Publication: Food policy developments in the MENA region and future outlook

By: Hagar El-didi

The recently published 2016 Global Food Policy Report highlights how the convulsions in the Arab region have contributed to curbing progress in reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)–impeding regional food security and threatening achievement of the newly proposed SDGs.

Turbulent economic-political environments

Intensified armed conflicts in the Middle East resulted in the death and displacement of millions. According to the report, the Syrian conflict alone caused a quarter million deaths, the internal displacement of 7.6 million people the migration of 4 million others. More than 6 million of global refugees now originate from the Arab region (Figure 1). The 2015 international environment also added to the intensity of the region’s economic challenges, where diminishing oil demand decreased the price of and revenues from the region’s main export, particularly for oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC). Oil-importing countries in turn are beginning to suffer from the resulting decrease in demand for goods and services from the GCC.27498690255_7f3647338f_oInternational Food Policy Research Institute.2016 Global Food Policy Report.

Progress and retreat in MDG performance

The Arab region has previously been on track to reach most of the MDGs by 2015. Improvements in education, sanitation, child mortality rates, and maternal health are notable regionwide. However, the 2010 Arab Spring revolutions and subsequent intensified conflicts in countries like Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, halted, and in some cases reversed, progress, as their effects spilled over into Egypt, Jordan, Leb¬anon, and Tunisia. The Gaza Strip has not yet recov¬ered from the destruction of its infrastructure in July 2014 either. For example, cutting poverty, hunger, and malnutrition levels by half (MDG 1) has seen the weakest progress, with serious recent setbacks. An estimated 50 million people are still undernourished, and more than 7.4 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty as of 2012; a poverty rate above that of the 1990’s. Further, there are great dis¬parities among subregions and countries in terms of MDG progress. The report highlights that in Arab LDCs,“extreme poverty rates are estimated at more than 21.6 percent, under¬nourishment affects more than 29 percent of the total population, and more than 35 percent of children under five are underweight”.

Prioritizing food and nutrition security

Building regional consensus around the SDGs can help in addressing food security, nutrition and poverty needs, and contribute to the region’s stability. Food security and the importance of nutrition has emerged as a priority goal for the region in a recent consensus, in line with SDG 2. Report figures reflect a vulnerable situation, where national-level food insecurity remains “serious” or “alarming” in most Arab countries (Figure 2). The “double burden of malnutrition”, or the simultaneous occurrence of child stunting and obesity, is also prevalent in the region. While 45 percent of adults are severely overweight, more than 20 percent of children are too short for their age.

The report argues that improving trade and trade infrastructure, including storage, will serve as a better strategy for reaching national food security than a likely costly “food self-sufficiency at any cost” strategy. Hunger and malnutrition are often concentrated in areas undergoing conflict, thus conflict management will also be key for improving household level food and nutrition security.

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National Food Security indicator in Arab Spatial

2015 Food policy developments and future outlook

Some glimmers of hope still exist as a number of cooperative  initiatives give promising signs for future coordination in the region. For example, the Arab League launched the Climate Nexus Initiative, to support greater regional policy coherence across the SDGs. Also, the World Bank and the Arab Mon¬etary Fund launched an initiative whose key objectives include financing for small and medium enterprises as well as other links in the food-and-agriculture value chain.

For individual country developments, in Egypt the government continued its subsidy reform efforts, including cutting fuel subsidies, boosting the dietary value of the food subsidy system, introducing the transfer to smart cards for users and initiating a food waste reduction project. However, this is seen as an exception, since policymaking activity in individual Arab countries has often increased in times of crisis (for example the 2008 and 2011 global food crises and the Arab Awakening), rather than focusing on long-term sustainable development solutions. Furthermore, such policy changes are often neither fiscally sustainable nor well targeted to the poor.

Therefore, the report highlights three areas are of high priority for future intervention to improve food and nutrition security in the region:

• Peace-building through development activities at local and national levels, where there is a growing consensus on the need to prioritize food security assistance. Innovation in this regard is needed to go beyond the current emergency relief measures.

• Education and subsidy reforms to improve nutrition, where govern¬ments should focus on ending harmful subsi¬dies and strengthening safety nets to improve nutrition for the truly poor and food insecure.

• Research and improved data gathering and analysis, where sound data and information for decision-making, particularly on rural devel¬opment and food security, is key to guide in achieving the SDGs.