What Does Building Back Better Look Like for African Women Engaged in Smallholder Agriculture and Food Businesses?

The participation of women is needed in the design, implementation and monitoring of policies and programs for building back better in smallholder agriculture and agribusiness

Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

By Jemimah Njuki
NAIROBI, Oct 9 2020 – “We need to build back better.”  This has been the rallying call on the COVID-19 response by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to leaders and communities around the world. It has been echoed in conference rooms and in the numerous Zoom meetings organized to discuss the pandemic. It will be especially important to apply the idea to women working in the agriculture and food sector. 

Women farmers often have lower access to productive resources than men—so in times of crisis, like COVID-19, their farm productivity and food security will likely be hit harder. The pandemic is affecting input availability and use. In a survey by Precision Agriculture for Development in Kenya, 8 in 10 agri-dealers reported a decrease in farmer footfall, and 76% reported lower sales compared to a month earlier.  

Women play a critical role in entrepreneurship in the food sector, from small scale processing to high growth companies that employ thousands of workers. In Sub-Saharan Africa, female entrepreneurs are more prevalent than male entrepreneurs, although their businesses are typically smaller and with less capital and many are in the informal sector.

The current recovery efforts, and support to the agriculture sector have remained gender blind, and when they have focused on women, they have tended to make assumptions about women’s roles in the food system

The Future of Business survey found that female led businesses were 7 percentage points more likely to be closed compared to male-led small businesses. They are also likely to take longer to recover from the impacts of the pandemic due to their lower access to formal credit and reliance on the family network for investment finance. 

A report by UN Women and the UNDP found that a total of 247 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day in 2021. And of this number, 132 million are in sub-Saharan Africa. 

And while there has been extensive discussion of gendered impacts of Covid-19, particularly the care burdens on women, and on building back better after the pandemic, what that looks like for many women engaged in stallholder agriculture is not clear to many. 

The current recovery efforts, and support to the agriculture sector have remained gender blind, and when they have focused on women, they have tended to make assumptions about women’s roles in the food system.  For example, women farmers have been targeted with interventions focused on home gardens and homestead food production and while this is important, it is not enough.

Evidence shows that women play a pivotal role in all three key components of food security: food availability (production), food access (distribution), and food utilization as well as in activities that support agricultural development. 

Leaving them out in the short and long-term recovery process is not an option and any efforts to build back better must focus on and include women.

So, how do we “build back better” for women in the food sectors? Initiatives must include two broad strategies to succeed; increased access to social protection, appropriate seeds, markets and finance; and enhanced and amplified leadership of women. This is how it can be achieved. 

First, governments can increase access to markets for women smallholder farmers by providing short term access to markets through procuring Covid19 food relief and school meal supplies. A study in India showed that public procurement institutions helped the state government implement a timely and sound procurement process during the lockdown, preventing widespread losses in crop income.

In the longer term, developing improved local markets with infrastructure that supports women such as child care facilities, encouraging shorter value chains and crop diversification has been shown to enable women access markets. 

Second, allocation of inputs must target women who are the majority smallholder farmers in the continent. Most governments are allocating funds for inputs, through digital voucher systems. For example, Kenya is spending a 500 million USD loan from the World Bank on inputs through a voucher system that has no specific targets for women despite another program with IFAD showing that targeting women has led to increases in their production. These voucher systems are however likely to leave women out due to their lower access to mobile phones.  

Third, target cash transfers directly to women as a social safety net. Cash transfers targeted at women have potential to help them rebuild their businesses, secure their food security and that of their households. In Nigeria, women who received cash transfers increased investment in their own business activities, were more likely to be involved in their own non-farm businesses and increased their profits.

Fourth, support women entrepreneurs, traders and processors engaged in the food business. Women have however always faced barriers to financial inclusion. Reforming the financial system so that it works for women must be a critical part of building back better.

For example in Zambia, the implementation of a self-check tool for commercial banks to ensure their financial products and services address women’s needs in the same way as those of men led to some banks adjusting their products to better meet the needs of women.

And finally, women who are in smallholder agriculture and agribusiness must be part of building back better. In the political space, countries with female leadership have been very successful in dealing with the pandemic. This leadership has however not cascaded to other sectors. The participation and influence of women is needed in the design, implementation and monitoring of policies and programs for building back better in the sector.  Building back better must be defined by those most affected by the pandemic. 


