New Report Highlights Hunger as a Driver of Instability

Published December 5, 2017
Last Updated November 6, 2019
Comprehensive study demonstrates the role of food insecurity in destabilizing economies, societies and governments

Washington, D.C. — World Food Program USA (WFP USA) today released a report, “Winning the Peace: Hunger and Instability,” that finds that food insecurity destabilizes nations, creating fertile ground for unrest in many forms, from migration and food riots to recruitment by violent extremists.

“Extreme food insecurity is not only a consequence of conflicts across the globe, it is also a driver of instability,” said Rick Leach, WFP USA’s President and CEO. “At a time of unprecedented need, and as the U.S. Government considers funding levels for international food assistance programs, it is vital that these decisions are informed by a clear understanding of how ensuring food security abroad is in our national security interests.”

The relationship between food insecurity and instability is nuanced and complex. The report surfaces at least 11 drivers of food insecurity—from land competition and food price spikes to rainfall variability — linked to 9 distinct types of instability, ranging from peaceful protest to violent interstate conflict. Ultimately, every instance of food-related instability can be characterized by a unique combination of these “drivers” and individual “motivators,” such as acting upon a perceived injustice, seeking an economic benefit, and countering weak governmental institutions.

“Ultimately, chronic food insecurity contributes to the conditions that allow fragile states to emerge,” added Leach. “The world is not keeping pace with growing humanitarian needs, and a failure to meet these emergency needs will result in greater instability. While the United States has a long-standing legacy of leadership, we also need to foster an expanded global effort to stem the tide of hunger and instability.”

Key findings include:

  • Approximately 95 percent of the over 50 peer-reviewed studies examined in the report are able to establish an empirical link between food insecurity and instability. Winning the Peace is among the most in-depth reviews of research on the link between food insecurity and instability ever produced. Approximately 75 percent of the studies included the report were produced in the last five years.
  • The relationship between food insecurity and instability is complex and best understood as the sum of its many parts. The report surfaced at least 11 drivers of food insecurity examined by researchers — from land competition and food price spikes to rainfall variability — linked to 9 separate types of instability—ranging from peaceful protest to violent interstate conflict.
  • Food insecurity and state fragility are intimately linked. Roughly 80 percent of countries that were severely food insecure in 2016 were also considered ‘fragile’ or ‘extremely fragile’ (51 of 64 countries), and vice versa.
  • Money and food can be a strong motivator for recruitment into extremist movements. This is true of ISIS, al Shabaab, Boko Haram and others offering recruitment incentives to desperate people incapable of feeding their families.
  • While modern conflicts are almost never driven by a single cause, food insecurity is a key factor driving several conflicts. Development must be prioritized alongside defense and diplomacy in the U.S. national security toolkit and approaches to fighting global hunger must be comprehensive in order to meet the many manifestations of food-related instability.

While the link between food insecurity and instability is intrinsically understood in policy and academic circles, it has seen increased attention in recent years due to the changing nature of global conflicts and the current scale of humanitarian need. For the first time in a decade, the number of hungry people in the world is on the rise. In 2016, 815 million people were undernourished, an increase of 38 million people from 2015. Almost 500 million of the world’s hungry live in countries affected by conflict.

“Solving global hunger contributes to a stronger, more prosperous and more stable future,” Leach said. “Throughout our history, U.S. leaders, policymakers and the American public have demonstrated a shared understanding that overcoming hunger is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.”

The report also details a comprehensive approach to addressing the many faces of food insecurity. These include emergency food assistance, agricultural development, preventing childhood malnutrition and implementing social safety net systems.

  • Emergency food assistance: Provides immediate relief from the impacts of man-made and natural crises, serving as the last line of lifesaving assistance to those in need and decreasing the desperation felt by people suffering from extreme hunger.
  • Agricultural development: Food assistance alone cannot prevent conflict or the re-emergence of conflict once peace has been achieved. Almost half of the world’s hungry are subsistence farmers. GDP growth in the agricultural sector is more than twice as effective at reducing extreme hunger and poverty than growth in other sectors in developing countries. Investments in subsistence farmers – especially women – can have a deep impact in reducing hunger and extreme poverty and improving self-sufficiency, with positive spillover effects in to the wider economy.
  • Childhood malnutrition: Early childhood nutrition can have lifetime impacts on health and prosperity. Lacking proper nutrition at an early age, physical growth and intellectual development can be permanently damaged, leading to long-term negative impacts on individual achievement as well as broader economic growth and stability. More than 50 percent of those displaced from their countries by conflict, violence and persecution are under the age of 18.
  • Safety net systems: Safety net systems — the predictable transfer of basic commodities, resources or services to poor or vulnerable populations — protect against societal shocks and episodic bouts of food insecurity, allowing people to preserve productive assets and preventing vulnerable populations from further descending into extreme poverty.

Download the executive summary and full report at

About World Food Program USA

World Food Program USA proudly supports the mission of the United Nations World Food Programme, the leading humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide. By mobilizing individuals, lawmakers and businesses in the U.S. to advance the global movement to end hunger, we bolster an enduring American legacy of feeding families in need around the world.

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Colleen Callahan

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