If the first casualty of war is the truth, the second is surely the stomach. Whomever owns the food and water supply in a conflict zone is immediately at a significant advantage to the parties it is in conflict with.
And is food security used as a weapon of war? Yes. We’d be hard pushed to find an example of when it wasn’t, with an added complexity of food aid also being used as weapon against the oppressed that often prolongs conflicts.
The scenario works something like this: As much as efforts are made to maintain non-partisanship in relation to the warring sides, international aid agencies inevitably affect intergroup dividers and connectors. They can exacerbate, reinforce or prolong conflict by feeding into and worsening intergroup dividers or by ignoring and undermining intergroup connectors.
Keeping the warlords and their allies sated while unintentionally starving the deserving is a well-documented outcome of many food aid programmes. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day in a war zone has too often become I gave a man a fish and someone stole it to buy a few Kalashnikovs and a Toyota Hilux.
So what to do? The objectives of food aid are (generally) entirely moral. Food missions are supposed to provide relief and create the environment that helps to reinforce peacebuilding missions.
Primarily and especially relevant in irregular conflicts where the distinguishing sides is difficult, the violent parties need to be isolated from accessing the food aid. Failure to do so has repeatedly shown to increase a cycle of attrition where food is inexorably linked to human suffering. Though working on conflict resolution without food aid isn’t possible, these aid agencies need to work on smarter strategies of security and distribution of resources to fulfill their objective without strengthening the aggressor.
As Einstein once said, an empty stomach is not a good political advisor. Sure the deserving need food aid in war – we’d just like to see less of the world’s food aid reinforcing the political and now religious agendas of violent extremists.