Dr Jemimah Njuki is an Aspen News Voices Fellow and a UN food systems champion. She writes on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Why We’re Uniting in Support of African Girl Leaders to beat AIDS & Shift Power

Credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown

By Winnie Byanyima, Audrey Azoulay, Natalia Kanem, Henrietta Fore and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
GENEVA/ PARIS/ NEW YORK, Oct 9 2020 – The International Day of the Girl Child on 11th October is a call for us to reflect on our responsibilities. Twenty-five years ago, governments adopted the historic Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action.

Seventeen years ago, African governments committed to the Maputo Protocol affirming the rights of women and girls. Adolescent girls are leading change around the world. They are a tremendous engine of progress. They drive economies. They transform communities. Yet many girls born after these agreements were made are still denied their most basic human rights.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, HIV continues to disproportionately impact adolescent girls. Today, five in six newly infected adolescents aged between 15 and 19 in this region are girls.

Over 600 adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa are newly infected every day. AIDS is still the second leading cause of death among young women aged 15-24 in the region. Yet the majority of adolescent girls do not have comprehensive knowledge about prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Now, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to worsen these vulnerabilities. Evidence from past crises – such as the Ebola outbreak in conflict-affected areas of DRC – show that school closures worsen gender inequality since girls are less likely to return to school than boys.

Girls are forced to enter the informal job market or shoulder unpaid care work at home, leading to increased experiences of violence and spikes in adolescent pregnancies and harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation.

As women executive leaders for UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women, we are joining forces to confront the injustices faced by adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa.

Together we are working to advance a package dubbed “Education Plus”: completion of quality secondary education; universal access to comprehensive sexuality education; access to sexual and reproductive health services and education; freedom from sexual and gender-based violence; and school-to-work transitions, economic security and empowerment.

We are championing removal of discriminatory laws and promoting the voice and engagement of young women and adolescent girls as advocates and leaders.

Africa’s adolescent girls and young women themselves have risen to speak out, together, to demand these rights. Here are just some of the things they have been telling us:

“A safe learning environment for girls must be prioritized as a lot of them fall prey to those who are meant to protect them. Girls must be able to learn in an environment that is safe and healthy,” says Brenda of Cameroon

“COVID-19 has exposed our vulnerabilities and the glaring leadership and developmental gaps that exist in my country. It has revealed the need for young people with a heart for service,” says Wanjuhi of Kenya

“Resources to disseminate information must be put in place and the media must also be involved to combat associated taboos,” says Bibiche of DRC

Learning from adolescent girls and young women has reminded us as leaders that legal, cultural, social and economic obstacles are intertwined and need to be taken on together; that at the heart of transforming girls lives is shifting unequal power dynamics; and that they do not seek to be “rescued” but seek to be supported in their own right to participate.

A South African study has shown that HIV prevalence among girls who had finished high school was about half that among girls who had not (8.6% versus 16.9%). Research shows too that including discussions about gender and power dynamics in comprehensive sexuality education makes it five times more effective in preventing sexually transmitted infections.

It is vital too that young women are supported to develop the necessary skills as they transition into adulthood to secure decently paid employment. With our united collaboration and support, this generation can truly be Generation Equality and Generation Unlimited.

It is Africa’s adolescent girls’ and young women’s own activism and organising that will drive progress. Our role as leaders is to unite behind their energy, bringing together governments, communities, civil society, business, and others.

Together we can ensure vital investments and transformational policy shifts are made so that all of Africa’s girls can enjoy all of their rights to education and empowerment. We do this not “for” Africa’s adolescent girls and young women but with them; this generation of feminist leaders is the fighting chance to beat AIDS, achieve gender equality, and secure the human rights of all girls.


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Peer Support Vital to Help Young Returnees Rebuild Their Lives in West Africa

Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and a sense of loss are common reactions among returnees. Psychosocial care is vital for people returning

Ismaila Badji. Credit: IOM/Amanda Nero.

By Marilena Crosato
DAKAR, Oct 9 2020 – Ismaila Badji could not bring himself to leave his house for weeks after returning to Senegal. “I failed twice; at school and on the road,” he said. “What’s wrong with me? I’m still looking for the answer.” After spending time in a Libyan detention centre, Badji returned to where he came from. He did not feel like himself, he lacked motivation and he suffered from stigma from the local community.

It was thanks to two friends who took walks with him in the neighborhood that he was able to overcome these challenges. “That’s how I was able to integrate again within my community.” he recalled.

Badji is one of many young people in West and Central Africa who undertake dangerous journeys to Europe, do not reach their destination and struggle to return and re-establish their lives. For them, peer support is an essential part of the return process.

Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and a sense of loss are common reactions among returnees. Psychosocial care is vital for people returning. A supported reintegration process is an essential element of the return journey

Badji joined the International Organization for Migration’s Migrants as Messengers (MaM) programme, which supports a peer-led approach to awareness-raising in communities to help people make informed migration decisions.

