Urgent policy actions needed for food insecurity in Arab world – IFPRI

An International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) research fellow and lead author of a new report “Beyond the Arab Awakening: Policies and Investments for Poverty Reduction and Food Security”, Clemens Breisinger, has stated that “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.”

His statement, which was contained in a press release from the institute, added, “Given the high levels of growing dissatisfaction of people in the region, urgent actions should be taken.”

Meanwhile, according to the release issued by IFPRI on February 6, 2012, poverty and income inequality rates in the Arab world are higher than official numbers have suggested, while 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.

In view of this, the researchers 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 prioritise policy areas for reducing poverty, the IFPRI release said.

IFPRI also believes 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.

That notwithstanding, available statistics indicate that officially, less than 20 percent of the population in the Arab region live under the $2/day poverty line, though income-only measures can be misleading.

The institute also states that child under-nutrition rates, measured by the percentage of children younger than five years of age who are stunted, which is 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.

It adds that in some cases, such as Egypt, undernourishment of children has increased over the past eight years, while in the Arab region, one in five children is stunted, and the prevalence of child under-nutrition in countries like Sudan, Comoros, Somalia, and Yemen is considerably higher, with rates around 40 percent or greater.

The report however offers three key policy recommendations, which are the improvement of data and capacity for evidence-based decision-making, fostering of growth that enhances food security, and revisiting the allocation and efficiency of public spending.

Improvement of data and capacity for evidence-based decision-making

Under this recommendation, 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.

Fostering of growth that enhances food security

Stating that fostering of economic growth is fundamental to enhancing food security, the report suggests governments must encourage export-led growth to improve food security at the national level and generate foreign exchange revenues that allow food imports.

It opines that improving food security at the household level requires inclusive growth that generates income and jobs for the poor in both rural and urban areas.

Revisiting the allocation and efficiency of public spending

Lastly, the report says 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.

Shenggen Fan, IFPRI’s director general, for his part, inputs that “Public investments in agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, and social protection are most critical for reducing poverty and improving food security.”

The report however adduces that because education spending is much less effective at reducing poverty in the Arab region as 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 IFPRI stated.

By Edmund Smith-Asante

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