Why Is the Middle East hungry? Blame armed conflict

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Related tags Egypt

Armed conflict and revolutions have halted and in some cases reverse progress made by Middle Eastern and North African countries in reaching the UN’s development goals. 

According to the 2016 Global Food Policy Report​, released by the International Food Policy Research Institute, one of the biggest challenges for region is the disruption caused by conflict on fragile food systems. 

However, despite the challenges in recent years, the region can improve if major conflicts subside, leaders create a business-friendly environment conducive for job creation, and invest in the safety nets and technology needed to promote food security. 

The region has huge potential, including a young and dynamic population, but for people and countries to prosper the vicious circle of conflicts and food insecurity has to be ended​,” said Clemens Breisinger, head of IFPRI’s Egypt strategy support programme in Cairo. 

According to the report, some of the most food insecure countries in the world can take steps toward a future with less hunger and violence. These include aggressively seeking consensus among warring countries’ leaders, ending subsidies in Egypt, strengthening safety nets to help the very poor, and increasing transparency in policy-making and data availability. 

The report cites Egypt as one of the bright spots in the region as its government has continued to reform subsidies and strengthen food assistance programmes. By boosting the dietary value of subsidised food, expanding technology in the distribution process, and initiating a new food waste reduction project, the country has a good chance to reduce the number of food-insecure Egyptians, the report said. 

Yet countries with “alarming​” food security at national level—measured as their dependence on food imports relative to foreign currency earnings—include Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and Yemen. Djibouti is the only country in the region that suffers under “extremely alarming​” food insecurity. 

According to the report, the number of undernourished in the broader Near East and North Africa region doubled between 1990 and 2015, while the prevalence of undernourishment increased by 30%

In 2012, more than 7.4% of the region’s population lived in “extreme poverty​”—defined as an average daily consumption of US$1.25 or less, and living on the edge of subsistence. Researchers estimate that the number of people in this group has likely risen in recent years. 

More than one in five children in the region are too short for their age in 10 Arab countries, and in Djibouti, Egypt, Kuwait, Somalia and Syria, progress is actually slowing down. Against this backdrop, the region is home to some of the highest obesity rates on the planet, where an estimated 45% of adults are severely overweight. 

Speaking at a meeting of agriculture ministers, UN secretary-general Jose Graziano da Silva called for bigger efforts in resource mobilisation in the region to overcome the challenges posed by political instability and insecurity.

"We need more support from the rich countries in the region to better assist themselves and their neighbours​," he said. 

He added that they how had a “great opportunity to reflect on how to move forward to overcome the many challenges ahead not only to mitigate impacts but to set the foundations for post-crisis recovery​”.

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