Questions and Answers on Resilience and Hunger

Q. Talking about rebuilding and resilience doesn’t seem practical or even relevant when millions of people are in refugee camps, trapped in deserts with malnourished children, or other crisis situations. How can people move from what is actually happening to them — i.e., reality — to a better life that must seem like a dream?

Recovery from wide-scale disaster is not easy, as we all recognize, and it can take a very long time. But communities, countries, and even entire continents have done it before. Human beings will rarely abandon their efforts to feed themselves and their families, and people who are malnourished, people who are displaced, and people who have lived through unthinkable tragedy are no exceptions. And because the world will not be able to end hunger without significantly lowering the level of armed conflict, people will also not abandon efforts to stop wars and other forms of organized violence that affect them. On the whole, human societies want peace—individual combatants and war profiteers notwithstanding.

That said, people need a path, a way to get from an emergency, such as having to flee armed combatants who destroyed their village or seeing their children on the verge of starvation, to anything that resembles the life they want. One critical factor to both maintaining any ceasefires and achieving lasting peace is ensuring that people have food, shelter, and health care. In addition, providing essential nutrients — for everyone, but particularly those in the 1,000 days between pregnancy and age 2—must be an integral part of “ensuring that people have food.”

These humanitarian efforts save lives and prevent suffering, and are well worth the investments in and of themselves. They also free people to begin to plan more than a day or two into the future. Sufficient humanitarian relief also helps reduce the chances of renewed violence — by responding to the reality that there are large numbers of ex-combatants, many of whom have spent years using violence to get what they need and some of whom still possess weapons. If ex-combatants are desperate to feed themselves and their families, returning to war may seem a much more attractive option than it otherwise would.

Q. In the best-case post-conflict scenarios, people have returned home or have permanently resettled, they are not at immediate risk of starvation, and the fighting has stopped. What do the international community and people themselves need to do then?

Most people in post-war societies previously earned a living by farming, and therefore have skills and experience in producing food. Rebuilding the agricultural sector is important to food security, short-term and long-term, and it can provide livelihoods for many families. Again, though, “rebuilding the agricultural sector” is not easy or quick. The destruction inherent in war — particularly lasting dangers such as land mines — can make a return to productive agriculture extremely difficult, as can the impact of climate change.

In the short term, the needs are for seeds, tools, inputs such as fertilizer, livestock, passable roads to functional markets, etc., and providing these is essential. Investing in agriculture for the long term can prevent future famines and other crises. One approach donors can take to help a country achieve food security is “cash for work” programs. As the name indicates, these are programs that hire and pay people to repair the various kinds of damage caused by natural disaster or war. “Cash for work” gets money into the local economy, enables people to afford to buy food, and can potentially help build peace by creating a common mission of reconstructing people’s home village or town.

Q. The Hunger Report mentions that there’s a 50-50 chance of a country’s returning to conflict within five years. That’s discouraging — how can the world improve those odds?

Reaching an inclusive peace agreement is one clear way to increase the chance that peace will last. What “inclusive” means can vary widely, depending on who is doing the including, who feels included or excluded, and why. Here we focus on a key group that has been proven to make a considerable difference to the outcome but is almost entirely excluded from mediation, negotiation, and implementation roles: women.

Between 1992 and 2011, less than 4 percent of signatories to peace agreements were women. Women were also less than 4 percent of participants at peace talks and less than 10 percent of negotiators.

Yet women not only suffer the violence, hunger, and other enormous problems that affect everyone in a country at war, but frequently are also victims of gender-based violence, including rape as a weapon of war and human trafficking. Excluding women from the peace process deprives them of representation of their experiences, unique or not, and a voice in decisions that affect them.

Even beyond the damage done by excluding half of a country’s people from meaningful participation in shaping a critical period in their history, excluding women undermines the overall peace process and harms the entire population.

Leaders have recognized for quite some time that women play essential roles in building peace and face special threats due to war. A U.N. resolution that acknowledges both these issues was adopted in 2000. There is also quantitative evidence as well that women’s participation makes efforts to build a peaceful society more effective.

A study of women in the peace processes of 40 conflicts around the world points to several reasons this is so. These range from women’s greater likelihood of mentioning needs, problems, and points of view that others had not considered, to women’s greater opportunities to foster dialogue and skill in doing so. Gender equality is also recognized as an indicator of how likely countries are to be aggressors toward neighboring states or to suffer high levels of violent crime. Causality has not yet been proven, but gender equality has been found to be a better indicator of a country’s level of peacefulness than factors such as democracy, religion, or GDP.

Increasing women’s leadership and participation in peace processes and implementation is not an overnight fix, but it is something proven to raise the chances of success — and it is far more straightforward than strategies such as, for example, disarming combatants.