While hunger was on the rise in the Arab region (see figures below); Is there an issue in reporting data or measurement approach in explaining the mis-match? One would have thought that the Arab spring, given its widespread regional impact on extreme poverty, would have put an end to this discrepancy. Still, the post 2011 story on the Arab poverty-hunger nexus differs significantly according to the source one relies on. The global MDGR of 2015 for example, shows extreme poverty declining after 2011 but notes the rise in undernourishment rates in Western Asia. The State of Food Insecurity Report, which includes the revised FAO measurement methodology after 2012, however, estimates the undernourished population in Western Asia (including Syria and Yemen) at 8.4 % in 2015, declining from 8.8 % in 2012. Meanwhile reports from the WFP and even from the FAO itself in 2015 strongly contest this hypothesis. For example, the most recent FAO executive brief on Yemen estimates that 12.9 million people – close to 50 percent of the population – face Emergency and Crisis levels of food insecurity, a 21% increase since 2014. Likewise, the FAO global Humanitarian Appeals Report of 2015 makes note of the dramatic increase in food insecurity in the Arab conflict countries, particularly in Syria.
(A) Population living on less than US $1.25 a day, and (B) undernourished population in the Arab Region and by sub-region (share of total population)
Moving on to the extreme poverty data, the story is equally complicated. The global MDG report shows North Africa and Western Asia as having exceeded the target of halving extreme poverty with less than 3 percent of the population living below 1.25$ (in 2005 PPP) in 2015. However, the regional MDG report estimated that this indicator had nearly doubled since 2010, reaching 7.4 % in 2012. Moreover, in light of the escalation in conflict since the end of 2012, it may have risen to 10%. Unfortunately, the World Bank’s latest poverty estimates for developing regions based on the new poverty line of 1.9 $ per day (in 2011 PPP) excludes the Middle East and North Africa region, reportedly due to limited data coverage. Notwithstanding these results, and due to a variety of technical reasons, the idea of having a single money metric poverty line for all countries is extremely problematic and is best abandoned. The reality of extreme poverty in Arab countries is much harsher than implied by the $1.25 a day (2005 PPP) poverty rate.
If anything, this brief overview suggests an overhaul is required in both data collection and measurement approaches. A recent publication by ESCWAargues the case for a new multi-purpose pan Arab Survey. The basic premise is that the variety of surveying and measurement methodologies related to money metric and multidimensional poverty on the one hand and nutrition and living conditions on the other hand, make it nearly impossible to give a straightforward answer to basic questions such as how many extremely poor and undernourished people do we have in the Arab region. Given the intensified level of conflict, these questions are crucial for regional decision makers and for the global community in order to set national, regional and global priorities and interventions.