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Disparities in the Arab Region: Hunger Doubles, Indebtedness Triggers, Recovery Uneven

Tents and makeshift shelters at an IDP camp in Yemen. Credit: UNICEF/Alessio Romenzi

MADRID, Jan 12 2022 (IPS) - The panorama is bleak: hunger in the Arab region continues to rise, with more than 90% increase since 2000, while indebtedness is growing, and the economic recovery is tenuous and uneven.

The 2021 Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition shows that the number of hungry people in the region reached 69 million people in 2020, “triggered by protracted crises, social unrests and exposure to multiple shocks and stresses such as conflicts, poverty, inequality, climate change, scarce natural resources and the economic repercussions associated with the recent COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to the report, nearly one-third of the Arab region’s population, – or 141 million people – experienced “moderate or severe food insecurity” in 2020, a more than 10 million increase from the previous year.

Barely four out of the major Arab oil producers (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait), enjoy an income that allows them to overcome the worsening hunger crisis in the region.

The other 18 Arab countries –some of them are also oil and gas producers, like Algeria, Iraq, and Libya– are facing "health, food and nutritional insecurities."

The Arab Region includes: Algeria; Bahrain; the Comoros; Djibouti; Egypt; Iraq; Jordan; Kuwait; Lebanon; Libya; Mauritania; Morocco; Oman; Qatar; Saudi Arabia; Somalia; Sudan; Syria; Tunisia; the United Arab Emirates; Yemen, as well as Palestine. Their combined population totals nearly 450 million inhabitants.

Barely four out of the major Arab oil producers (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait), enjoy an income that allows them to overcome the worsening hunger crisis in the region.

The other 18 Arab countries –some of them are also oil and gas producers, like Algeria, Iraq, and Libya– are facing “health, food and nutritional insecurities.”


Sharp contrasts

In the case of Yemen, for example, with 30 million inhabitants, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is as low as 19 billion US dollars, compared to the United Arab Emirates (10 million inhabitants), with its GDP amounting to 100 billion US dollars, that’s over five folds that of Yemen with just a third of population.

Another example is the case of Saudi Arabia (33 million inhabitants), with its GDP reaching 700 billion US dollars, compared to Egypt (102 million inhabitants), whose population tripling that of Saudi Arabia, but with just one third of its GDP amounting to less than half of it: to 280 billion US dollars.


Conflicts cause hunger for 53 million-plus people

Conflicts continue to be one of the leading causes of hunger in the region, with approximately 53.4 million people facing hunger in countries and areas affected by conflict, which is more than six times higher than in non-conflict countries, says Abdulhakim Elwaer, FAO’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa.

“There may be no visible improvement in the situation this year since hunger’s primary drivers will continue to drag the situation further down the road.”


Under-nutrition; over-nutrition

The coexistence of under and over-nutrition is a double burden that many families, communities and countries in the Arab region have to shoulder, especially for children under the age of five, according to the report, which informs that in 2020, 20.5% of children under the age of five are stunted and 7.8% are wasted in 2020.

“Childhood overweight remains a high public health problem in the region, exceeding the global average of 5.7% and reaching 10.7% in the region,” Elwaer adds.


Child malnutrition; adult obesity

According to the FAO’s Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa, the Arab Region is not only struggling with child malnutrition but also with adult obesity.

The prevalence of obesity among adults has been increasing steadily in the region since 2000, reaching 28.8% in 2020, which is more than double the global average of 13.1% and ranks the region as the third most obese in the world, following Northern America with 36.7%, and Australia and New Zealand with 30.7%.


Uneven economic recovery

Meanwhile, a World Bank study reports that almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is tenuous and uneven.

“The performance of each of the region’s 20 economies depends on its individual exposure to oil-price fluctuations and how well it is managing the pandemic. Thus, forecasts for an average regional GDP growth rate of 2.8% in 2021 and a brighter 4.2% in 2022 if the pandemic recedes mask individual country differences.”

The study goes on saying that on top of its tragic human toll, the global health crisis of 2020/21 has shown the extent to which economic performance depends on pandemic control, “with MENA economies among those paying the price for decades of under-investment in public health.”

“Indeed, most MENA countries entered the pandemic overconfident and ill-prepared to cope and vaccination rates too will affect their economic recovery. Again, the outlook is uneven, with richer nations ahead of the field.”


Vaccine inequality

By early December, the United Arab Emirates had the world’s highest fully vaccinated population at 90%, while Yemen only fully vaccinated 1% of its population, according to the study, which adds that a more equitable rollout of vaccines across the region is “essential” for recovery.

“In parts of MENA, political instability, fragility, and conflict compound the challenges faced as governments try to handle the pandemic. In Lebanon, economic collapse has had a catastrophic impact on public utilities and people’s livelihoods. In Yemen and Syria, continued armed conflict has combined with the pandemic to plunge the countries deeper into crisis”.


Much Uncertainty

MENA’s modest economic recovery follows a contraction of 3.8% in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020, 0.6 of a percentage point higher than predicted in April that year.
“Overall, the region is facing a tenuous recovery, and one with much uncertainty, with the estimated cumulative cost of the pandemic in terms of GDP losses amounting to almost 200 US billion dollars by the end of the year.”

According to the World Bank, GDP per capita—often considered a more precise measure of the standard of living—conveys an even more sobering message. A projected increase of 1.1% in 2021, after a drop of about 5.4% in 2020, has left real GDP per capita 4.3% below its 2019 level.
Substantial Borrowing

The substantial borrowing that MENA governments have had to incur to finance emergency expenditure on health and social welfare has increased government debt dramatically.

“Average public debt in MENA countries is forecast to decline from 56.3% to 53.6%, while in the developing oil-importing countries, public debt-to-GDP is forecast to rise from 90.4% to 92.3% in 2021, as fiscal deficits remain large” concludes the World Bank.


Rapid accumulation of public debt

Parallelly, the accumulated cost of the pandemic is estimated to top 227 billion US dollars by end of 2021, according to another World Bank’s report.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-standing development challenges in the Middle East and North Africa region, “contributing to a rise in poverty, a deterioration of public finances, an increase in debt vulnerabilities, and a further erosion of trust in government,” warns the report.

The World Bank’s latest regional economic update report details the “economic devastation” of the COVID-19 pandemic to date, the long-term ramifications of the resulting explosion in public debt, and the difficult choices governments will face, even as the public health crisis abates.


More spending, more indebtedness

The need to keep spending — and keep borrowing — will remain strong for the immediate future. MENA countries will have no choice but to continue spending on healthcare and social protection as long as the pandemic continues, according to the World Bank.

“Consequently, in a post-pandemic world, most MENA countries may find themselves stuck with debt service bills requiring resources that otherwise could be used for economic development.”

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