Magazines 2024 May - Jun Conflict, refugees and hunger

Conflict, refugees and hunger

21 June 2024 By Stefan Epp-Koop

As the world observes World Refugee Day, let's consider how conflict leads to hunger and how Christians are responding.

When fighting reached the home of Kamara Chance, a young woman living in eastern DR Congo, her family fled to the forest. “In the forest, it was difficult to find food,” she says, “so we fed on the seeds that we found.” Eventually, Kamara and her family arrived at a camp for displaced people. But the situation was not easy – they arrived without a livelihood, a home or a source of food (see YouTube 6 min video).

Caption for photo above:

In DR Congo, widow and mother of six Kamara Chance was displaced by war. She found refuge in Minova, South Kivu, and received support from ECC-MERU, the local partner of Mennonite Central Committee. Here, she cooks with the maize flour she received in her food assistance parcel, along with salt, beans, and oil. Each food ration was expected to support a family for about six weeks. Photo: Esther N’sapu, courtesy Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

A few years later and a continent away, Olena Slobodianiuk was forced to make a similar choice when her village in Kherson, Ukraine, was occupied by Russian troops. Olena and her family decided to evacuate to Kyiv, travelling two long days to get there and spending the night in the fields. But, even though the Slobodianiuks were safe once they arrived in Kyiv, they did not have work. And after three months of occupation, the family had very little money left. 

As Christians, we serve the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and we are encouraged to pursue peace (Psalm 34:14). But what does it look like to pursue peace in a world where conflict is driving hunger, poverty and a lack of security?

As we observe World Refugee Day this month (an annual event each June 20 which some churches also observe the Sunday before or after), we are reminded the experience of people like Kamara and Olena is all too common in our world today. According to the World Bank, 69% of people experiencing acute food insecurity live in conflict-affected countries. And there have never been as many refugees or displaced people on record than there are in 2024.

So, how does conflict lead to hunger? As a Christian organization dedicated to seeing every person made in the image of God freed from hunger, what does Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s response look like? And how can our food assistance and other programming contribute to a more peaceful world?  

Part of the next chapter in both Kamara and Olena’s stories is that Foodgrains Bank partners provided assistance to help their families meet their immediate food needs.

In DR Congo, partner ECC-MERU (with support from Mennonite Central Committee) provided a food transfer while helping Kamara and others access land for agriculture and start other initiatives to start new livelihoods.

In Ukraine, ADRA Ukraine (with support from ADRA Canada) provided three months of cash assistance to help the Slobodianiuk family, and others like them, access food as they adjusted to a new home – bringing hope to people in the most practical ways we know how.

The history of conflict and hunger 

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of conflicts around the world fell significantly. Unfortunately, this trend has now reversed. In the last decade, the number of active armed conflicts increased from 33 to 55.

A number of these conflicts – such as in Ukraine or Israel and Gaza in recent months – have a high profile in the nightly news cycle. But there are many other conflicts that affect people around the world, in places like Sudan or Democratic Republic of Congo, that receive less attention on our screens. 

There are many consequences of conflict around the world, and one of the biggest is hunger.

As safety deteriorates, farmers are unable to access their fields and produce food for themselves to sell. When it becomes harder to transport goods, food prices increase and people have a harder time affording food in local markets. In times of uncertainty, people do not want to invest in their businesses or farms for fear of what may happen next. Armed groups may seize or destroy crops, livestock or other assets that people rely on to generate an income.

While it is against international law, warring parties sometimes use access to food as a weapon – limiting access to food for their opponents to gain a military advantage. In many cases, people are forced to flee their homes to a safer location – usually to another region in their own country or to a nearby country. Typically, when people are displaced they are able to take few (if any) assets with them, and have limited livelihood opportunities when they arrive.  

And it goes beyond the areas where war is being fought. Conflict in a food-producing area can have wide-reaching ripple effects, including disrupting food supplies and causing prices to increase. When Russia invaded Ukraine, a major food exporter, food prices rose globally, particularly in parts of east Africa and the Middle East that import significant amounts of food from Russia and Ukraine. This also happens at a more local level. Conflict in food-producing areas of eastern DR Congo, for example, affected food prices in another part of eastern DR Congo where the Foodgrains Bank supported programming this year.  

Not only does conflict lead to hunger, but hunger also leads to conflict. Many local conflicts are between communities competing for increasingly scarce resources. For example, as drought increased in the Horn of Africa in recent years, communities came into conflict over pastureland and water for their livestock. Hunger can also drive desperation and grievance against governments or other structures. Rising food prices were one of the key drivers of the Arab Spring, which led to protests and, in some cases, civil wars a decade ago. The effects of those civil wars – in countries like Syria and Yemen – are still being felt today. 

While conflict doesn’t act alone in creating hunger (for example, economic challenges can also contribute to food insecurity), it is the number one driver in our world today of both hunger and displacement.

