INTERVIEW: Conflict, climate change and inequalities major causes of world hunger

May Atta , Thursday 15 Jun 2023

In an interview with Ahram Hebdo, Abdul-Hakim Elwaer, Assistant Director General UN FAO Near East and North Africa, says hunger and malnutrition are pressing issues in Arab countries, stressing net-food importing countries, such as Egypt, should increase sustainable agricultural production to reduce heavy reliance on imports.

Abdul Hakim Elwaer
Abdul Hakim Elwaer, Assistant Director General UN FAO Near East and North Africa at FAO


Ahram Hebdo: •More than 900,000 people around the world are struggling to survive in famine, this number is ten times higher than it was five years ago. What are the primary causes of famine in the world during the past five years?

Abdul-Hakim Elwaer: The number of undernourished people jumped from 573.3 million in 2017 to 735.1 million in 2022 (a 28.2 percent increase), considering the middle of the projected range. The number of severely food-insecure people increased from 623.8 million in 2017 to 900.1 million in 2022 (an increase of 44.3 percent).

Conflict, climate extremes, and economic shocks, combined with growing inequalities, are the primary drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition worldwide and in the Arab region.

These drivers are pushing up the cost of nutritious foods, which, combined with low incomes and other shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, are increasing hunger and malnourishment. We must transform agrifood systems to build resilience against these drivers and future shocks.

AH: Which countries in Africa and the Middle East suffer most from hunger and malnutrition and why?

AW: World hunger decreased slightly from 9.3 percent in 2021 to 9.2 percent in 2022. However, undernourishment in the Arab States continued its growing trend and remained well above the world average in 2022 (12.9 percent).

Conflict-hit countries have the highest hunger in the region. Somalia had the highest prevalence of undernourishment level: almost every second individual (48.7 percent) suffered from hunger, followed by Yemen (34.5 percent) and the Syrian Arab Republic (27.8 percent).

In 2020, the measures implemented to contain the COVID-19 pandemic sent the Arab countries (except for Egypt) into an economic downturn, widened inequalities and worsened food insecurity.

Furthermore, given the scarcity of natural resources for food production, the region depends heavily on importing agricultural products, which makes it vulnerable to international commodity markets, supply shocks and price inflation.

Many countries in the Arab region heavily depend on imported foodstuff and fertilizers from the Russian Federation and Ukraine, including wheat as a staple food.

•AH: For many years, Sudan has been considered a potential food basket for many countries. How has the war negatively impacted food security in these countries, especially Egypt, the Arab Gulf countries, and Sudan itself?

AW: Pre-2011, Sudan was traditionally seen as Africa's ‘bread basket’. In Sudan, 73.5 million hectares are suitable for agriculture, and the average area sown currently is approximately 26 million hectares. The country’s crop portfolio is diversified, and the land in the country is suitable for animal husbandry.

However, Sudan has been facing a deepening political and economic crisis following the secession of South Sudan in 2011. Food insecurity was already at a high level before the recent armed conflict started in April 2023 due to the economic downturn, high inflation, drastic deterioration of purchasing power, natural hazard-induced disasters, and other climate-related shocks.

Between 2020 and 2022, moderate or severe food insecurity was 51.8 percent in Sudan. In 2022, the number of people in Phase 3 and above during the lean season was estimated at 11.7 million. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that an additional 2 to 2.5 million will become acutely food insecure in the coming months because of ongoing fighting.

Gulf countries have a clear interest in having stability in Sudan since a stable Sudan with a well-functioning and effective agriculture sector could enhance food security in the whole Near East and North Africa (NENA) region significantly.

AH:• How does the Ukraine war affect global hunger and can the end of the war solve this problem? 

AW: The Russian Federation and Ukraine are among the most important producers of agricultural commodities worldwide. Before the crisis, the two countries supplied 30 percent and 20 percent of global wheat and maize exports, respectively. Furthermore, the Russian Federation is a world-leading exporter of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous fertilizers.

The disruptions to agricultural exports caused by the war in Ukraine have exposed global food and fertilizer markets to heightened risks of tighter availabilities, unmet import demand, and higher international prices. Many countries highly dependent on imported foodstuffs and fertilizers, including several countries in the NENA region, rely on Ukrainian and Russian food supplies to meet their consumption needs.

Ending the war could positively affecttional food and input prices and their volatility. Meanwhile, countries should maintain and reinforce social safety net programs to protect the most vulnerable against price shocks and restrain from implementing export restrictions. In addition, the Black Sea Initiative should be prolonged.

