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Conflict, refugees and food insecurity in the Arab region Vito Intini
05/03/2015
Conflict, Refugees and Food Insecurity in the Arab Region
 
Vito Intini
 
Conflict has a direct and indirect effect on food security, undermining it through various channels. Its direct effects are numerous – the destruction of infrastructure and machinery; death of livestock; razing of farm land,; and blocked access to markets for producers, distributors, and consumers. Indirectly, conflict discourages productive investment in agriculture, thereby reducing the availability of food. It strips government of tax revenues that prevent the establishment of social safety nets which promote food security. The political and economic ramification of conflict beyond its geographic borders is an important indirect effect as well, which is manifested in refugee migration and the deterioration of regional investment climates.
 
Food insecurity is both a source and a result of conflict. Various drivers of conflict have been identified by researchers, including poverty (Miguel, Satyanath, and Sergenti, 2004; Blattman and Miguel, 2010); underemployment of youth (De Soysa et al. 1999; Collier and Hoeffler, 2004; Taeb, 2004); inequalities in income, access to land and natural resources (Auvinen and Nafziger, 1999; Stewart, 2000; Macours, 2011); population pressures (Ostby et al., 2011), geographic characteristics , the presence of natural resources (Dube and Vargas 2013; Maystadt et al,. 2013), and poor governance (Collier and Hoeffler, 2004; Fearon, 2010). Weak governance systems, in particular, imply that there are few mechanisms through which conflicts can be preempted and managed and there are higher costs associated to collective actions, which in turn, results inhigher risks of violent outcomes.
 
More recently, food insecurity has been identified as a source of conflict, especially in the presence of certain concurrent economic and social features such as stunted economic development; high horizontal (among groups) inequality; and the presence of a “youth” bulge (Brinkman and Hendrix,2011; Pinstrup‐Andersen and Shimokawa, 2008). In particular, increases in food prices have been found to strongly exacerbate the risk of political unrest and conflicts (Arezki and Brückner, 2011; Bellemare, 2011). For example, food riots often occurred as a response to higher food prices in Egypt during the 1970s and in Jordan and Morocco during the 1980s and 1990s (McDermott, 1992; Walton and Seddon, 1994; Adoni and Jillian, 1996). More recently, the 2007–2008 global food crisisreportedly sparked rioting in 48countries. Shortly before the Arab awakening, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco saw demonstrationsover food in 2008 (The Economist, 2012). Food insecurity might have played a role at the onset of the Darfur crisis.
 
In practice, however, food insecurity, particularly in the Arab region, acts as a “threat multiplier” by adding pressure to populations already suffering from underdevelopment, marginalization, repression or a history of conflicts. Consequently, while food insecurity has historically not been the central source of conflicts in the region, providing greater food security – as a part of effective poverty reduction programs - could well be a source of conflict mitigation.
 
 
In recent years, six Arab countries and territories have faced episodes of armed conflict and political violence that have directly affected food security: Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, the Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The situation has proven to be particularly severe at various points in Palestine, the Sudan and Yemen, where food insecurity is at times systemic. As the result of the ongoing conflict, Syria is steadily shifting from acute to systemic food insecurity.Iraq has experiencedsevere problems at various points that presently have been deteriorating further. Lebanon is now confronting an unprecedented humanitarian disaster originating from the Syrian crisis. Other countries in the region such as Jordan are now experiencing increased exposure to food insecurity as a result of the Syrian crisis.
 
The relationship between conflict, food insecurity and poverty is very strong across the region. In Yemen, Sudan, and Syria farming represents the main livelihood of the majority of rural populations. In Yemen, inflation as measured by CPI rose by 22.7 percent - heavily driven by rising food prices- in 2011 at a time of particularly high political instability compared to 10.5 percent in 2010. An even more extreme pattern became evident with the Syrian crisis in 2012, at 32 percent, and arguably in 2013. Such rises in food prices were exacerbated by transportation and distribution disruptions due to security concerns and decaying physical infrastructures. In Sudan, the 2014 first quarter prices of sorghum and millet increased by over 100 percent from the baseline of the last 5-year average due to significant supply side issues as well as depreciation of the Sudanese pound as well as the recent lift of fuel subsidies.Indeed, in Sudan, almost 30 percent of total food costs were estimated to be spent on checkpoints and in transportation costs. Small traders are affected disproportionally. Millet and sorghum prices in Darfur are reportedly among the highest in the whole country. Food prices in Iraq are set to rise dramatically due to the severe security deterioration of the last few weeks. Also in some of the countries affected by the Arab uprisings, inflation has picked up as it is the case in Egypt where year on year inflation was above 18 percent in December 2013.
 
