As leaders at the G-8 summit highlight the importance of food security for global stability, Ibrahim Shaqir, an interagency professional in residence at USIP, in an interview examines this issue in the contexts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and how agricultural systems might contribute to peacebuilding.  

G-8 Summit Focuses on Food Security
Photo courtesy NYTimes

As leaders at the G-8 summit highlight the importance of food security for global stability, Ibrahim Shaqir, an interagency professional in residence at USIP, in an interview examines this issue in the contexts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and how agricultural systems might contribute to peacebuilding.

You are with the U.S. Institute of Peace on a detail from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) as part of a new initiative to bring professionals from U.S. government agencies to work on special assignment as interagency professionals-in-residence at the Institute. 

At the USDA-ARS, you work on food security issues around the world, a topic that will be discussed at both the May G8 and NATO summits and by President Obama on May 18. Briefly, what is food security, how does it relate to conflict, and what is the state of food security in Afghanistan and Pakistan?   

As the Director of the Office International Research Programs (OIRP) with the USDA-ARS, my office is responsible for establishing international agricultural research cooperation with many partner countries around the world. The majority of activities carried out by OIRP address food security, often in collaboration with other agencies.

According to the USDA, food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum (1) the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and (2) an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies).

Food insecurity contributes to conflict and instability in countries with chronic food shortage. Countries where the population spends the majority of their income on food are the most at risk of either internal or external conflict due to shortage of food. When citizens can no longer afford to buy enough to feed themselves, unrest often ensues. This unrest is typically the first sign that conflict will be imminent if drastic measures are not taken to ease the burden on citizens. 

The United States, along with other G8 nations, has called for increased investment in agriculture and rural development as a proven lever for combating food insecurity and as an engine for broader economic growth, prosperity, and stability. President Obama is expected to reiterate this commitment ahead of the May 18-19 G-8 Summit in the U.S.

The food security situation in Pakistan is not a major contributor to conflict in the country. As of now, Pakistan largely has the resources and sufficient capacity to provide enough food to feed its population.  However, Afghanistan is in a different state. Afghanistan lacks both the required infrastructure, such as a robust irrigation system, and the human capacity, through an agriculture extension service, to maintain growth in agriculture production and productivity to provide enough food to feed its population. Therefore, Afghanistan faces a greater risk to become food insecure nation. 

How important is the rural economy to stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Will the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago look at creating a sustainable rural economy in Afghanistan?

The rural economy’s growth and productivity are important elements for stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. About 70% of Afghan families live in rural areas, and the majority of people in those areas rely on agriculture for food and employment. To the extent that the rural economy provides both, it reduces conflict.

The focus at the NATO summit will be on stability and peace in Afghanistan, and economic development will be an important aspect of the overall strategy to reduce conflict. Agriculture will be Afghanistan’s main economic growth driver for many years to come. The agricultural economy is Afghanistan’s largest sector for employment and trade, and while eventually Afghanistan will need to evolve economically to be less dependent on agriculture, that will take time.

In order to ensure long-term rural growth, the Government of Afghanistan and donors will have to ensure that the human capacity and infrastructure that supports growth are well funded. Rural education and essential needs like energy infrastructure, roads, and water supply systems need to established and readily available.  

What is the focus of the Department of Agriculture in Afghanistan? 

USDA’s projects are aimed at helping Afghanistan reconstruct that physical and institutional agricultural infrastructure. Dozens of USDA experts in the field serve as part of civilian-military units led by U.S. or coalition military forces, fully integrated with the rest of the U.S. government team. 

Among many other projects, these USDA experts have helped to install windmills to pump water for irrigation and livestock, stabilized eroded river banks and irrigation canals, and mentored Afghan agricultural extension workers. USDA technical assistance has helped to construct agricultural extension centers in half of Afghanistan’s provinces, train key Afghan agricultural officials, and initiate a national system to control animal diseases. Additionally, USDA has provided roughly $256 million in food aid to Afghanistan since 2003.  

How will you and USIP work to promote peacebuilding through agriculture during your time here?

During my assignment, I will work with the Institute’s Center for Science, Technology and Peacebuilding on a project to adapt agricultural extension systems to peacebuilding and conflict management. 

The core mission of agricultural extension is to convey practical know-how to farmers, so if extension agents are to take on peacebuilding activities, they might need specialized training, as well as more resources and communications technology. But the broad reach of extension systems offers a huge possibility for conflict resolution in rural communities.

While the project is just getting started, we have organized and conducted a workshop to investigate best practices for adapting extension services for peacebuilding. Experts at the workshop identified which peacebuilding activities – like mediation, conflict analysis, and conflict sensing – could be delivered as components of existing extension services and what organizational modifications and new capabilities would be required to do so effectively.  

Land disputes can be a major cause of conflict in the wake of war as combatants return home to begin making a living. How might this be avoided in Afghanistan’s case? 

Land tenure disputes in Afghanistan have for years been one of the causes of post-conflict challenges. These disputes will continue to be a problem and will be difficult to avoid. However, finding peaceful approaches to resolving these disputes is an important step forward. USIP research has shown that in many parts of the country, the best way to make significant gains in peacefully resolving disputes is to work with community-based structures that utilize traditional systems of conflict resolution (such as shura or jirga community councils), and this should be encouraged to resolve land disputes.

In many cases, local agriculture extension agents take part in these traditional systems. Moreover, sound agricultural systems that provide economic growth and employment will contribute to peacebuilding in rural areas and the country as a whole. Once implemented, the recommendations of the Extension and Peacebuilding workshop will enhance the ability of extension service personnel to provide technology transfer and know-how to small farmers in rural areas. And with peacebuilding training, these extension agents could potentially act as trusted brokers between locals and the Afghan government, for example. This will ultimately result in improved agricultural production systems and contribute to a more stable and peaceful environment.

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(Photo: A worker sorts through raisins in a market in Gharabagh, Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, 2010.)

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