Beyond the Arab Awakening: Research panel links food security and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa

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Beyond the Arab Awakening: Research panel links food security and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa

© IFAD/Marco Salustro

El Shohada village, Mahmud Abd Al-Aziz (24) lead a donkey cart during the carrots harvest.

ROME, Italy, 23 January 2012 – As popular discontent swept across much of the Arab world over the past year, some observers were puzzled. “How is it,” asked the World Bank’s World Development Report 2011, “that countries in the Middle East and North Africa could face explosions of popular grievances despite, in some cases, sustained high growth and improvement in social indicators?”

Last week, experts from IFAD and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) took a stab at answering that question in a panel discussion at IFAD headquarters. Their observations were based on early results from a three-year research project, co-funded by IFAD and IFPRI, examining the nexus of rural development, food security and conflict.

The study’s initial phase covers 24 “Arab-plus” nations, comprising all the members of the Arab League plus Iran and Turkey. The panellists emphasized that it is a work in progress and said the presentation was, in part, an opportunity to solicit feedback from colleagues who brought their own expertise to the table.

Those caveats aside, the researchers’ preliminary conclusions were provocative. While conditions vary from country to country, they said, indicators of well-being in the region are not as positive as official figures suggest. What’s more, Arab nations may be exceptionally vulnerable to conflicts associated with food insecurity and poverty.

A proxy for poverty

Given the severe rates of youth unemployment and rising commodity prices in many Arab states, there’s little doubt that economic grievances triggered at least some of the unrest they’ve experienced. Yet the official statistics issued by governments show a steady decline in poverty amidst economic growth.

At the panel discussion, IFPRI research analyst Perrihan Al-Riffai presented evidence that the government data may be flawed and incomplete. To set an accurate baseline for analysis, she explained, the IFPRI researchers have selected a proxy for official poverty figures. Rather than income, they’re looking at the rate of stunting among children under five – because stunting is a clear marker for vulnerability and food insecurity at the household level.

“The nutritional indicator is more comprehensive than the poverty indicator,” said Al-Riffai. “It really paints a different picture. When we plot the nutrition-growth relationship, we find that the Arab-plus countries are not doing as well as the rest of the world in reducing poverty through economic growth.”

This analysis matters, Al-Riffai and other panellists argued, because reliable data provide the only sound basis for evidence-based budget and policy decisions that will reduce poverty and promote stability.

Risk of food insecurity

The figures on child stunting also shed new light on food insecurity in the Arab world. Based on the proportion of revenues that each country spends to import food, the researchers found that the risk of food insecurity ranges from “low” to “serious” across the region. When the child-nutrition data are factored in, however, the risk shifts toward “alarming.”

Three countries in the Horn of Africa – Sudan, Somalia and Yemen – are among those registering the highest risk. And the rural poor are the most vulnerable population overall.

As IFPRI senior researcher Clemens Breisinger pointed out, investments in agriculture usually reduce poverty more cost-effectively than any other form of development. Yet smallholder farming has not thrived in the Arab-plus countries. In fact, farming is no longer the main source of income for the region’s poorest rural households, who now earn more than 80 per cent of their income from non-agricultural activities.

“Agriculture is globally the most pro-poor sector, but not in the Arab world,” said IFPRI senior researcher Clemens Breisinger. “There are some serious issues of growth not reaching the poor.”

Links to conflict

Another panellist, IFPRI senior researcher Jean-François Maystadt, went on to highlight some of the links between lagging agricultural development and conflict.

In general, said Maystadt, periods of political transition heighten the risk of violence between groups within a society, and recent events around the Middle East and North Africa surely seem to verify that point. More broadly, he said, the Arab world faces an ongoing risk of conflict stemming from myriad factors. These include weak institutions and a demographic ”youth bubble,” as well as dependency on oil exports for foreign exchange.

In some places – such as Somalia, the subject of a case study by the research team – climate change also fosters conflict by depriving rural populations of their traditional livelihoods.

But in many Arab countries, the disconnect between overall economic growth and persistent rural poverty may be the most inflammatory factor of all. “Rising food prices increase food insecurity,” said Maystadt, “and this increases the risk of conflict.”

Basis for investments

These finding suggest that a broad-based approach to food security, focused not only on agricultural development but also on stimulating the wider rural economy, could mitigate the risk of future conflicts in Arab nations. More study is needed to determine which policies will have the greatest impact.

To that end, the IFAD-IFPRI project team will supplement its initial research with visits to IFAD programmes and interviews in the field. In addition, the team will use its newly developed Atlas for Rural Development and Conflict, a comprehensive digital database, for further analysis and modelling. Their on-going work will concentrate mainly on Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Ultimately, the goal of the research project is more practical than academic. “It will give us a more quantified and empirical basis for our investments,” said IFAD Country Programme Manager Omer Zafar. Over time, informed by solid research, those investments should make a real difference in rural lives across the Arab world.

Perrihan Al-Riffai, IFPRI research analyst, explains why alternative social indicators such as child nutrition can provide a clearer picture of poverty in the Arab world than official figures issued by governments.

Jean Francois Maystadt, IFPRI senior researcher, describes three factors that are important to understanding the links between conflict, development and food security in the Arab world.