The Power of Knowledge: how access to information could reduce conflict and increase food security in the Arab world

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The Power of Knowledge: how access to information could reduce conflict and increase food security in the Arab world

The Arabspatial knowledge platform emerged as part of the IFAD-IFPRI partnership to promote open-access data and M&E tools for the Arab World.

Not a day passes without another news headline about clashes and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. As a tragic consequence to this, in April more than one thousand migrants from the region died trying to escape to Europe by sea. The political unrest is entwined with extreme poverty, creating a cycle of conflict, discontent and desperation.

Woven into this conflict cycle, often as both a cause and a consequence, is the lack of access to food. This is further exacerbated by climate change, spikes in global food prices and a high dependence on imports.  

An under-researched region

But how exactly do all these factors affect each other? And what is the impact of other considerations like trade, population distribution and even soil quality? The truth is that little is known. Although many countries in the region make their poverty figures publically available, they are often irregular, outdated and inaccurate. “The Arab region is the most under-researched in the world,” says Khalida Bouzar, regional director at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Without research and access to adequate and accurate information, can policymakers and development agencies make a real difference? Are countries able to ensure that their most vulnerable citizens withstand these crises and can keep putting food on the table?

They can’t concluded IFAD and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). So in 2013, together with other research organisations, they launched Arab Spatial, the first open-access, interactive atlas and data repository for the Arab world. It’s a storehouse of information that aggregates all available data on conflict, food security and rural development and then presents it visually and interactively. Users have access to more than 150 socio-economic and biophysical indicators, allowing them to customise their searches and build their own maps that visually collate and reflect the information they need. A few months ago, micro-sites on Iraq and Yemen were launched, providing a more in-depth focus on relevant indicators and data for these specific countries.

Regular site user Shahira Emara, from the Global Development Network in Cairo, says she always battled to find reliable data that reflected the reality on the ground. “Having used Arab Spatial, I know I can react instantly and decide where I need to focus my research.”  And now Emara and other researchers, decision-makers, analysts and journalists no longer work in isolation. All users can collaborate by adding information and data, and by sharing their experiences on the site’s food and nutrition-security blog.

New discoveries

Combining existing research in new, visual ways also leads to new discoveries. Researchers at IFPRI, for example, created a map of Egypt that highlighted crop value and soil quality. It showed that the highest value crops were actually grown in the areas with the most degraded soil, pinpointing an important policy issue that could have a real impact on food security and poverty.

The development of Arab Spatial is part of a larger three-year research initiative, funded by IFAD, that aims to promote innovative ways to address conflict in the region through rural development. “What we are after,” says Bouzar, “is to find out how we can apply research to development and how these research findings can be used on the ground.” 

Users of the site say that it is doing just this. “Arab Spatial is not another form of information overload,” says Emara. “It is a tool to visualise real-life problems and make sense of figures.” And with this tool, future public debate and policy dialogue can be based on relevant and accurate research, leading to real and informed change – a change that could ensure food security in the region and ultimately spare the lives of the thousands of people who make the desperate crossing across the Mediterranean every year.