He recently started a poultry business and is now an active advocate for safe migration. The programme also seeks to develop strong social networks to improve the health and wellbeing of returned migrants and has brought together more than 260 returnees, MaM Volunteers, across seven countries in West Africa. The volunteers share accurate and balanced information about migration routes and processes and, more recently, about COVID-19.

“During our journey, we gained a lot of experience, we faced lots of things and it is often in moments like this that we measure the importance of solidarity between people… since we returned, when we see people in need, we say to ourselves that it is our duty to help others,” said Diarra Kourouma from Guinea, a MaM volunteer and returnee.

Many young people in West and Central Africa hope to find a better life for themselves and their families and risk their lives by undertaking some of the most dangerous migration journeys every year to Europe. According to IOM data (June 2020), 92 per cent of migrants attempting to reach Europe from West and Central Africa are young men under the age of 30.

Lack of jobs and other opportunities for personal and financial growth and strong pressure from families, drives large numbers of young people to migrate. When they set out, it is with the expectation that they will make it to their destination, find a job, and send money home.

The reality is that many do not reach their desired destination and are stranded, abandoned and sometimes abused and imprisoned. These harrowing experiences, often combined with stigma faced from returning home empty-handed, make reintegration in their communities of origin a challenge.

Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and a sense of loss are common reactions among returnees. Psychosocial care is vital for people returning. A supported reintegration process is an essential element of the return journey.


Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and a sense of loss are common reactions among returnees. Psychosocial care is vital for people returning

Elhadji Mohamed Diallo. Credit: IOM Guinea.


“I returned to Guinea completely devastated by everything I had just experienced during my journey. I didn’t want anyone to know my story, no one to know that I am a returnee. I simply wanted to hide in silence,” said Elhadj Mohamed Diallo, a 32-year-old from Guinea.

Diallo is now the president of the OGLMI, a Guinean organization raising awareness about the dangers of irregular migration. He explains how he benefited for his role leading awareness raising activities and the importance of challenging the stigma that migrant returnees face when they go back to their communities of origin.

“It was an opportunity to regain confidence in my abilities, but also to become aware of the role I can play by sharing my story with the Guinean populations; I understood that I could help save lives. And this boosted my energy,” said Diallo. “When we return home, we want more than anything else to fight the stigma we were subjected to. For me, this means contributing to the development of my country.”

MaM Volunteers report that belonging to these peer groups and playing an active role in the community help with the process of re-establishing their lives. People involved in these peer groups have gone on to create civil society associations, start small businesses, pursue studies and work on other initiatives.

Discussions in markets, churches and schools, community theatre, music and dance, collaboration with media are just a few examples of the activities led by the MaM Volunteers to breakdown stigma and social and economic barriers returnees often face.

“When I returned from Libya, I had a hard time being accepted by my family,” said Mariama Conté, a 23-year-old business law student in Guinea and MaM Volunteer.

“In the eyes of my parents, I was just the one who had stolen money from them to leave and fail on the shores of the Mediterranean. It was thanks to my involvement as a volunteer that I managed to reconnect with them. When they saw me engaging in awareness-raising activities, fighting to prevent other young girls to fall into the same trap as me, they understood that I could be useful.”

In the past few months in the seven countries where MaM is being implemented, more than 288 creative, community outreach activities have been carried out to help communities and youth face the COVID-19 pandemic.

This includes videos, songs, billboards, posters, comics strips, radio shows and other community-based activities – all of which has been widely shared across on air, online and by word-of-mouth, reaching more than seven million people this year.

The “Stay Home and Dance” challenge, a series of videos encouraged people to stay home during the pandemic lockdown and addressed issues of social isolation through song and dance. Guinean Volunteers welcomed returning migrants in transit centers and a group of five returnees in Sierra Leone created the song ‘Together We Can Cope’ to build support and solidarity in the pandemic.

“Firstly, I feel proud to be a part of a network that is helping in the fight against COVID-19,” said Abdul Sankoh, a MaM Volunteer from Sierra Leone. “Secondly, the experience has given me a sense of wanting to do more to help other people in time of crisis or emergencies.”


Marilena Crosato is Community Engagement Officer, IOM Regional Office for West and Central Africa, mcrosato@iom.int.


Scaling Up SDG4 in Crises

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait

By Yasmine Sherif
NEW YORK, Oct 9 2020 – Out of global crises spring opportunities for change. In crisis, change is not an option. It is a necessity. And, as Plato famously noted: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Education Cannot Wait (ECW) is an invention that sprang out of crisis and was borne of necessity.