As a result, food insecurity levels in Yemen reached 45 percent of the population in 2011 from 32 percent in 2009, and in 2013 hovered around 42 percent in addition to 47 percent of malnourished under-5 children. In Sudan, the levels of food insecurity are even worse than Yemen and have been deteriorating in the recent past. In addition, preliminary evidence of poverty levels in many countries affected by the uprisings point to a deteriorating trend as evidenced by a WFP report on Egypt according to which 25.2 percent of the population was under the poverty line in 2011 compared to 21.6 percent in 2009.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees often face the most extreme food insecurity, as is demonstrated by examples from Palestine, Sudan, and Syria. In some cases, governments and/or insurgents have hindered the deployment of humanitarian operations in conflict zones thereby worsening the situation for local civilian populations and hence increasing the number of IDPs and refugees. According to 2014 UNHCR data, the region is the source and host of over half of the world’s officially registered refugees - 8.8 million out of a total of 16.7 million - and about 40 percent of the world IDPs – about 9.7 million out of around 23.9 million worldwide. Almost half of the refugees are children. The Syrian crisis alone has created around 2.5 million refugees and displaced around 6.5 million people. In just a matter of weeks in June 2014, the Iraqi crisis displaced more than one million people. The outlook for 2014 suggests a further increase of refugees and IDPs in the region. With 17.8 percent of the population officially registered at UNHCR as refugees, Lebanon has the highest ratio in the world. If one includes non-registered refugees, mainly Palestinian refugees, in the calculation, the ratio approaches one-fourth of the population. With 8.8 percent, Jordan is ranked second worldwide based on UNHCR data.
 
 
 
 
Humanitarian assistance has increasingly moved towards building resilience in conflict-affected areas. For instance, WFP has introduced vouchers while expanding market-based assistance in Darfur and among the Syrian refugees in Jordan (here through the recent introduction of e-vouchers). This is particularly important given that food aid represents the bulk of total aid received in many humanitarian emergencies in the region, such as Sudan.
 
In many of these settings, one common pattern seems to be an erosion of governance, at least as it is perceived by the general population. For instance, in Yemen, confidence in most state institutions is below 40 per cent according to a 2011 Gallup survey. The military and religious organizations enjoy higher levels of trust. Weak governance systems may allow communal conflicts to escalate to civil conflicts, as in the case of Darfur and Iraq, particularly when governments are seen to take the side of a specific communal group.
 
Food security programs need to aim at strengthening resilience of local communities and national institutions. This can be achieved through the following principles for policy and program intervention:
 
i) Start with a fair, candid assessment of thepolitical economy
ii) Design simple programs with clear and measurable results
iii) Focus on building the capacity of national institutions (including local communities and civil society organizations)
iv) Monitor and analyze direct and indirect impacts of policy and program interventions
v) Focus on programs that have strong inter-sectoral linkages.
 
In conclusion, the region shares many common threats and future challenges, including climate change, spillovers from conflict, depletion of natural resources, migration, desertification and economic modernization. Hence, the generation of new economic opportunities and of food security must come from within the region. However, the Arab region has one of the lowest levels of regional integration in the world. In addition to conflict, this can be attributed to the absence of investment into regional market development. Physically, it lacks logistic infrastructure in order to connect markets. Institutionally, it lacks the common
policy framework that would reduce transaction costs. Areas for such investments exist in regionally funded supranational development programs that finance agricultural modernization projects, trade integration and new financial instruments. First, regional solutions to regional problems will guarantee that the region has the ownership over the solution. Secondly, the region’s voices, concerns and problem-solving ideas are more clearly heard in the development of the solutions. Thirdly, institutional capacity is built in the region. But in order to move on closer regional coordination, key governance reforms based on participation, accountability, transparency, and rule of law will be crucial.
 
Vito Intini, Chief of Economic Governance and Planning Section, ESCWA
 
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