Building peace: A path to resilience in the face of food insecurity

By Kate McMahon 16 December 2015

A team assesses the damage of drought in Ethiopia, where consecutive poor rainy seasons are making a devastating impact on families in the country. Continued focus on resilience may be the only way to buffer the most vulnerable communities from spiraling deeper into despair when they face climate, economic or conflict shocks. Photo by: Melaku Asefa / ECHO / CC BY-ND

This year’s weather forecast is grim for vulnerable communities and households around the world. Recent reports indicate that this year’s extreme El Nino is having — and will continue to have — a devastating impact on families living in poverty, especially those living in the “global south”.

According to the United Nations, the number of people expected to need food assistance in East Africa is expected to reach 22.1 million by the start of 2016 as a result of El Nino, surpassing the number of people affected by the deadly 2011 drought. Flooding is expected to affect up to 3.5 million people across the region. In Ethiopia, more than 8 million people are already facing extreme hunger because of failed rains, and the effects of El Nino are likely to make the situation worse before it gets better.

Despite our inability to control Mother Nature, we need not be completely powerless. It is, more than ever, the time to build resilience.

The term “resilience” risks becoming an over-used, empty buzzword (Devex named it the buzzword of the year in 2012). Despite this, we should not forget the importance of resilience — nor what it actually means: the capacity of communities in complex socio-ecological systems to learn, cope, adapt, and transform in the face of shocks and stresses. Continued focus on resilience may be the only way to buffer the most vulnerable communities from spiraling deeper into despair when they face climate, economic or conflict shocks.

We know that building resilience makes sense — and saves some serious cents. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency states that for every dollar we invest in building resilience before a disaster strikes, four dollars are saved from having to respond to crises. Investments in resilience programs in Ethiopia in the late 2000s meant that when drought struck the Horn of Africa in 2011, communities in Ethiopia better weathered the impacts of the drought than those that were not prepared to manage it. Places that did not have as much investment in resilience, such as Somalia, faced tremendous humanitarian costs, both in terms of dollars and human lives (famine contributed to the deaths of 260,000 Somalis during the 2011 drought).

Much of the world experiences ongoing chronic and recurring conflict or natural disasters — half the population affected by natural disasters between 2005 and 2009 lived in fragile and conflict-affected areas. East African countries such as Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan that are engaged in violent, protracted conflicts are likely to be likewise adversely affected by this year’s El Nino. The deadly combination of coping with natural disasters where there is also conflict highlights the need for tools that can build resilience in conflict contexts.

New research from Mercy Corps in the Horn of Africa indicates that programs that build conflict-management capacities in local institutions may also build resilience to shocks, including climate-related shocks.

This confirms previous research conducted by Mercy Corps, which examined the way in which conflict-management programs increased the resilience of pastoralists to the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa. Mercy Corps’ new report goes further to examine the relevance of different types of conflict management capacities for resilience. The report is based on both quantitative and qualitative research conducted in the Mandera Triangle and northern Karamoja.

Two genres of conflict-management capacities were examined — social cohesion and institutional capacity — both of which were found to contribute to resilience in different ways.

The study reveals the relevance of social cohesion  and social capital to building peace and resilience. In conflict context, however, ties and trust within and between communities are often broken and result in the development of ill will. Peace building that aims to improve these relationships can facilitate the building of healthy connections between households to help households better cope with shocks.

For example, the research indicates that the ability to rely on neighbors for support during and after a shock (such as drought or flooding), is linked with improved mobility and better food security. Also, households that are more trusting of members of other communities are more likely to think that conflicts are resolved successfully and are also more food secure — potentially signaling a link between better conflict-management capacities and resilience to food security shocks.

There is also evidence of the importance of institutional factors in building peace and resilience. Both government and traditional leaders are often overwhelmed by conflict, making it difficult to both address community needs during shocks and manage an existing conflict. Many the areas of the world that are most affected by intercommunal conflict and environmental shocks are located in the peripheries of national governments, where traditional institutions and communities face historical marginalization.

But when formal and informal leaders work together to resolve conflict, conflicts are more likely to be resolved. Stronger conflict-management skills appear to be linked to better resilience outcomes as well: a primary cause of conflict in the research areas is over access to natural resources. Households are more food secure when local leaders are perceived to have the ability to negotiate access to natural resources on which their livelihoods depend.

Humanitarian agencies and donors are working hard right now to position supplies and realign programs to stave off the worst of what is turning into a massive food-security crisis in the Horn of Africa due to El Nino. Saving lives will be a costly yet necessary endeavor.

These efforts should complement those that aim to rebuild social cohesion, develop working relationships between formal and informal conflict managers, and improve the skills of conflict managers to negotiate access to resources. This will provide a dual benefit of both reducing conflict and building resilience to future food-security shocks, no matter the catalyst.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

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Kate McMahon

Kate McMahon is an expert program manager and policy adviser on food security, resilience and sustainability. Currently she works as a senior policy adviser with Mercy Corps in Washington, D.C. Kate has embrace a wide diversity of roles, from managing a humanitarian food security program in South Sudan’s bush to spearheading successful advocacy campaigns on environmental policy in the halls of the U.S. Congress.


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