Yasmine Sherif

Education Cannot Wait was conceived as a direct response to the lack of financial resources and crisis-sensitive approaches needed to address the learning crisis for 75 million vulnerable children and adolescents impacted by armed conflicts, forced displacement and climate-induced disasters. Today, three years into its operations, the growing number of already crisis-affected children and youth are now doubly hit by another crisis, COVID-19, while under the threat of being hit again by the global financial crisis.

How many crises can they withstand without succumbing? How many hits can they take without losing hope?

This burning question was at the centre of the UNGA week event: “The Future of Education is Here for Those Left Furthest Behind.” On 17 September 2020, ECW brought together an impressive, diverse line-up of political leaders, policymakers, influencers and youth advocates, who unanimously spoke to the need of scaling up investments in inclusive quality education for those left furthest behind: refugees, internally displaced, girls and children with disabilities – all already affected by brutal conflicts and climate-induced disasters.

Their statements were strong, powerful and driven by determination (see the collection of speaker’s quotes in this month’s Newsletter). This impressive gathering recognized Education Cannot Wait’s innovative design and modus operandi, specifically tailored to reach those left furthest behind in emergencies and protracted crises.

Education Cannot Wait translates innovation into action. When a climate-induced disaster hits Mozambique, Nepal or Peru, or when hostilities escalate in Mali, South Sudan or Syria, ECW immediately sets in motion a coordinated response that delivers on the ground within weeks. Where protracted conflicts and forced displacement keep children and adolescents out of school, leaving crisis-affected governments to fend for themselves, multi-year joint programming brings together humanitarian and development actors to jointly respond to the crisis and empower governments to deliver on SDG4 in Afghanistan, Chad and Somalia, and many others.

Between 2017 to 2019, 3.62 million girls and boys previously left behind benefited from Education Cannot Wait’s investments. In Uganda alone, enrollment and access to quality education for refugees rose from 53% to 75%, while girls’ education in ECW investments climbed to 60% in Afghanistan and Nigeria. When schools shut down in April 2020 due to COVID-19, ECW unleashed its emergency reserves and dispersed funding to over 50 grantees across 33 already crisis-affected countries the very same month. When a devastating explosion took place in Beirut in August, ECW moved swiftly and invested in the rehabilitation of damaged schools.

This response to crisis is possible because ECW optimizes other reform efforts geared at innovation and improvement of the multilateral crisis response, such as The New Way of Working, the Grand Bargain and Humanitarian-Development Coherence. It empowers and reinforce existing capacities and coordination structures designed especially for crisis coordination and steers it to prioritize education in the collective response. By doing so, ECW facilitates the multilateral system’s ability to work with greater speed and more sustainability in achieving SDG4 in emergencies and protracted crisis – there, where we find those left furthest behind.

Education Cannot Wait is about systemic change. As a pooled funding mechanism exclusively dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises, ECW is designed to leverage financial resources to change the way we deliver inclusive and equitable quality education to those left furthest behind. We know from our growing evidence base that this innovation works.

“Education Cannot Wait is an example of how the United Nations system delivers quality with speed to advance SDG4 leveraging the best from across the UN family. Now is the time to take our work to the next level,” affirmed the UN Deputy-Secretary General, Amina J. Mohammed, in her opening statement at ECW’s most recent High-Level Steering Group, held during the UN General Assembly Week in September.

Working closely with host governments and local communities, UN agencies and civil society are the ones delivering on the ground. When working together through joint programming and coordination, they have the capacity to empower and support governments in crisis to act with speed and deliver at scale to advance SDG4 amidst the largest crisis-affected areas on the globe. Their challenge is not a lack of capacity, coordination or commitment. Their most significant challenge is the lack of funding to allow them to scale up in delivering on SDG4 in crises.

Today, we cannot say that we do not know how to deliver quality education in emergencies or protracted crises. Nor can we continue to ponder what the humanitarian-development nexus might look like in real life, nor assert that in-country host governments, UN agencies and civil society do not coordinate. As ECW’s Annual Results Report of 2019 illustrates, those who work on the emergency frontlines are already doing so – they model cooperation, coordination, speed and quality.

Still, they could do so much more if the required funding was available. To scale up, they need an additional $1.2 billion to reach an additional 5 million children and adolescents. ECW’s immediate ask on their behalf is that of $300 million through 2021.

While the pandemic is pushing the world into a global recession, the need for education funding for those left furthest behind has never been greater. As Baroness Liz Sugg, the United Kingdom’s Minister for Foreign and Development Affairs, stated during the ECW convened event at UNGA: “Every single country around the work is under huge economic pressure at the moment as a result of COVID-19, but that is not a reason for inaction on education and investing in communities ravished by conflict and crises.”

