Food security efforts in Côte d’Ivoire Food security efforts in Côte d’Ivoire Photo credit: EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

Food security and livelihoods programming in conflict: a review

by Susanne Jaspars and Dan MaxwellMay 2009

Conflict affects all aspects of livelihoods. War strategies often deliberately undermine livelihoods and war economies may develop, where a powerful elite benefits from war by using violent or exploitative practices. War directly impacts on livelihoods through the destruction, looting and theft of key assets, and indirectly through the loss of basic services and access to employment, markets, farms or pastures. As a result, most people’s livelihood strategies become extremely restricted and may involve considerable risks to personal safety. Contemporary conflict is frequently protracted, and risks to livelihoods thus persist for long periods of time. Protracted conflict is frequently punctuated by periods of acute food insecurity and displacement.

Livelihoods programming in conflict can have a number of objectives:

  • Meeting basic needs and contributing to civilian protection (livelihood provision).
  • Protecting and helping to recover assets (livelihood protection).
  • Improving strategies and assets by strengthening institutions and influencing policy (livelihood promotion).

Whilst food aid remains the main way of meeting basic food needs in conflict, agencies have increasingly implemented a range of food security/livelihoods programmes to help meet basic needs and reduce protection risks, in both acute and protracted phases of conflict. These have included interventions that reduce expenditure, such as fuel-efficient stoves and grinding mills, and vouchers or grants to increase access to a range of goods or services, such as vouchers for milling or non-food items, cash for work for road rehabilitation or solid-waste disposal and grants for basic needs or livelihood recovery.

Minimising the risk of diversion, theft or attack is important when programming in conflict situations. Agencies seek to achieve this by avoiding the direct distribution of in-kind goods or cash, and by close monitoring of both the context (movement or presence of armed groups) and the process of distribution. Risks associated with cash distribution are minimised by delivery via local banks or money-transfer companies, or by distributing only small quantities on a regular basis.

Asset protection and recovery is also possible, although only to a limited extent. This needs careful consideration lest people are exposed to greater risks through the distribution of valuable assets, as well as consideration of such questions as access to land and markets and freedom of movement. In relation to food security, interventions have included:

  • Protection of key production assets, for example fodder and safe places for livestock in displacement settlements, veterinary care and agricultural extension.
  • The provision of assets that are less subject to theft, or that people can take with them if they are displaced (such as small stock like chickens).
  • Seeds and tools, or seed vouchers and fairs in protracted conflict and for returnees.
  • Small-scale income generation in protracted displacement or refugee situations. The provision of new livelihood skills could also provide people with safer livelihood strategies that are not based on owning valuable assets.

Understanding the conflict environment, in relation to policies, institutions and war-related processes, has been identified as a key gap in humanitarian response. This limits the impact of actions to support livelihood strategies and assets, and also means that efforts by humanitarian agencies to influence policies and strengthen institutions in food security/livelihoods programming have been limited. Food security/livelihoods interventions in conflict are similar to those in any emergency context; the key difference in situations of conflict is the importance of understanding how conflict influences the governance environment, in particular the power relations between and within groups, and how the political economy of conflict affects the functioning of local institutions and thus the livelihoods of different groups. It is necessary to analyse, mitigate and monitor the potential harms that may be associated with livelihoods programming in conflict, including the risk of reinforcing unequal power relations. This includes making sure that the type of assistance provided, and the way in which it is provided, does not put people at increased risk. These are also the key elements of a conflict analysis. Whilst a livelihoods strategy should provide appropriate livelihood support, in conflict the application of humanitarian principles is also important. Objective assessments of need within all groups are important, to ensure that livelihoods assistance reaches the most needy, and to avoid accusations of bias towards particular livelihood or ethnic groups.

Most contemporary conflicts are long-term, and therefore need at least 3–5-year strategies. These strategies should combine approaches to protecting and promoting livelihoods, whilst also maintaining the ability to meet basic needs. This also means having the flexibility to adapt responses when the nature of conflict changes. A major challenge for livelihoods programming in conflict is therefore to develop a strategy which is long-term, but which also remains humanitarian and continues to meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable groups.

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