Food as a tool for peace

Food distribution in Yida, South Sudan. Credit: Keystone/AP/Sam Mednick

What is the connection between food and peace?

When announcing the World Food Program (WFP) as the winner of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said WFP was honoured for its “efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

The prize has put the WFP's work in the spotlight as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to push millions to the brink of starvation in countries across the world.

Although the WFP was widely praised for the award across the humanitarian sector, there was skepticism from some who questioned whether the prize would better be awarded to an individual or organisation more directly involved in peace building.

Past winners include the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who received the prize last year for his efforts to achieve peace and resolve the border conflict with Eritrea, and former president of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos, who won in 2016 “for his resolute efforts to bring the country's more than 50-year-long civil war to an end.”

However, as the Nobel Committee explained last week, “providing assistance to increase food security not only prevents hunger, but can also help to improve prospects for stability and peace.” The committee stated that the WFP has taken the lead in combining humanitarian work with peace efforts through its projects.

In recent years, such projects have included buying surplus food in countries such as South Sudan to inject cash into rural economies and stimulate trade, and peace building initiatives in Niger that have quelled conflicts between pastoralists and farmers by organising an exchange of land for cattle grazing, fertilise and agricultural trade. “Using food we build bridges and we are helping communities build peace,” Tomson Phiri, Geneva spokesperson for the WFP, told Geneva Solutions.

Created by the United Nations in 1961, the WFP is the world's largest humanitarian organisation, serving 97 million people in 88 countries in 2019. Levels of hunger were already spiralling before the pandemic, with 135 million people suffering from acute hunger last year, mostly driven by war and armed conflict in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Yemen and Burkina Faso.

Two thirds of WFP's work is in conflict-affected countries, where the combination of the pandemic and escalating conflict has led to a dramatic rise in food insecurity. “The Covid crisis has given rise to a food security crisis of global proportions,” said Phiri.

“270 million people will go hungry in countries where we are operating before the end of the year - around 82 per cent more than the number who required our assistance before the pandemic,” Phiri added. “So, this is a timely shot in the arm ... not only in terms of visibility, but also in motivating us to continue to go beyond and above the call of duty.”