In the same spirit, EU Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen stated: “We must come together to coordinate further our investments to our purpose of leaving no children behind. ECW mobilizes a collective response to urgent needs in education in emergencies. I am proud that that European Union was part of its inception. We have a once in a generation opportunity to reopen schools better than they were before. Now more than ever, Education Cannot Wait.”

When crisis hits, we invent out of necessity. When an invention works, we scale up. When we scale up that which works, we build back better. Now, we need to fund it at scale.


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Nobel Peace Prize to World Food Programme Delivering Life-Saving Sustenance to Millions Worldwide

Credit: WFP

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 9 2020 – With the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize bestowed on the Rome-based World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations and its affiliated agencies continue to hold a monopoly of one of the world’s most prestigious annual awards.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the WFP as the “world’s first responder on the frontlines of food insecurity.”

In a world of plenty, he pointed out, it is unconscionable that hundreds of millions go to bed each night hungry. Millions more are now on the precipice of famine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The women and men of the WFP brave danger and distance to deliver life-saving sustenance to those devastated by conflict, to people suffering because of disaster, to children and families uncertain about their next meal,” Guterres declared.

He also singled out David Beasley, WFP Executive Director, and the entire staff of the World Food Programme, for advancing the values of the United Nations every day and serving the cause of “we the peoples” as the Organization marks its 75th anniversary year.

In a video statement on social media, Beasley said: “It’s because of the WFP family: they are out there in the most difficult, complex places in the world, where there’s war, conflict, climate extremes – it doesn’t matter. They are out there and they deserve this award …

“This is the first time I’ve been speechless … This is unbelievable. And Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!”, an exhilarated Beasley, a former Governor of the US state of South Carolina (1995-1999), said Friday.

Beginning with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (1954 and 1981), the UN recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize also include Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold (1961), the UN children’s agency UNICEF (1965), the International Labour Organization (1969), the UN Peacekeeping Forces (1988), the United Nations & Secretary-General Kofi Annan (2001), the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (2013).

The award also went to the predecessor to the United Nations: League of Nations (1938) for its work on aiding refugees, and to Ralph Bunche (1950), Director of the UN Division of Trusteeship, and Acting Mediator in Palestine.

Gernot Laganda, Chief / Climate and Disaster Risk Reduction Programmes at WFP told IPS: “As WFP staff, we are humbled and moved by this honor. Many colleagues have spent years – some decades – working to increase food security for hungry people who have had their lives torn apart by conflict, climatic extremes or economic shocks”

He said some of his colleagues have lost their lives in the line of duty.

“Every WFP staff, from Executive Director David Beasley to our local colleagues working in the most difficult conditions in the deep field, sees the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s vote as a recognition that the 690 million hungry people in the world have the right to live an active and healthy life, free from conflict and with safety nets against increasing climate extremes and disasters”.

“This recognition will inspire all of us to work even harder, to save lives and change lives on the pathway to Zero Hunger,” said Laganda, who joined WFP from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), where he managed the world’s largest climate change adaptation program for smallholder farmers.

Dr John Coonrod, Executive Vice President of the Washington-based Hunger Project, told IPS: “An excellent choice”

“In a world where conflict has forced millions to go hungry, the World Food Programme brings relief and dignity. UN agencies like WFP take on the toughest challenges in the world and deserve everyone’s support,” said Dr Coonrod, who is also Coordinator and co-founder of the Movement for Community-led Development.

Danielle Nierenberg, President of the US-based Food Tank, told IPS there are few organizations in the world poised to confront the multiple challenges of the pandemic, the climate crisis, inequality, and food and nutrition insecurity, like the World Food Programme.

“During COVID-19, they have continued to be on the frontlines confronting all of these challenges. Their work has never been more important or necessary.

“I’m grateful that the Nobel Commission decided to make a statement this year commending and organization that has as its mission to nourish the world,” said Nierenberg.

Congratulating WFP, Oxfam International’s interim Executive Director, Chema Vera told IPS it is a timely and urgent recognition to the work that WFP does in fighting the scourge of global hunger.

At a time when more than 135 million people in 55 countries around the world are facing severe to crisis levels of food insecurity, this recognition must also be a clarion call for wider and immediate action.

The UN’s $10.3 billion humanitarian appeal is today barely 40% funded – and within that, the money needed for global food security and nutrition are the most under-funded parts of the entire appeal.

The international community should fully fund the UN appeal now and accompany that with the strongest political action to support the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire.

