- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2000

Hunger is at the core of many armed conflicts in Africa and Asia, an analyst argued last week at the presentation of a new report on world nutrition.

"I believe that malnutrition and the degradation of the environment are the main reasons behind conflicts such as the ones in Angola and Rwanda," said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen acknowledged there is "no universal agreement on this issue" in his talk at the presentation of the "Fourth Report on the World Nutrition Situation," prepared by a U.N. subcommittee.

But, he maintained, "Often, ethnic tensions are just the spark that ignites the fire."

Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen said he has charted a clear correlation between rates of infant death from malnutrition and rates of armed conflicts.

Inevitably, wars disrupt food security as crops and animals are looted and burned, trade routes are disrupted and access to markets is constrained.

But Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen said that cause and effect can be reversed when hunger and environmental degradation leave large sectors of a population hopeless. He cited as an example the mass killing of Tutsis by Rwandan Hutus in 1994.

"The hillsides were bare, the land was becoming unproductive, people were starving and children were dying," he said. "As a result, the tribal differences took on much more important dimensions and resulted in a terrible tragedy."

He said governments often make war more likely by spending on arms instead of feeding their people.

"Several African governments are not doing enough to improve the nutrition situation, which is key for the well-being of the population," Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen said. "Instead, they are spending a great deal of money on other things such as military equipment."

One look at the figures presented by the report shows how pervasive the problems of malnutrition and human deprivation are.

According to the U.N. report, 30 million children in the developing world are born undernourished each year. As they grow, many of these children will join an estimated 182 million children younger than 5 who are already stunted.

It is estimated that 44 percent of preschool children in Asia are underweight, and in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of underweight children has risen by 8.2 million since 1990.

In addition, wars produce large numbers of refugees as many as 12 million at the end of 1998. Most of these refugees were concentrated in Africa and Asia and suffered from both acute and chronic nutritional crises.

In this context, Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen said, governments and international agencies involved in African and Asian armed struggles seem to be addressing the wrong issues.

"Preventive measures regarding the food security in volatile areas could prove a better way to prevent armed conflict than sending in U.S. Marines or U.N. forces," he said.

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