Hill Times: Canada must tackle root causes of displacement, conflict, as well as their effects

Jared Klassen, Shaughn McArthur

Jul. 5, 2017

Canada can champion smart responses to global crises. Investing in agriculture is key.

OTTAWA—Twenty million people in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen are facing famine. It is being called the largest humanitarian crisis since the inception of the United Nations.

In Yemen, the last two years of conflict has caused such severe economic breakdown that today some seven million people do not know where their next meal is coming from, and less than half of the country’s health facilities are fully functioning.

In conflict-affected parts of Nigeria, some 50,000 people were projected to descend into famine conditions by June.

As reports of the worsening hunger crisis begin to make international headlines, conflict and displacement continue to be underscored as a common denominator.

Conflict is largely responsible for hampering markets and vital public services, and hindering humanitarian agencies’ efforts to reach vulnerable populations.

As the headlines would have it, Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen are experiencing “man-made crises.”

But as the international community sets out to address this looming catastrophe, it is also critical to consider what drives today’s conflicts.

In a landmark speech to the Fragile States Conference in March 2016, then-foreign minister Stéphane Dion described climate change and food insecurity as risk amplifiers for security.

The speech underscored how climate change and repeated droughts were linked to the food-price crisis of 2007-08, and how these events fuelled grievances across North Africa and the Middle East, leading to the Arab Spring, the Syria crisis, and increasing migration.

These links are already evident in too many conflicts and humanitarian crises around the world. Left unchecked, the consequences will only continue to worsen.

In a recent report, Fleeing Climate Change, CARE estimates that a five per cent change in rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa increased the likelihood of conflict in the following year by 50 per cent.

“Unless governments take strong preventive action and invest in adaptation, climate change-related phenomena such as floods, droughts, famines, and hurricanes could push the total number of permanently displaced people as high as 250 million people between now and 2050,” conclude the report’s authors.

This spring, the Canadian government made a strong commitment to addressing the immediate needs of those affected by hunger in the four countries, announcing a dollar-for-dollar matching fund that invited Canadians to give generously.

As the Canadian government prepares to roll out a new international assistance policy emphasizing women’s empowerment and support for fragile states, Canada should prioritize strategic investments that address the root causes of displacement and conflicts, as well as their effects.

Where issues such as migration and border security dominate the international agenda, Canada can promote economic growth that includes the most vulnerable. In low- and middle-income countries, this requires investing in smallholder farmers.

Smallholder farmers make up 85 per cent of the world’s farms and employ some two-thirds of people in low- and middle-income countries. They are also among the most vulnerable to climate shocks.

This vulnerability can be effectively addressed through targeted investments in agriculture. Ensuring women have equal access to resources would raise yields by 20 to 30 per cent. Resource-conserving farm practices can increase yields by 79 per cent, while also helping farmers adapt to erratic weather conditions.

If smallholder farmers are not productive, they are displaced in search for other work. This type of displacement on a large scale can fuel social tension.

The conditions being experienced in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen today reflect the worst-case scenario, in which instability led to a breakdown in systems, from the national to the local level.

But the comparable resilience of communities in parts of Kenya and Ethiopia in the face of almost identical drought conditions is instructive: policies promoting community-led agricultural growth help ensure people are fed even in the face of successive climate-driven and economic shocks.

Canada is uniquely positioned to address this issue. As a major centre for agricultural research and export, and a recognized leader in migration and refugee policy, Canada can champion smart responses to global crises. Investing in agriculture is key to empowering women and strengthening fragile states.