.

I do believe we can significantly move the dial and reverse trends, but I don’t think we can absolutely abolish poverty and hunger across the globe. We know how to improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture and if we continue to have a high level of political will towards these areas of development, there will be sustainable impact among vulnerable populations.

Grain prices are expected to decline over the next decade. Given projections for lower food prices and rising incomes, food security for low- and middle-income countries is expected to improve. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s International Food Security Assessment, released this summer, found that the number of food insecure people is projected to fall significantly, 59 percent, to 251 million in 2026. This is an impressive drop from where we are today, but far from full eradication.

Looking ahead, regions in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be the most sensitive to food insecurity. While part of that is due to political unrest and costly humanitarian crises, another critical factor is climate change. This week the North Pole is 36 degrees F (or 20 degrees C) warmer than average. When I travel to do my work, smallholders farmers around the world tell me that the rainy seasons are changing, that there are more droughts, more floods, and that their crops and their incomes are directly affected by extreme weather patterns.

The 2016 State of Food and Agriculture report stated that climate change will affect food availability, access, utilization, and stability in most, if not all, regions of the world. Many researchers, including those at NASA, have made the link that drought brought about by human -induced climate change may be one of the root causes of the conflict in Syria. They are referring to the devastating drought in 2006 that pushed Syrian farmers to migrate to urban centers. Rural farmers abandoned their land because they couldn’t make a living anymore, but found a lack of jobs, food, and services available in the cities – creating more economic inequality and, eventually, violent uprisings and the protracted conflict we see today.

We have a host of development tools to address hunger and poverty through inclusive agricultural growth – gender equality, private sector engagement, enabling environment, innovative technology, climate smart agriculture, social safety nets. But these interventions have little value if they are not coupled with strong political will and good governance.

As Amartya Sen has observed: “There has never been a famine in a democratic country.”

Good governance can stimulate agricultural commerce as surely as poor governance can undermine it, and that is why host country partnership, leadership, and investment are all so critical.

This past year, the CSIS Global Food Security Project has undertaken country case studies to examine the effectiveness of U.S. government-funded food security and nutrition programs in Tanzania, Bangladesh, and currently working on one for Guatemala. (Mention and hold up reports.) We saw a stark difference between these focus countries in terms of political leadership.

In Bangladesh, we observed very impressive government commitments which pre-dated Feed the Future’s presence. Food security is not a political or partisan issue but rather understood as a matter of national security. The country’s experience with a severe famine in the years after independence is still etched in the minds of its leadership. The government is making impressive investments in agricultural inputs, education, markets, and research.

Guatemala, in contrast, has good policies on paper but no resources or systems to back them up. The government changes every four years with such a degree of turnover that it takes a full year for a new government to figure out how things work and there is little continuity across administrations. For example, the current, new government fired all of the ag. extension agents back in January and is just starting to rehire them now. Tax collection is by far the lowest in the region, as is investment in agricultural research, and critical hard and soft infrastructure investments simply go unfunded year after year.

Agricultural development funding by international donors pale in comparison to the resources which national governments, and the private sector investments that they enable, can bring to the table when there is political will and stability.

The challenges are immense. We have our work cut out for us. Instability and conflict, climate volatility, intensifying urbanization, and rising food demand will all have major impacts on progress against global hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. Keep this in mind: food security can stabilize as much as food insecurity can destabilize.

My hope is that we remain inspired by our end goal – to alleviate suffering. Even in times when conflict and violence seem so pervasive, we know there are solutions. In the name of remarkable leaders like George McGovern, we must push the political leaders of today to continue to keep agricultural and nutrition high on the development agenda. Our global security depends on it.