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Measuring the "hunger" costs of conflict

Conflict takes its multi-year toll in country-level food production and imports; in community- and household-level livelihoods; and in individual nutrition, health, and longevity. A simple but undiscriminating method of calculating the numbers of people affected by "food wars" is to sum the numbers of people living in war-affected countries. This was the method followed in earlier World Hunger Program Hunger Report(s) from 1988 (Kates et al. 1988). As has been pointed out here, however, this procedure greatly overestimates the numbers of those actually starving, disentitled, or otherwise deprived of nutrition and fails to distinguish the parallel economy that accompanies conflict and relief efforts (Duffield 1994; Keen 1994). It also misses the numbers who have fled the conflict to neighbouring zones or the economic distortions introduced into adjacent territories by additional people, by sources of (relief) income, and also by economic downturns due to disruptions in trade or sanctions. The following sections review the limited number of models and measures suggested to account better for damage leading to hunger, which might also be used to establish priority needs for future relief and development efforts.

Losses in food production

The food and hunger costs of war are sometimes tallied as estimated losses in food production. One study (Stewart 1993), which looked at 16 wars in the developing world over the 1970s and 1980s, found that food production per capita fell in all but two of the countries concerned, and noted falls of 15 per cent or more in Cambodia, Nicaragua, Sudan, Angola, and Mozambique.

Another recent analysis of food-production trends in countries experiencing warfare estimated that food-production growth losses on account of conflict over the 1970s to 1990s were, on average, almost 3 per cent per year in war-torn African countries (Messer et al. 1997). The FAO country-level data on which these estimates are based are not extremely reliable: especially in times of crisis, data collection and reporting techniques may lack accuracy, miss within-country variations, and not take into account significant contributions of the informal economy. Moreover, the impact of conflict on food production is complex, and hard to separate from other factors. But even so, the data strongly suggest (expected) downward trends due to destructive synergisms between armed conflict and bad weather, human malnutrition and illness, social disruption, and volatile commodity prices and availability that jointly impact on food production, distribution, and consumption.

These estimates do not touch on additional economic impacts of losses in food production, such as the foreign-exchange costs of food imports during wartime or the higher risks and costs of transportation. Someone (in recent times, usually external humanitarian organizations) must bear these costs for there to be food aid to make up the shortfalls in conflict and post-conflict areas, or the populations go hungry. There are also multiplier effects of crops not grown because agricultural services disappeared or inputs were not available for lack of local funds or state-level foreign exchange, or because of sanction-related import restrictions. These translate into growing deficits in local, regional, and state income and magnify losses in entitlements to food.

Entitlement losses

Losses in material and infrastructural goods that create income can be calculated roughly by estimating and adding specific items and then "guesstimating" multiplier effects. These numbers can then be compared with those arrived at by estimating probable output (growth) in the absence of war (Green 1994: 41). The second method is a general economic case of the specific food-output growth calculation suggested in the preceding section.

More directly, household-level hunger costs can be measured as lowered per capita income or entitlements to access food. On this measure, among countries at war in the 1980s, Mozambique, Liberia, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Guatemala, and Uganda were the worst off, and their poor performance was almost certainly war related. Their capital and human resource base had been depleted. Sivard (1994), among others, has sought to measure the costs of war indirectly by comparing military against social expenditures at a country level.

Overall, the inestimable losses in crops and other components of the gross domestic product, plus social expenditures (human capital investments), have been judged to be far greater than military expenditures. But analysts are just beginning to measure them. "Human capital" losses in a vicious cycle affect productivity, nutrition, and life quality. The costs of war, carrying associated risks of food insecurity, endure far into the reconstruction and rehabilitation period. But economists have barely begun the calculations.

Losses in human life

Excess deaths due to conflict include the numbers due to active violence and the greater numbers due to passive violence of malnutrition, illness, and social disruption. Loss of life associated with hunger has been observed to be most severe among those populations specifically preyed upon by oppressive regimes, as in the case of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, traditional African ethnic groups such as the Dinka and Nubians in the Sudan, and competing political and ethnic groups in Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia (Dergue).

Excess child deaths due to hunger and violence run into the millions. UNICEF calculated that over 1.5 million had been killed, over 4 million physically disabled, and over 12 million rendered homeless in conflicts over the previous decade (UNICEF 1989; Grant 1994). Restoring hope, skills, and social support for such passive victims of conflict remains the significant challenge for building future food security.


