141 million people in Middle East facing food insecurity, IMF says

Those on the breadline tell 'The National' they have changed eating habits to keep from going hungry

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More than 141 million people in the Arab world are exposed to food insecurity, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, said in Riyadh on Monday, as the organisation approved a new food shock borrowing window for vulnerable countries.

Ms Georgieva said that 48 countries around the world are particularly exposed to the food crisis, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine chokes crop supplies.

"Of the 48 countries, about 10-20 are likely to be asking (for emergency assistance)," she said.

The IMF will add its voice to fight food trade restrictions in order to ease the situation and plans to fund the food shock window using last year's Special Drawing Rights allocations. the window will be open for a year for countries with urgent balance of payment needs that "are suffering from acute food insecurity, a sharp food imports shock, or from a cereals export shock."

The IMF did not mention any specific countries that would be eligible for low-condition emergency loans under the new window.

Fadhel Kaboub, Associate Professor of Economics at Denison University, Ohio and president of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity told The National the IMF could do more than just add its voice to fight food trade restrictions.

“The IMF doesn't need to add its voice to these calls, instead it can put its money where its mouth is. The IMF can increase SDR allocations for short term relief to help vulnerable countries cope with rising food and energy prices. The IMF can drop its absurd demands to make IMF loans conditional upon cuts in food and fuel subsidies and other austerity policies that force millions of people below the poverty line.”

Overnight price increases

Tunisia is one of the nations most exposed to the global food crisis. Its government is meeting with IMF officials in Washington next week in hopes of securing a $3 billion deal by the end of October.

But the IMF has signalled it will not move forward with the bailout sought by Tunis unless the government brings on board the powerful UGTT union, which says it has more than a million members and has previously shut down the economy in strikes.

The UGTT has not yet struck a deal with the government, despite making an agreement on public sector wage rises.

"When there are painful choices, we will be with our people in the front lines of the struggle and in the streets," UGTT leader Noureddine Taboubi said in a speech.

Asma, a 22-year-old engineering student in Sousse told The National that she spends about 200 Tunisian dinars a month (about 61 US dollars) on food, as well as her reliance on food stipends provided by her campus cantine.

“I’m just eating whatever to gain enough energy to get through the day, and I got food poisoning a couple of times due to the low quality of food that I am consuming, ” Asma said.

“There are some products that would undergo a price increase overnight, and there’s no state oversight on prices, which makes it harder for me to continue to afford certain things.”

Asma believes the state in Tunisia is responsible for its food crisis and accuses it of being short sighted. “Instead of spending millions of Tunisian dinars on imported goods, the state should invest that money domestically as I am sure we can produce those products locally and with better quality," she said.

Mr Kaboub said Tunisia's issue is related to a lack of foreign currency reserves.

"The government is giving priority to external debt payments to the IMF, World Bank, and international private lenders, ” he said.

“The IMF can also disburse funds from its newly created Resilience and Sustainability Trust (RST), which has 45 billion in it now.... to invest in food and energy sovereignty in the Global South.. without any of its usual austerity conditions.”

“There is no commitment from international lenders (and we should blame the Tunisian government too) to invest in food sovereignty... and energy sovereignty.... the real sources of Tunisia's external debt crisis.”

Restricting diets

In Lebanon, more than 80 per cent of the population has slipped below the poverty line since an economic crisis devastated the country in 2019. The United Nations World Food Programme says half the population is now food insecure.

It has become common for many Lebanese households to prioritise expenses over food, often skipping meals or forgoing staples to save on costs.

Such is the case for Mervat, a Lebanese homemaker who says she struggles to feed her family.

"We used to eat three times a day but now we only have one big meal a day," she told The National.

"Before, our fridge used to be filled with chicken, fruits, cheeses, yogurts... but these days our fridge is mostly empty. Most days I have to wait to see how much money my husband and son will bring home at the end of the day to know what we can afford to eat."

Mervat says her family has taken to eating more grains. She cooks mujadarra, a lentil dish famous for its inexpensive ingredients, against her doctor's advice due to kidney troubles. Her husband and son are not particularly keen on the taste of it, either.

"But these days I’m making it more and more," she said. "What can I say?"

Any household needs at least one million Lebanese pounds daily — the equivalent of $26 — for its food needs, she said.

"But who has that kind of money? Our rent was raised as a result of the economic crisis. So was our generator which is priced in dollars. We have to buy water on the black market because the government water never comes. And sometimes I have to purchase my medicine on the black market. So how can we priortise food over all that?"

Lebanon has made "very slow" progress in implementing the reforms agreed with the IMF in April, the group said after a three-day visit by its officials two weeks ago.

"The Lebanese economy remains severely depressed against continued deadlock over much needed economic reforms and high uncertainty," Ernesto Ramirez Rigo, IMF's mission chief for Pakistan, Middle East and Central Asia.

Updated: October 04, 2022, 12:30 PM
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