Beyond Food Aid: Priorities to Address Humanitarian Food Crises

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

Global hunger is on the rise, clustered in areas facing the double burden of prolonged, active conflict and recurrent climate shocks. Two-thirds of the 135 million people in urgent need of food are in countries facing acute humanitarian emergencies, specifically due to conflict. The same eight countries dominate humanitarian outlays year after year—Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, and Nigeria.

Conflict and hunger are mutually reinforcing. Conflict disrupts agricultural production, market activity, and income sources, cutting access to food. Hunger can heighten competition over scarce resources and leave communities susceptible to manipulation by armed groups as they seek to meet urgent food needs.

Famines have become less frequent over time, tamed in part by the Green Revolution, expanding markets, declines in extreme poverty, and an increasingly professional aid industry. But compounding shocks in places with weak or predatory governments still fuel famine. Today, there are mounting famine concerns in Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan, the DRC, and parts of the Sahel. The acute, protracted, and expanding nature of today’s food crises demands new approaches.

What can the United States do to advance its leadership in ending food emergencies?

1. Prevent and end violence that drives famine

The recent Nobel Peace Prize award to the UN World Food Programme is a strong endorsement of international cooperation and the need for compassion and courage to reach those at risk of starvation. However, humanitarian action is no substitute for the political leadership necessary to prevent and end famine and the armed conflicts that fuel it.

Proactive measures should include elevating famine prevention within the U.S. national security decisionmaking process. At times, this means reviewing key policies, such as the designation of non-state groups as foreign terrorist organizations, for their implications for humanitarian crises. Such designations can render aid organizations’ humanitarian relief and peacebuilding efforts illegal—with calamitous results. In the recent past, decisions made in the interest of U.S. national security have made hunger crises worse. By providing direct military support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the United States has enabled an air campaign that targets lifesaving infrastructure in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Today, more than half of Yemen’s population needs emergency food assistance. In 2011, the United States delayed nongovernmental organizations’ response to famine in Somalia and likely increased the death toll. More than 250,000 people died. 

The United States has an opportunity to rewrite its approach to conflict with a focus on prevention rather than response thanks to the Global Fragility Act (GFA). Reducing violent conflict is the most pressing priority to address global food crises. The Act requires the United States develop a whole-of-government Global Fragility Strategy through which the foreign affairs agencies will identify countries and regions most at risk of violence and align diplomatic, development, and defense resources to mitigate these threats. Implementing the Global Fragility Act should be seen as a direct effort to ward off hunger and save lives.

2. Strengthen sources of resilience as part of humanitarian action

The growing number and duration of conflict-driven food crises makes year-on-year blanket assistance increasingly untenable. Between 2005 and 2017 the number of conflict-related crises receiving international aid nearly doubled from 16 to 30 and the average humanitarian crisis now lasts more than 9 years.

To better address these growing needs, the United States merged two U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) offices—the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the Office of Food for Peace—into a Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance (BHA). But no BHA strategy yet exists that lays out a new agenda to achieve better outcomes in the places where crises fuel acute hunger.

To advance these goals, a BHA strategy should:

  • Retain food security as an explicit outcome: This means tailoring relief responses to support food security by blending the food assistance, water, nutrition, and health expertise of the two merging offices. In protracted crises, this requires embracing longer time horizons for funding. Direct food and other forms of in-kind assistance will remain a key lifesaving approach but should be used judiciously, given their potential to undermine local agricultural markets.

  • Support local markets: Mercy Corps’ extensive research in conflict settings demonstrates that households often rely more on markets to cope in crisis than they do on humanitarian aid. Markets can also ensure that humanitarian responses reach scale. The United States has embraced demand-side support for vulnerable households, including cash transfers and food vouchers, but its “supply-side” support for agro-dealers, food vendors, and livestock traders lags behind.

  • Strengthen social networks: Social networks are a reliable source of food, cash, and mutual support in crisis settings. Lessons from contexts as diverse as Syria and South Sudan show that humanitarian assistance can either foster or disrupt community bonds. A strong understanding of conflict dynamics should be a minimum standard for humanitarian work undertaken in protracted crises.

  • Improve early warning and action: Building on the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), USAID should invest in new technologies and predictive capabilities to better understand the drivers of crises and take earlier action in response. To date, even when early warning lights flash, our experience shows that USAID has not consistently prioritized or enabled program adaptation. This needs a fresh look, with more consistent application of guidance to ensure earlier, faster adaptations at scale in response to emerging or sudden changes in context.

3. Commit to collective impact to end hunger

Ending hunger requires multiple forms of assistance that work in sync to meet immediate needs, build resilience, and advance long-term recovery. In addition to creating the new BHA, USAID has recently placed humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding tools into one “family” of bureaus, also including the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization. This family reports to an undersecretary-ranked associate administrator for relief, response, and resilience (3R) official. Rather than simply leaving these bureaus to develop parallel approaches aligned with their respective mandates, the associate administrator should lead the 3R bureaus in advancing joint strategies that reinforce collective outcomes based on shared metrics of success. In the absence of a common agenda, humanitarian, peace, and development investments can work at cross-purposes, undermining impact and at worst, exacerbating crises.

There is precedent for this change. Following the Horn of Africa drought in 2011-12, foreign assistance moved from a debate of “development” versus “relief” to one focusing on protecting development gains and reducing humanitarian need. This shift led to a blend of investment approaches and significant improvements in resilience and well-being in parts of Kenya and Ethiopia.

Addressing protracted conflict will require engaging not only development and relief stakeholders but also peacebuilders. Their engagement could expand the kinds of programs that directly help to mitigate, manage, and prevent further conflict, and help all stakeholders understand key drivers of crises and ways to transform conflict over time.


The United States has led global funding for humanitarian assistance for decades. It is time now for policy and program adjustments to maximize the impact of those dollars. This involves pairing varied and agile relief approaches with economic development and peacebuilding tools. All of this should be guided by an ambitious political agenda to improve the lives of millions by focusing on preventing and ending violent conflict, evaporating the threat of famine in the process.

Dina Esposito is vice president of technical leadership at Mercy Corps. She previously served as the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Food for Peace and as acting deputy assistant administrator in the USAID Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. Olga Petryniak is the senior director of the Resilience and Food Security team at Mercy Corps.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Olga Petryniak

Senior Director, Resilience and Food Security, Mercy Corps