In summary, "famine that kills" in recent times is almost always associated with conflict, either directly or indirectly. Although the costs of conflict are usually measured in direct military expenditures and violence-related human mortality, to these numbers must be added the direct output losses and multiplier effects of reduced demand for goods and services and for domestic and foreign investments foregone because of lack of peace and political-economic stability. More than from direct military encounter, civilian deaths occur from the synergisms between stress, malnutrition, and illness that are heightened by forced migration and social disintegration.


1. In 1995-1996, after two bumper harvests, Ethiopia for the time being was no longer food short, although problems of food security and malnutrition persist.

2. Security measures in rare instances also include food-security measures, as in Israel, which made special efforts to protect internal food supplies in case of attack.

Works cited

Davies, S. 1994. "Public Institutions, People, and Famine Mitigation." IDS Bulletin 25, No. 4: 4654.

de Waal, Alexander. 1989. Famine That Kills: Darfur, Sudan 1984-1985. Oxford: Clarendon Press and New York: Oxford University Press.

Duffield, Mark. 1994. "The Political Economy of Internal War: Asset Transfer, Complex Emergencies, and International Aid." In: J. Macrae and A. Zwi, eds. War and Hunger. London: Zed Books, pp. 50 70.

Grant, James. 1994. The State of the World's Children 1994. New York: UNICEF.

Green, Reginald H. 1994. "The Course of the Four Horsemen: The Costs of War and Its Aftermath in Sub-Saharan Africa." In: J. Macrae and A. Zwi, eds. War and Hunger. London: Zed Books, pp. 37-49.

Heggenhougen, K. 1995. "The Epidemiology of Functional Apartheid and Human Rights Abuses." Social Science and Medicine 40, No. 3: 181-184.

Kates, Robert, R. S. Chen, T. Downing, J. X. Kasperson, E. Messer, and S. Millman. 1988. The Hunger Report: 1988. Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University World Hunger Program.

Keen, David. 1994. "The Functions of Famine in Southwestern Sudan: Implications for Relief." In: J. Macrae and A. Zwi, eds. War and Hunger. London: Zed Books, pp. 111-124.

Macrae, Joanna and Anthony Zwi, eds. 1994. War and Hunger. Rethinking International Responses to Complex Emergencies. London: Zed Books.

Mason, John, Urban Jonsson, and Joanne Csete. 1996. "Is Childhood Malnutrition Being Overcome?" In: E. Messer and P. Uvin, eds. The Hunger Report: 1995. Amsterdam: Gordon & Breach, pp. 157-184.

Maxwell, Simon, and Margaret Buchanan Smith, eds. 1994. Linking Relief to Development. Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex Bulletin 25, No. 4.

_____, and A. Lirensu. 1994. "Linking Relief and Development. An Ethiopian Case Study." IDS Bulletin 25, No. 4: 65-76.

Messer, Ellen. 1990. "Food Wars: Hunger as a Weapon of War." In: Robert Chen, ed. The Hunger Report: 1990. Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University World Hunger Program, pp. 27-36.

_____. 1996. "Food Wars: Hunger as a Weapon of War in 1994." In: E. Messer and P. Uvin, eds. The Hunger Report: 1995. Amsterdam: Gordon & Breach, pp. 19-48.

_____, M. Cohen, and T. Marchione. 1997. Food From Peace. Report to IFPRI 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment. Washington, D.C.: IFPRI.

Sivard, Ruth. 1994. World Military and Social Expenditures. Leesburg, Virginia: WSME.

Smith, D. 1994. War, Peace, and Third World Development. Occasional Papers 16. Oslo: International Peace Research Institute, Human Development Report Office.

Stewart, Frances. 1993. War and under-development: Can Economic Analysis Help Reduce the Costs? Oxford: International Development Centre.

UNICEF. 1989. Children on the Frontline: The Impact of Apartheid, Destabilization and Warfare on Children in Southern and South Africa. Third edition. New York: UNICEF.

Uvin, Peter. 1996. "The State of World Hunger." In: E. Messer and P. Uvin, eds. The Hunger Report: 1995. Amsterdam: Gordon & Breach, pp. 1-18.

WFP (World Food Programme). 1995. Annual Report of the Executive Director 1994: Linking Relief to Development. 39/4. Rome: CFA.

Winter, R. 1995. "The Year in Review" In: US Committee for Refugees, ed. 1995 World Refugee Survey. Washington D.C.: Immigration and Refugee Services of America, pp. 2-7.

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