“We must break the bond between conflict and hunger and work collectively towards peace,” said Vera.

Laganda of WFP told IPS that “a message that is important from my own role in the organization working on climate and disaster risk reduction programs is that WFP and its partners are facing an uphill battle”.

He pointed out that climate disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity, “and we see a growing interplay between climate and conflict”.

Hunger is on the rise, and there is not enough humanitarian financing to go around to catch up with these growing needs.

“This is why we need to complement our ever-present readiness to respond with longer-term programs which strengthen capacities for risk reduction, prevention and resilience-building, said Laganda, who formerly served as Humanitarian Program Specialist with the Austrian Development Agency and managed climate and environmental programs with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in South Africa and the Asia/Pacific region.

He said not many people are aware of this, but apart from being a cutting-edge operational agency for emergency response, WFP is also an excellent partner for governments who are working to strengthen systems for risk management – from climate information and early warning systems to social protection and climate insurance solutions.

To manage the growing humanitarian impacts of climate change over the next few years and decades, he noted, “we will not only need to prepare for more costly responses to more frequent and intense climate disasters – we also need to frontload investments into forward-looking programs that can help us mitigate and prevent predictable emergencies”.

“The time for such investments is now, and I am hoping that the honor of this year’s Nobel peace prize can increase global visibility for this type of work,” said Laganda.

Frederic Mousseau, Policy Director at the Oakland Institute, told IPS “this Peace prize is well deserved given the incredible role played by WFP in bringing essential food relief in war situations such as Yemen, Afghanistan, or Somalia, in often highly dangerous and challenging conditions for its staff”.

This said, global hunger is a problem, he argued, that can’t be solved by delivering food, especially when it is procured in the US, WFP’s primary donor by far, which has for decades prioritized sending in-kind food aid as a way to support its own agriculture, undermining farmers in the Global South as a result.

To address global hunger in a decisive way, rich countries should provide financial assistance and policy space to countries so they can promote their own agriculture and industries. Unfortunately, the reality is that rich nations -also the main food exporters- don’t do that and continue to export their own agricultural products and finance emergency food aid when famines arise, said Mousseau.

Time to End the Lethal Limbo of the U.S.-Mexican Drug Wars

The failure of the "war on drugs” – now a welter of spreading conflicts – is a U.S.-Mexican co-production. Washington should stop pushing Mexico City to throw ever more military force at organised crime. Instead, it should help its southern neighbour find solutions tailored to each locale

US President Donald Trump (right) and Mexican counterpart Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the White House July 2020. Credit: Toa Dufour/White House

By Falko Ernst
MEXICO CITY, Oct 9 2020 – Sporadic but spectacular acts of violence remind the global public of how deeply parts of Mexico have slid into lethal conflict over recent years.

The criminal groups that are the public face of this violence are hardly circumspect about their power. In a video dated 17 July, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation – one of the “five most dangerous transnational criminal organizations” worldwide, according to the U.S. Justice Department – showed off some of its better-equipped and trained foot soldiers and their state-of-the-art weaponry.

If the video seemed intended to broadcast the group’s paramilitary capabilities, that’s because it was. The display of force was a message to the government, a Jalisco Cartel operator told Crisis Group, “to take it easy” after the Mexican courts extradited the group’s leader’s son to the U.S. while freezing a number of its bank accounts. It was a way for the group to remind the authorities that “damage can be inflicted when arrangements aren’t being respected”, he said.

The failure of the “war on drugs” – now a welter of spreading conflicts – is a U.S.-Mexican co-production. Washington should stop pushing Mexico City to throw ever more military force at organised crime. Instead, it should help its southern neighbour find solutions tailored to each locale

Whether or not because of the video, tensions did in fact ease in the aftermath of its release, with the threat of further escalation receding and conditions returning to “normal”. In Mexico, however, normal has come to mean a state of perpetual conflict, which accounts for a large portion of the country’s steady death toll of more than 35,000 homicides per year.


Criminal Predation in a Pandemic

Unfortunately, north of the border, there is little public discussion of what is driving these levels of violence in Mexico. Instead, U.S. political dialogue tends to focus on one consequence of the violence – immigration.

President Donald Trump, who is now standing for re-election, first ran for office in 2016 on a mix of fearmongering about ostensible criminals, drug dealers and rapists coming over the Mexican border and promises that he would build a wall to keep them out.

