Analysis & Opinions - Agence Global

Adding Hunger to the Middle East Crises

| Sep. 02, 2008

GENEVA -- If you think the Middle East is already a source of trouble for itself and the rest of the world in the form of violence, extremism, refugees and illegal immigrants, hold on tight, because rougher days are ahead. Discussions with researchers and executives of leading international organizations, as I have just had during a working visit to Geneva, unambiguously reveal the problematic position of the Middle East region amidst the complex, interconnected stresses the world faces.

The crisis of food prices and availability, in particular, may be the straw the breaks the back of many camels -- in this case vulnerable states and societies. Communities and some countries could slowly unravel in years to come, under the combined, cumulative stress of five simultaneous crises:

- Higher prices and curtailed availability of basic foodstuffs;
- Higher energy prices that will raise the cost of almost every other service or product we buy;
- Increasingly scarce and poorer quality water;
- Population growth rates that outpace the economy's ability to generate new jobs for a disproportionately young citizenry; and,
- A national environment characterized by political crises, active wars, intermittent terrorism, and low-quality governance that is increasingly dominated by security agencies and considerations.

The added degenerative factors of the continuing battle with Israel and the arrival of Western armies on a semi-regular basis make things worse in the short run. The new food crisis provides that fractional added amount of gloom that will cause people who heretofore have coped with their four other ailments to enter a psychological environment of helplessness and despair. 

Ordinary people can weather political strife, war, water shortages, energy stress and low incomes, but they will not endure passively if they cannot reasonably feed themselves.

This will be a problem in many Arab quarters outside the small oil-rich Gulf states and the 10 percent wealthy, elite who populate the region. The food and nutrition situation is actually satisfactory now, except for Yemen, Sudan, and pockets of malnutrition elsewhere. UN-FAO data indicates that around 13 percent of Arabs are undernourished, which is below the global average of 14 percent.

The problem is that there is little room to absorb more stress in most family budgets. The Arab world is highly vulnerable to food price increases, for both structural and policy-related reasons. Our region imports 50 percent of its food needs and is thus highly vulnerable to price and supply difficulties. Agricultural patterns tend to favor wealthy commercial food importers and traders, rather than farmers who produce food. 

The Arab world lacks credible, equitable, efficient safety nets to cushion the vulnerable and the poor. The capacity of Arab governments to address the looming threat is miniscule, because much of the region's current vulnerability reflects policy incompetence at a very high level over many years.

Researchers predict that food prices on average will continue to rise for some years, given the known causes of recent price increases -- globalized supply and demand factors, fuel costs, speculation, and policy decisions. They will eventually stabilize, and could decline again, given how supply-and-demand economics works; but the coming years of high prices have to be navigated and endured if we hope to emerge standing on our feet when reasonable food prices return.

The troubling implications for the Arab region are a more intense struggle for basic life-sustaining resources, and an aggravation of the slow state fragmentation and occasional collapse that have defined the region since the mid-1980s. Non-oil-producing states and government authorities will slowly contract to serve their own employees, cousins, patrons and clients. Larger and larger segments of society will be left to obtain their basic needs from groups that step up to fill the spaces that states vacate.

Non-governmental organizations, tribal groups, militias, religious societies, and sectarian or ethnic organizations will play more important roles in all sectors of life -- providing basic human needs, security, representation, identity and opportunity. The private sector, criminal syndicates, foreign donors, international relief groups, and neighborhood charitable societies will plug many service gaps. 

Hungry, thirsty and weary of repeatedly winning the gold medal of dysfunctional statehood, some Arab states will continue to fray at the edges and fragment from the center. They will regain solvency and integrity when their own people redefine an internal balance of power that provides the combination of legitimacy, credibility, and efficacy in public authority that is often lacking today. The food crisis will not in itself cause all these likelihoods, but it will speed them up.

There is an alternative, though. Responsible Arab officials could avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, address this crisis before it strikes, and come up with policies that serve all citizens equitably for a change. For once, can we ask our Arab policymakers for some competence? If they do not respond responsibly, and rely on the usual combination of police power, foreign aid, and negligence, some of them are likely to lose their states along with their jobs.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami.“Adding Hunger to the Middle East Crises.” Agence Global, September 2, 2008.