A United Nations report shed light on the progress made by countries in the region in achieving the second sustainable development goal pertaining to eradicating hunger, achieving food security and eliminating all forms of malnutrition.
Issued on Thursday, the report, “Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition 2020,” suggested that the prospects for food security and nutrition in the region were likely to deteriorate due to the massive economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to an increase in the number of vulnerable people, who are unable to adopt healthy and balanced diets.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, AbdulHakim Elwaer, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa, said that food insecurity and malnutrition constituted a “serious challenge”, noting that the Arab region was still off the right track to achieve the second of its sustainable development goals, which is the eradication of hunger.
“The state of food insecurity and malnutrition in the region is a serious challenge, but we cannot call it a tragedy, firstly because it has clear causes that led to the conclusion that the Arab region is still off the right track required to achieve the second goal of the sustainable development goals,” he said.
Elwaer explained that in the past decades, food insecurity, especially malnutrition, clearly increased in the region for several reasons, the most important of which is the ongoing conflicts.
“It is important to realize that the economic challenges in the region and the state of economic and political instability in many countries contribute significantly to the deterioration of the situation and keeps us away from achieving the goal of eliminating hunger,” the FAO official emphasized, adding that the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic have further exacerbated the conditions.
The report predicted that the number of people affected by hunger would reach 75 million by 2030. This forecast may worsen with the ongoing pandemic.
Elwaer said that in the Near East and North Africa region, 5 million Syrians in 2020 were dependent on aid from the United Nations World Food Program. Moreover, Lebanese workers are now competing with the Syrian labor force for jobs in the agricultural sector, which increases unemployment and poverty in rural areas, and thus weakens the access to food.
In southern Yemen, reports indicated that 29.8 million people suffered from acute food insecurity in 2020 due to violence, in addition to the socio-economic conditions that prevailed before the conflict.
Asked whether the FAO had urgent initiatives, in cooperation with other partners, to help the most threatened countries and address the situation, Elwaer said: “It is certain that all UN organizations and programs are constantly working hand in hand to achieve the sustainable development goals by 2030, and this applies to the UN’s endeavor to help the most affected countries to restore their path to achieving them.”
He added that FAO was one of the organizations that was leading global and regional efforts to achieve food security, improve nutrition and develop the agricultural sector. The organization has announced several initiatives, including “Hand-in-Hand”, which aims to accelerate agricultural transformation and sustainable rural development under the leadership of member-states.
Asked whether the most threatened countries could solve their economic crises through technical or material support, Alwaer replied: “I see that the factors that affect economic crises are very complex, and they are interrelated and depend largely on the stability of the political situation and the state of food chains at all geographical levels. But the role of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is effective and is based on decades of institutional experiences and human competencies in helping countries advance the agricultural, food and sustainable development sectors in general.”
The FAO official emphasized the need for an urgent change in “our current diets and consumption patterns to combat the nutritional problems affecting more than two billion people around the world.”
In this regard, the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025) is an unparalleled opportunity for countries and their partners, he underlined.
He noted that the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition was in its fifth year, but the available data showed obstacles that must be addressed urgently, in order to allow countries and partners to achieve the goals of the program, by intensifying efforts and increasing investments in the field of nutrition.
“We work in continuous coordination with partners in the region, for example the Arab League and its subsidiary organizations, and we take into account the nature of the economic and political situation of each country separately,” Alwaer explained.
On the contribution of Gulf states to the various FAO programs, he said: “The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council make large voluntary contributions to the various programs of the United Nations and the Food and Agriculture Organization in particular.”
“The FAO program in Saudi Arabia is one of the largest technical cooperation programs in the world,” he continued, adding: “In 2019, FAO signed a six-year program worth USD 93 million aimed at enhancing the production, processing and marketing of Arabica coffee, beekeeping, fruit cultivation, fish and livestock breeding, and cultivation of rainfed crops in the country, to become one of the largest resource partners of the organization and the largest contributor in the Near East region.”