Yet that campaign featured no meaningful discussion about how Mexico’s stubborn rates of lethal conflict are in reality a U.S.-Mexican co-production, fuelled by the very tactics that the U.S. has exported to fight the “war on drugs”. Nor, to date, has the 2020 presidential contest between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Nothing is likely to change for the balance of the election season, but once it is over it will be past time for whoever occupies the Oval Office to face these questions squarely – if nothing else out of self-interest. Having a neighbour affected by conflict and instability entails major consequences for the U.S, with the biggest being Mexico’s growing displacement crisis.

Mexican authorities are simply unable to protect citizens from criminal predation in an increasing number of regions, leading an estimated 1.7 million to abandon their homes due to insecurity in 2018 alone, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Geography and Statistics. Most of those forced to flee resettle within Mexico’s borders, but already in 2020 Mexican nationals have replaced Central Americans as the largest group apprehended while aiming to cross into the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic is only making the situation worse. Having killed approximately 80,000 Mexicans (a figure that could represent significant underreporting), the coronavirus has exacerbated the humanitarian situation and plunged the country into the worst economic crisis ever recorded, with GDP expected to fall by at least 8 per cent in 2020.

It has also seen armed groups try to consolidate their hold on communities, where they have taken on self-appointed roles from quarantine enforcement to distribution of goods and services. As desperation mounts, so will the drive of highly vulnerable people to seek a safer and more prosperous life elsewhere.

Washington and Mexico City can try to manage the flow of people by locking the border down even more tightly, but that is hardly an acceptable solution from a humanitarian perspective. It could also be difficult for both governments to sustain as the scale of the crisis grows and public pressure to address it increases.


Policymaking Inertia

Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers have thus far met the prospect of deepening disquiet in Mexico with inertia. They continue to support the militarised “war on drugs” that has been the anchor of bilateral security cooperation.

Recurrent threats by President Trump and other high-level U.S. government officials to sanction Mexico economically if it does not “demonstrate its commitment to dismantle the cartels” push Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to further increase the country’s dependence on the armed forces in public security matters, in spite of campaign promises to do just the opposite.

The problem is that, for the most part, militarisation has proven to be anything but a remedy. Since 2006, when the Mexican government – urged on by Washington – unleashed the military to deliver what it promised would be a swift, definitive blow to organised crime, the situation has by many measures only gotten worse: more than 80,000 Mexicans have been disappeared and annual murders have quadrupled.

The overall number of those who have met a violent death in this period, which is north of 330,000, is more than twice the number of conflict-related fatalities recorded in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded in 2001.

Compounding the problem is pervasive impunity. Fewer than one in ten murders get resolved in the justice system – and the line between state officials and the criminals they are supposed to rein in is not only thin but occasionally non-existent.

To offer just one prominent example, a chief architect of the latest iteration of the war on drugs, former federal Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna, is being tried in a U.S. court for alleged collusion with the Sinaloa Cartel. (He denies the charges.)


A Series of “Stupid Wars”

The lack of accountability has allowed the armed groups to expand their businesses far beyond the illicit drugs that were once their primary domain. With their predatory “thiefdoms” spreading out over Mexico, groups use territorial control as a means of squeezing revenue out of whatever commodity is locally available, chiefly through extortion.

The story repeats itself across the country. In Guerrero, gold mining has come to supplement heroin smuggling. In Michoacán, limes and avocados are add-ons to methamphetamine. In Chihuahua, illegal logging has come to accompany marijuana cultivation. The expansion of their business portfolio into licit commodities and crops increases the criminals’ power over people and politics – and bolsters their ability to fend off crackdowns.

Blame for this deteriorating situation falls at least in part on the war on drugs’ flawed kingpin strategy, which is based on the belief that arresting or killing criminal leaders makes criminal organisations implode. These groups do indeed die, but their parts live on, very often pitted against one another in countless feuds over parcels of land.

Michoacán is emblematic. This state was dominated by a single criminal organisation until, in 2014, the federal government sent in its troops. With help from other illegal armed groups, the army succeeded in breaking up the once dominant organisation, arresting one of its top leaders and killing the other.

But after authorities failed to follow through with sustained institution- and peacebuilding measures – for example, to free law enforcement from corruption, provide youngsters with ways out of criminal groups and offer local populations licit economic alternatives – armed conflict bounced back.

Today, the number of armed groups operating in the state has risen from one to twenty. Most are splinters of the once dominant group, and none has been able to impose itself fully on the others. The fighting has become perpetual.

Moreover, Michoacán mirrors the nationwide trend. In 2006, there were six criminal conglomerates fighting it out in a handful of regions. In 2019, the number reached 198, according to a Crisis Group analysis of online citizen journalists’ websites called “narco-blogs”.

