Food insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a growing challenge. Even before COVID-19, UN agencies estimated that over 55 million of its population of 456.7 million was undernourished. The pandemic, protracted conflict and other factors make hunger more common. In 2020, MENA’s share of the world’s acutely food insecure people was 20%, disproportionately high compared to its 6% share of the population.
The situation is worse where there is conflict, such as in Yemen and Syria. The UN estimates the number of Yemenis afflicted by food insecurity reached 24 million – ~83% of the population – in 2021, with 16.2 million needing emergency food. The war in Syria has had devastating consequences: over 12 million Syrians are food insecure, an increase of 4.5 million in 2020 alone.
Added to this, half of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon were food insecure in 2020, up by 20% from 2019. Refugee populations are especially vulnerable: according to the Food Security Information Network, a quarter of the 0.7 million Syrians registered by the UN in Jordan are in immediate need.
Iraq has also seen a rise in food insecurity, caused by intermittent conflict and fluctuating global oil prices, with over 4 million Iraqis today needing humanitarian help. In Lebanon, food insecurity has mainly been driven by hyperinflation.
In the Maghreb, Egypt, and Djibouti, the number of people who were food insecure was stubbornly stable before the pandemic. Food insecurity is thought to have risen since, with the recent increase in poverty in the region – the effects of the pandemic threaten to push another 16 million people into extreme poverty.
We remain very concerned: The region is having to contend with structural challenges that make feeding a growing population particularly difficult. The first is climate change; an increase in the frequency of extreme weather and higher temperatures is affecting local agriculture. Half of the population of MENA already lives under conditions of water stress; with the population expected to grow to nearly 700 million in 2050, per capita water availability will be halved. 2020 also saw one of the worst desert locust outbreaks in over 23 countries, including Yemen and Djibouti, affecting livelihoods and food security for millions of people.
The second challenge facing our region is the population growth rate itself, the highest worldwide, and the growth of urban areas, with 66% of people expected to be living in cities by 2030. Agriculture productivity rates are not keeping up with population increase, with the exception of Egypt, where productivity gains are above the world average.
The third challenge is diet and nutrition. We are exceptionally dependent on food imports, especially of wheat and other staple grains. Half of MENA’s food is imported, rising to 90% in Gulf Cooperation Countries. One third of the calories people consume are wheat products subsidized by governments. Between a quarter and one-third of the region’s adult population is obese.
Our food system is failing to support people’s health. The food provides calories but insufficient nutrition. As a result, people suffer from the double burden of malnutrition, both stunting and obesity.
Nearly half the children in Yemen and one-third in Djibouti are underweight for their age, with long-term consequences on their individual cognitive development and the economic trajectories of their countries.
So, what can we do to reverse these dire trends in food insecurity?
One intervention will be to reduce risks related to MENA’s high dependence on food imports, which means countries having to manage economic risks related to fluctuating food prices. Governments can reduce commodity price volatility, stabilize their budgets, and add predictability to the cost of food imports by using instruments designed for commodities’ markets and hedging.
Improving the efficiency of importing food and storing it helps manage risk as well. Egypt, for example, is modernizing its food import control framework, piloting a risk-based system with its National Food Safety Authority, where categories of food with a documented history of food safety compliance are less likely to be delayed for sampling on arrival at its borders and more likely to be cleared.
Domestic agriculture and food can be engines of economic growth, creating jobs for entrants to the labor market. MENA can regain its ancient leadership in agricultural innovation by investing in the cutting-edge practices and technologies responsive to a changing climate, such as hydroponics, conservation agriculture, and the safe use of treated water.
It is also well-positioned to use digital technology in the agri-food sector and develop novel financial models to leverage private investment in agriculture if public spending and other policies on it are revisited by governments. Development interventions are needed to support farmers to adopt more productive, sustainable systems resilient to drought, floods, and other risks.
There is plenty of scope to improve the quality of agricultural jobs and make the region’s agri-food sector more attractive. We see this in Morocco, with training in entrepreneurship and climate-smart practices. In Yemen, the World Bank is funding projects that deliver immediate support through cash-for-work programs and the provision of nutritious food but also build long-term resilience by restoring agricultural production and value chains.
Social protection measures, such as safety nets and food aid programs targeted at the most vulnerable remain key to making sure food is affordable, especially in emergencies.
We cannot—and should not—fail to see the current crisis brought on by the pandemic as a golden opportunity to build stronger, more inclusive systems that deliver healthy food and better jobs and make more sustainable use of MENA’s scarce natural resources.
Ferid Belhaj is the Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa region at the World Bank Group.
Ayat Soliman is the Regional Director for the World Bank Group's Sustainable Development Department for the Middle East and North Africa region.