Eleonora Mattiacci
Photo by Joshua D. Kertzer

Food Fights

What made you look for this connection in the first place?

My field of study is international security, basically war between and within countries. A booming subfield tries to understand how climate change can bring about violence. My co-authors and I had a hunch that state governance must have an impact too. We decided to look at the effect of state vulnerability on violent uprisings in Africa from 1991 to 2011. It’s one of the continents most affected by climate change. It’s also one where we see an increase in the frequency and duration of civil wars.

Your study cited 21 factors in the link between hunger and violent unrest. How did you manage such complexity?

There were so many hours of computing! From the beginning, we thought about both food insecurity and governance as multifaceted. We looked at factors like disruption to patterns of temperature and rainfall, or a sudden change in international food prices. And we used the Polity Score, an index widely used in political science, which assigns a number to countries depending on certain factors, such as freedom of electing an executive, freedom for parties to form, etc. One end of the scale is full democracy. The other end is full autocracy.

How critical is good governance in mitigating the effects of food scarcity?

We found that capable governance is an even better guarantor of peace than good weather. For instance, under comparable times of food insecurity, the probability of violent unrest in Kenya was four times higher than in Ghana, which had a more effective government. The issue of governance is so important. It’s not just your economy. It’s also the types of institutions you have to run that economy, how reliable they are. Stabilization and coherence can really help in moments of crisis.