February 6—Poverty and income inequality rates in the Arab world are higher than official numbers have suggested. Food security and poverty are particularly closely linked in Arab countries due to high vulnerability to food-related external shocks, including food price volatility, natural disasters, increasing water scarcity, and conflicts.
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report “Beyond the Arab Awakening: Policies and Investments for Poverty Reduction and Food Security” used innovative research methods and diverse sources of data to show a more realistic picture of the food security situation in the region and to prioritize policy areas for reducing poverty.
Food security poses a serious challenge for the Arab region due to high dependency on food imports exacerbated by global price volatility, diminished capacity for generating foreign exchange to pay for imported food, rising food demand driven by continued high population growth, and limited potential for agricultural growth due to severe water constraints and water resource management challenges.
Officially, less than 20 percent of the population in the Arab region lives under the $2/day poverty line, but income-only measures can be misleading. Child undernutrition rates, an alternate and arguably more comprehensive measure of food security, are high and have not decreased with GDP growth to the same extent as other regions in the world. In some cases, such as Egypt, undernourishment of children has increased over the past eight years. Child undernutrition is measured by the percentage of children younger than five years of age who are stunted. In the Arab region, one in five children is stunted, and the prevalence of child undernutrition in countries like Sudan, Comoros, Somalia, and Yemen is considerably higher, with rates around 40 percent or greater.
“As food security was one of the triggers of the Arab Awakening, finding policy responses to food insecurity is particularly important for policymakers in Arab countries,” said Clemens Breisinger, IFPRI research fellow and lead author of the report. “Given the high levels of growing dissatisfaction of people in the region, urgent actions should be taken.”
The report offers three key policy recommendations: 1) improve data and capacity for evidence-based decisionmaking, 2) foster growth that enhances food security, and 3) revisit the allocation and efficiency of public spending.
Improve data and capacity for evidence-based decisionmaking
The region’s food-security progress is significantly slowed by a lack of reliable data. Poverty estimates only exist in half of the Arab countries and there is no common food security indicator in the region. The report proposes that countries should develop and improve the availability, accessibility, and quality of data to allow for accurate, evidence-based decisions for the wellbeing of the region’s economies and people. It also suggests that existing data, such as household surveys, social indicators, national accounts, and consumer prices should be made available in a timely fashion.
Foster growth that enhances food security
Fostering economic growth is fundamental to enhance enhancing food security. Governments must encourage export-led growth to improve food security at the national level and generate foreign exchange revenues that allow food imports. Improving food security at the household level requires inclusive growth that generates income and jobs for the poor in both rural and urban areas.
Revisit the allocation and efficiency of public spending
Even though governments in the Arab region spend more (as a share of GDP) on their citizens than anywhere else in the developing world, the efficiency of this spending should be assessed. “Public investments in agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, and social protection are most critical for reducing poverty and improving food security,” said Shenggen Fan, IFPRI’s director general. Because education spending is much less effective at reducing poverty in the Arab region compared to the rest of the world, countries should institute education system reforms to address relevant job market needs and skill gaps.
During this time, when the level of dissatisfaction among the region’s people is high and growing higher, there is an urgent need for strategic policies that address constraints to food security. Successful design and implementation of these strategies will require visionary leadership, sound laws and institutions, politicians who are accountable and listen to the voices of the people, and a civil society that is patient and accepts the tenants of democracy.
The report will be launched at the conference “Food Secure Arab World: A Roadmap for Policy and Research” co-organized by IFPRI and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia held in Beirut on February 6–7, 2012. For more information on the conference: http://fsaw2012.ifpri.info/.
To read the full report: http://www.ifpri.org/publication/beyond-arab-awakening
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) seeks sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty. IFPRI is one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an alliance of 64 governments, private foundations, and international and regional organizations. Please visit our website at www.ifpri.org.
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