Economic Security: Protecting lives, preserving livelihoods

In addition to the very real human cost, war unleashes economic hardship, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations. Armed conflict impacts people’s ability to feed, clothe, shelter and protect their families from harm.

Despite the severe drought, a woman saves up her food to feed a lamb milk from a bottle in an internally displaced persons camp in Somalia.
What is economic security?

We at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) define economic security as the ability of individuals, households or communities to cover their essential needs sustainably and with dignity. This can vary according to an individual's physical needs, the environment and prevailing cultural standards.

How do we define food security?

Food security means that all the people in an area at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their preferences and dietary needs for normal growth, development and an active, healthy life.

Economic security

Nowhere are the consequences of poverty and the global food crisis felt more acutely than in countries already facing humanitarian crises, especially those torn apart by decades of warfare or instability. Conflict and crisis are characterized by the destruction of infrastructure, displacement of populations and, almost inevitably, economic instability. People’s lives and livelihoods – their means of earning an income – are often heavily disrupted.

Food insecurity has a devastating impact on civilian populations already affected by war and conflict – many of whom are displaced from their homes and communities. Going hungry exacerbates the physical and emotional toll of conflict. Right now, millions of people around the world are struggling to feed their families because of war, conflict, climate change and shocks to food, energy and financial systems. 

Meeting the challenge of economic insecurity head-on

At the ICRC, we recognize that the hardships that civilians experience during armed conflict take them to the very limits of their coping mechanisms. We work to combat food insecurity and provide emergency relief and longer-term livelihood support to the people who need our help – particularly those in the grip of armed conflict or other crises. Our humanitarian initiatives to help support communities in these situations are multi-faceted, taking into account the many factors that contribute to economic instability, hunger and malnutrition in each individual crisis situation. We seek to establish whether people affected by different kinds of conflict can cover their essential needs by monitoring several key livelihood outcomes. Does their diet meet nutritional requirements? Is food readily available? Can they earn an income to cover their expenses? Do they have shelter to protect their family from the elements? If the answer to these questions is “no”, we step in to help.

Preventing harm and reducing risks

Our economic security programmes are designed to reduce risks and protect people affected by armed conflict and other violence. Strengthening economic security keeps livelihoods afloat, reduces drivers of displacement, maintains social support systems and mitigates risk factors related to sexual violence, access to education and family separation. 

Humanitarian aid

We work to provide immediate relief to people affected by conflict, ensuring they have safe access to food, shelter, medical assistance and other essential needs. This can help prevent them from falling deeper into poverty and help reduce the severity of their circumstances in the short term.

Access to food in a crisis

We help people affected by food insecurity to access nutritious food, particularly those who have been displaced from their homes or who are living in areas that are difficult to access. This may include distributing food parcels, providing hot meals or supporting community kitchens, or providing financial assistance so that people can purchase food locally.

Preventing and treating malnutrition

We seek to prevent malnutrition by working with communities to improve access to and the availability of nutritious food and optimizing nutrition practices, especially for the most vulnerable children, expecting and nursing women and people deprived of their liberty. As the causes of malnutrition go far beyond the food that is consumed, prevention includes close collaboration with other essential services including water, sanitation, health care and education. When levels of malnutrition are high, we will work to treat acute malnutrition - also known as wasting – through specialized services at health centres or hospitals.

Livelihood support activities

We provide financial and material support and skills training to people in urban and rural areas, including farmers, small business owners and individuals in regular employment. This can help communities get back on their feet again after crisis, building self-sufficiency and reducing their reliance on humanitarian aid.

Agricultural support

We work with local communities to support agricultural production to improve food supply chains and as an income source for families. Our aid varies from providing seed and equipment (or the financial assistance to purchase them) to training farmers in climate-smart methods to increase their yields and improve the quality of their crops, supporting seed banks and cooperatives, and working with ministries of agriculture to improve seed quality and seed systems more broadly. 

Livestock support

We support livestock owners by providing veterinary care such as vaccination, treatment and breeding services, fodder and other resources to help them maintain their herds and ensure a steady supply of food. We work closely with community animal health workers and ministries to facilitate access to animal health services in areas affected by armed conflict.

Advocating for improved services

We know that the important work needs to go on after we leave, so we build up the capabilities of key local institutions so they can invest in the infrastructure that supports people’s jobs and livelihoods, such as functioning markets and financial services. This work also includes access to other essential services like water, health care and education. We combine these activities with livelihood support programmes for maximum impact.

Water and sanitation

We work to ensure that people have access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities, which is essential for preventing malnutrition and other health challenges.