The result of this hyper-fragmentation of armed conflict has been the birth of a series of “stupid wars that nobody has control over and that don’t end”, as one criminal lieutenant allied with the Jalisco Cartel said. Yet he – and hundreds of others – keep at it, killing, disappearing and displacing enemy operatives and those perceived to have ties to them.

Children and women are no longer excluded as targets. In Guerrero’s highlands, for instance, as part of a string of forced displacements, one armed group has driven hundreds of civilians out of their communities out of suspicion that they could in some fashion be tied socially or economically to its competitor.

A former cocaine trafficker, active until the mid-1990s, reflected upon the changing logic of violence by saying “today’s narcos aren’t even narcos anymore”. He suggested that today’s criminal actors no longer adhere to the informal norms of conduct that his contemporaries once followed.

While trying to gain the upper hand in fights over territories and markets, criminal groups also try to draw state actors onto their side. All too often they are successful, with devastating effects on law enforcement. “Whoever is supported by the state grows”, as the Jalisco Cartel lieutenant summed up the situation.

The alleged collusion between top narco-warrior García Luna and the Sinaloa Cartel is but the tip of the iceberg; similarly troubling arrangements can be found in the government’s lower echelons.


One Size Does Not Fit All

Given the overlap between the state and the criminals it is fighting, there are no meaningful enemies or front lines in this war. The war is not winnable. There are, however, clear and feasible steps Mexico can take to mitigate and eventually end its armed conflicts, with support from its partners in Washington.

Most critically, the government should pivot away from a one-size-fits-all approach that treats the use of force as the primary solution to every crisis and ignores who and what drives lethal violence at the local level. In what has become a mosaic of regional conflicts, circumstances matter and have to form the basis for effective policy.

Officials will thus need to understand not just the armed groups that are fighting but also the politicians and businesspeople who are aligned with them and the resources they are all fighting over. They will also need to get a handle on how to make control of these resources less profitable by alerting consumers about goods that come from criminally tainted supply chains, whether gold being purchased in Canada or avocados in the U.S.

Mexico’s government also has to invest more, with the support of the U.S. and other international partners, in social and economic programs that can divert vulnerable young people who might be drawn into the armed groups.

Likewise, it should step up efforts to provide youngsters with ways out of armed groups through demobilisation programs. Transitional justice mechanisms could also help communities come to terms with their fraught pasts and interrupt years-long cycles of revenge killings.

The focus for these efforts should be those regions where conflict is most intense, and that account for the bulk of Mexico’s violent deaths and displacement. Bold policies introduced by past and current administrations have often foundered as a result of indiscriminate application of one reform model to many different settings.

Concentrating resources and efforts on regional intervention plans that have been devised on the basis of close study of local conflict dynamics would be a better way to make progress, even if the gains appear on the surface more limited.

Even with these changes, there will still be a role for the use of force in managing these conflicts, but that role will be different than it is today. Security forces might be used to support the foregoing initiatives and their beneficiaries, who would likely be targets of violent attacks and criminal co-optation.

They might also be deployed to deter brazen criminal aggression against those local populations whom data show to be most vulnerable to displacement and other abuses. But while the state would continue to employ force where needed, it would no longer be the primary and only tool for rooting out insecurity.

Finally, key to the success of any new initiative to staunch lethal violence in Mexico will be a push to clean up the institutions charged with protecting the public from crime, and that for decades have been riddled with collusion and corruption. Various criminal operators have told Crisis Group that “reaching agreements” with police and armed forces commanders is routine.

These understandings depend on security institutions such as the armed forces remaining largely self-governing and impervious to oversight. To develop a more reliable group of officials to carry out the policies described above, the government will need to introduce transparency and accountability mechanisms throughout the security forces and to give them teeth through external watchdogs.

Which brings us back to Washington. To be successful, any solution to Mexico’s conflicts will require backing from the U.S., which would be well advised to rethink, and ultimately overhaul, the militarised approach to law enforcement it has exported to Mexico.

The U.S. government, in championing, designing, financing and, in effect, imposing the war on drugs on its neighbour, hoped it could purge the country of the corrosive social, political and economic impact of the narcotics trade and bring greater stability to the region.

Since the late 1960s, it has invested in this vision, pouring wave after wave of U.S. taxpayer dollars – billions all told – into the effort. But while U.S. resolve was enough to persuade Mexican leaders to go along with this scheme, reliance on iron-fist militarisation has proven a failure.  It is time for Washington to grasp this hard truth and change its course. If it wants to see peace across its southern border, it must support Mexico in moving away from the war footing that has spawned so much conflict.


This story was originally published by International Crisis Group, You can find the full report here.