Displacement at all-time recorded levels

People displaced by conflict arrive without a place to live, a way to generate an income, or source of food. As of 2023, there were 117.2 million forcibly displaced people in the world. That’s over three times the population of Canada, forced from the place they call home. Of those who have left their countries as refugees, 70% are hosted in neighbouring countries – many of which struggle with hunger already.  

When people are forced to leave home, it is often for a long time – an average of 10 years for people displaced within their own country or 20 years for refugees (someone who has left their country of origin. When I visited displaced person camps in Somalia, many people I met had lived in the camps for over a decade, having come as a result of both drought and conflict in their home communities. There was no sign that they would be able to return any time soon.

Life as a displaced person is not easy. Employment is often precarious, with low pay and few legal protections. Shelter can be difficult to find or expensive. With few ways to earn a livelihood, displaced people may be forced to resort to negative coping strategies. In these situations – not surprisingly – hunger is prevalent, and families are struggling.  

Responding to conflict, displacement and hunger

Over the past year, Foodgrains Bank provided $28.7 million in food assistance to 250,000 people living in places affected by conflict. This represents three-quarters of our food assistance response this year. Many of our largest responses – in countries such as Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Lebanon – are in conflict-affected countries.  

Over the last decade, for example, we have supported food assistance for people displaced by conflict, internally in Syria, and as refugees to Lebanon. Syrian refugee Omar (name changed for confidentiality) is 28 and lives in Lebanon with his wife and two children. After being displaced to Lebanon, Omar was only able to earn the equivalent of about $3.20 per day. The family lives in a small home, comprised of one room and a kitchen.

Because of the limited income, the family’s diet of one or two meals per day consists of bread, thyme and basic food items. The food vouchers that Popular Aid for Relief and Development provided (a partner of Mennonite Central Committee) enabled the family to buy nutrient-rich foods such as chicken, milk, fruits and other items. As a result of this support, Omar’s family is able to eat three meals per day. Life is still hard, but their basic needs are met.

When there are high levels of displacement, it’s also our responsibility to ensure that we do not increase the risk of conflict when we provide support. For example, if a partner only provides assistance to displaced people but leaves out members of the host community who are also living with food insecurity, this could increase tensions and potentially create conflict.

That’s why our projects typically incorporate both displaced people and host community members, to prevent increasing tensions between groups and ensure that our assistance does not make the problem worse. In South Sudan, for example, we are supporting people fleeing from conflict in Sudan, alongside the South Sudanese communities that are now hosting them.

Contributing to peace in the present, peace in the future

Woman-Situation-Rooms-by-Esther-NsapuWhile much of Foodgrains Bank’s work has been to respond to the impact of conflict, we have also seen in the past year how the work of our partners can contribute to the resolution of conflict, and the restoration of peace.

In eastern DR Congo, local partner ECC-MERU (with support from Mennonite Central Committee) has started Women’s Situation Rooms. These groups of women were trained as conflict mediators and earned the respect of others in their community for their ability to resolve conflicts.

Typically, these were local-level conflicts between households, but this past year the Women’s Situation Rooms were also asked by the local government to mediate between two armed militias that had been fighting.

Caption for photo above:

In a country plagued by conflict, Women's Situation Rooms implemented by ECC-MERU in DR Congo hoped to reach over 3,000 people with peace activities in North and South Kivu provinces. The groups focus on community reconciliation, conflict resolution, and peace education. Photo: Esther N’sapu, courtesy Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

This conflict had halted economic activities in the area and caused significant unrest. The Women’s Situation Rooms worked with two other local groups to create a safe space to encourage peace negotiations between the militias and, through this joint mediation process, were able to stop hostilities. 

And in 2023, Tearfund South Sudan (a partner of Tearfund Canada) shared that a conflict had broken out between communities in South Sudan and Uganda. As a result of the training that Tearfund had done, women trained by the project were invited to join community elders in the peace negotiations – marking the first time that women have ever been involved in such peace processes.

Looking to the future

Conflict continues to be a leading driver of hunger in our world. Hearing the statistics of the impact of conflict can be overwhelming. It can feel hopeless. But for Christians, marking World Refugee Day is also a reminder to pray. To pray for peace, to pray for the millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes, and to pray for those who are experiencing hunger. Hopefully, in the coming years, the current rise in conflict will reverse, and we will begin to see a more peaceful world. In the meanwhile, organizations like Foodgrains Bank will continue to support those impacted by conflict as we work towards our mission of a world without hunger. 

Stefan Epp-Koop is senior manager of humanitarian programs at Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 church denominations and agencies including Alliance, Anabaptist/Mennonite, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Reformed, Salvation Army and other traditions, all working together to end hunger. Last fiscal year it provided $79.8 million of assistance for 1,103,795 people in 36 countries. Its programs are undertaken with support from the Government of Canada (via Global Affairs) and through member agencies and their local partners in the developing world. Photos by Esther N'sapu courtesy Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

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