•AH: High food prices and the strong US dollar are a double burden for developing countries, especially in Egypt. What should be done about this issue?

AW: The FAO Food Price Index averaged 124.3 points in May 2023, down 22.1 percent from the all-time high it reached in March 2022. However, international food prices remain high compared to their 2019–2021 levels.

Since the dollar is the main currency for international trade, its appreciation increases the final price in local currency that people pay for imported food. As it becomes more expensive to buy US dollars, it also makes it harder for net food-importing developing countries to buy food. Therefore, the effect of the exchange rate plays a pivotal role in raising food import bills, contributing to inflation, loss of purchasing power, and food insecurity.

In the short term, targeted social protection programmes must be strengthened to shield vulnerable households against food price shocks. Furthermore, FAO’s proposal for a Food Import Financing Facility would provide emergency financing for countries facing urgent challenges related to balance-of-payments and the global food crisis.

International markets should be kept open, and unjustified and unnecessary export restrictions should be avoided; international aid should be provided for countries at risk of hunger and famine. The Black Sea Grain Initiative has helped decrease global grain prices; thus, the initiative should be prolonged. In the longer term, agrifood systems must become more resilient to increasing shocks and stresses.

Key to building the absorptive capacity of agrifood systems to shocks is the diversification of food sources, the diversity of actors in food supply chains, robust transport networks, and the affordability of a healthy diet for all households. Net-food importing countries, like Egypt, should increase sustainable agricultural production to reduce their heavy reliance on imports. Agricultural subsidies should be repurposed to support healthy diets and the environment.

AH:• What is the role of private finance in Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) Technology Innovation especially in Africa and the Middle East?

AW: Increasing the resilience of agriculture in Africa and the Near East against the growing risks of climate-change-induced shocks requires more resilient agrifood systems, including designing and implementing climate change adaptation measures, such as scaling up climate-smart agricultural practices.

Investment in sustainable agriculture in developing countries is often beyond the investment mandate of most private investors as these investments entail risks, involve high transaction costs, and have small ticket sizes. These constraints lead to insufficient bankable projects and underinvestment in agrifood systems.

This finance gap will only increase because of the additional capital required to transition to more sustainable practices. Successful agrifood systems transformation requires private capital financing at scale. Thus, it is imperative to use blended finance and other de-risking solutions to reorient investments. FAO will address the role of innovative financial solutions in transforming agrifood systems at the 2023 World Investment Forum, which will be held from 16 to 20 October 2023 in Abu Dhabi.

•AH: Today, one person out of three suffers from malnutrition, and many organizations worldwide are calling for action to achieve sustainability in food. What is FAO's definition of sustainable development, and what are the steps to achieving the sustainable development goals?

AW: In 2022, 29.6 percent of the world population was moderately or severely food insecure and 13.1 percent of the world's adult population was obese. In 2021, more than 3 billion people could not afford a healthy diet.

FAO’s vision for sustainable food and agriculture is a world where food is nutritious and accessible to everyone and where natural resources are managed to maintain ecosystem functions to support current and future human needs.

In September 2015, the World leaders meeting in New York agreed to seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), setting out overall objectives and specific targets that should be fulfilled by 2030 at the latest. Among these, SDG 2 committed governments to “end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”.

Five specific targets set out the level of ambition of SDG 2 in particular areas> These areas include ending hunger; ending all forms of malnutrition; doubling the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers; ensuring sustainable food production systems; and maintaining genetic diversity.

AH: FAO collaborates with countries to cope with water scarcity and other problems to improve food security and eradicate hunger and malnutrition. What is the nature of that collaboration with Arab and African countries, especially Egypt?

AW: The mission of FAO in the Near East and North Africa is to achieve sustainable food security for all and to help vulnerable communities cope with and recover from shocks and crises.

To do this, FAO helps Member States work toward sustainable increases in agriculture production, minimize depletion and degradation of already scarce natural resources, boost rural development, and reduce food loss and waste.

Under the "Transforming food systems to achieve the SDGs” framework, member countries have identified four significant priorities for FAO to focus on in the NENA region.

Priority 1: Rural transformation and inclusive value chains; Priority 2: Food security and healthy diets for all; Priority 3: Greening agriculture, water, scarcity, and climate action; Priority 4: Building resilience to multiple shocks.

Short link: