By Rebecca Hersman and Sarah Minot

Humanitarian catastrophe is becoming commonplace – part of a new normal in which fragile governments, violence, and conflict now too often co-exist with large-scale humanitarian crises.

In 2016, the world faced the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis since World War II – 4.8 million refugees and 6.6 million IDPs (internally displaced persons) from the conflict in Syria alone. Now, less than one year later, extreme hunger and famine is ravaging Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and northwest Nigeria as more than 20 million people face the threat of starvation and famine.

Drought and other natural conditions have played a role, but for the most part we have mankind rather than Mother Nature to blame.

This crisis reflects the humanitarian consequences of violence and fragility. Weak and fragile states not only fuel conflict and instability but also promote a cascade of other security challenges – terrorist safe-havens, international crime, malign influence of regional powers and even health and humanitarian disasters.

Fractured authority, ongoing violence and limited capacity not only spawn these crises, they also hinder effective responses by the national governments and the international community.

Yet, as these crises escalate the United States and the international community may have little choice but to engage and intervene to prevent further deterioration. Unfortunately, the devastating famine spreading across East Africa may be the next crisis that can no longer be ignored.

So if traditional approaches won’t work, or at least can’t work in time, what is to be done?

A new report by the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies examines how the United States can work within the constraints of fragile environments to address pressing security threats and objectives and meet urgent security and humanitarian needs.

The study defines and characterizes operating environments based on gaps in authority, security and capacity that emanate from state fragility and identifies key tools that allow the U.S. government to operate effectively in these environments when responding to national security crises or challenges.

The report focuses on five functional security imperatives – humanitarian emergencies, terrorism and violent extremism, great power aggression, health security crises, and international criminal violence – and illustrates each imperative through regionally or subnational defined operating environments – namely, Syria-Iraq, Libya, eastern Ukraine, West Africa, and Mexico, respectively.

Even though each crisis is unique, there are overlapping challenges and recommendations for operating that cut across security imperatives.

These commonalities can be used to develop response tools and mechanisms tailored for current or future crises, like the famine spreading through Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria.

It’s not clear how long the world can watch and do nothing. This crisis is not just a humanitarian disaster; the implications are far greater. The confluence of violence and fragility combined with the unfolding humanitarian dimension of the crisis is cascading instability throughout the region, weakening already unstable central governments, fueling the fragmentation of authority, and feeding terrorist safe havens. The complex and violent region makes it exceedingly difficult for the United States and its partners to reach vulnerable populations.

These states cannot absorb the shock of major events, natural or manmade, without risking a broader systemic collapse. The U.S. has a significant security interest in addressing the rapidly spreading humanitarian crisis to prevent further destabilization, and to supplement ongoing military and development investments in the region.

The affected region is characterized by fractured authority, active conflict, and extremely weak economic capacity. National governments in Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia do not maintain control or authority over their territories.

Active conflict permeates the region – civil wars rage in Yemen and South Sudan while Nigeria and Somalia face active insurgencies from Boko Haram and Al-Shabab. Infrastructure and basic services are not available to vulnerable civilian populations, and the ongoing conflicts obstruct access to basic services for much of the populations.

The hunger crisis illuminates long-term challenges shaping the international community. The growing scale, complexity, and duration of crises are taxing the international system both at the point of service and the periphery.

The frequency and duration of these crises are stretching available human and financial resources at both the national and international levels. Political fragmentation, weak state institutions, and corruption pervade throughout the region leaving areas with fractured or no central authority and limited governmental willingness or ability to provide basic services to populations.

Intentional targeting of humanitarian and health workers has occurred in all the countries affected by the food crisis. International laws and norms designed to protect civilians and preserve humanitarian access have collapsed as the severity and frequency of attacks against civilians, health workers, and health facilities have increased.

Delivering aid and assistance places workers at extreme risk and limits the number of international actors that are operating in the areas of greatest concern.

Despite these significant challenges, there are areas of opportunity, key tools and steps that can be taken to offset or circumvent operational challenges and offer pathways for responding to the crisis. Resources are obviously key but money alone won’t solve the problem. The greatest challenge is delivering and getting resources directly to the problem.

There are several pathways for mitigating the broader access challenges.

Go local. The U.S. and international humanitarian actors involved in the response must utilize local partners to gain access to communities and provide space for negotiating aid provision. The U.S. and international actors must work with community leaders and authority structures to negotiate agreements for delivery.

Leverage regional leaders. Strong regional actors like Ethiopia and Kenya can provide platforms for regional initiatives and points of departure for delivery of assistance. The U.S. can also leverage partnerships and relationships through counterterrorism initiatives to pressure uncooperative national and local governments, and assess and identify areas most at risk.  

Get the right experts on the ground. Unconventional and local experts such as anthropologists and regional experts can help enhance communication with local populations and possibly open avenues for assistance and negotiation of access agreements with authorities outside of central governments.

Build better bridges between security and humanitarian sectors. The cross-border, multisector nature of the crisis requires a more coordinated and holistic response across military and civilian efforts to effectively address the multiplicity of challenges in the region. The security and humanitarian sectors in the region must coordinate to ensure safety of aid deliverers and share key information on rapidly changing conflict dynamics on the ground.

Coordinate, Coordinate, Coordinate. These types of crises require a whole of government approach closer to the crisis that looks across the entire region. The U.S. needs a DART-like team to not only address food insecurity in one country, but to fuse responses across the region.

These types of crises are not going away, and they do directly impact U.S. national security interests. Success depends on adapting and expanding the traditional toolbox.


Rebecca Hersman is Director, CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI), and Senior Adviser, CSIS International Security Program

Sarah Minot is Research Associate and Program Manager, CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI)


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