March 9 2011

Food security: Worrying situation in North Africa and Middle East region

Food security definitively is a challenge in the North Africa & Middle East region. The first victims are children and families living in poverty - with long-lasting effects on their health and development. It is also blamed for the unrest unsettling many countries in the region. At present, SOS Children's Villages is facing food prices in 'danger territory'.

Photo: Joris Lugtigheid
Photo: Joris Lugtigheid

Worldwide, there is growing concern over another possible full-blown food crisis only three years after the last one. When international food prices start climbing, the Middle East, among other regions, was especially vulnerable. In the past two decades, the region has been shaken three times by waves of food rioting, most recently in 2008 when prices spiked higher. Now, prices are climbing again; and higher prices are partly to blame for the social and political unrest that unsettled many countries in the region with major demonstrations in Algeria, Jordan and Sudan - without mentioning the downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regime also triggered by grievances over prices of food.

The Sahel countries and particularly Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal are also among those most-threatened by food deficit according to the UN list published in January 2011. The world situation is combined with the persistent effects of 2009 and last year's food crisis and flooding in northern Burkina Faso and north-eastern Mali in August and September 2010. Rice and wheat are very important as part of daily diets and these three countries import sizable amounts of rice. Dependency on international markets is high and with the worsening of the crisis in Ivory Coast, the entire region is holding its breath.

Bread and rice is so essential it also translates into meaning life. The popular bread is one of the few items those living in poverty can afford. But rising food prices has put even bread out of reach for many. The risk is in having poor families have to spend up to 75% of what they earn on food, with prices going up further; the direct result is that children are at risk of becoming malnourished. It also means that parents are unable to afford medical care or school fees anymore. Food price increases are likely to increase poverty in the short run, with the poor in urban areas and the rural landless falling on hard times. Long-term it is highly dramatic for the most vulnerable, including small children and pregnant women.

Policies of local government are being implemented, yet full scale crisis is looming

Faced with hunger rioting, some countries decided to damper the effect of the jump in food prices with across-the-board price controls or generalized subsidies: In January, Algeria has decided to cut the cost of some foodstuffs and to increase the amount of soft wheat it supplies to the local market each month by 18 percent. Jordan announced a $225 million package of cuts in the prices of some types of fuel and of staple products, including sugar and rice. Morocco introduced a compensation system for importers of milling soft wheat aimed at keeping prices stable. In Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, their farmers now get guaranteed prices for staple and industrial crops, as well as a large gamut of input subsidies but this imposes a heavy fiscal burden on the countries. Since the last crisis, many strategies were launched to support farmers in boosting productivity and home-grown harvest. Still, it is a struggle in many countries of the region.

Impact on daily life of SOS families

Photo: SOS Archives
SOS mother is cooking the meal for her children (Kita, Mali) - Photo: SOS Archives
Burkina Faso

"To be active and healthy, children need to have sufficient and nutritious food. To families, this means to be able to afford food. Now this is a concern", says an SOS mother from SOS Children's Village Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. "Every week I buy rice, sugar, milk, oil pasta and eggs, sometimes meat and fish. Now I need more money for my weekly food basket and I have to deprive the children of very nutritious food: children now have eggs four times a month compared to eight times not so long ago. The price of a plate of 30 eggs has increased by 65%, prices of maize and sugar by 45%. As milk powder almost doubled, milk was also removed from the afternoon snack. Children only get it for breakfast. Children noticed it and come up with questions: I try to explain what is going on." Burkina Faso is a landlocked country - geographically in the Sahel - where child malnutrition in very poor families never really stops and where the lasting effects of the 2009 crisis have not completely vanished yet.

The story is along the same lines at SOS Children's Villages Ouagadougou in the north of the country: children eat fish and fruit less often. For budgeting reason, this means that outings for entertainment have been cut back on, too: from time to time, children used to go to the Faso Park, a playground for children; that will not be the case for sometime; of course, they say they'll miss it. The SOS family strengthening programme in Bobo-Dioulasso helps in reducing the impact of food price inflation in all areas, namely education and health. There is also a regular specific contribution of cereals. Families - organised in an association - now get together regularly to discuss the price issue and do small contributions to support each other, like buying in bulk. In Bobo-Dioulasso, starting with the crisis 2008/2009, donations of rice, meat and maize decreased considerably and finally stopped in 2010, while in Ouagadougou the canteen received a large donation in beans and couscous.

Photo: SOS Archives
The situation is also tense in Sudan (SOS Children's Village Khartoum) - Photo: SOS Archives
Here is what the accountant of the national office of SOS Children's Villages Burkina Faso had to say on this: "On top of the sharp rise of food utilities, prices have also gone up with electricity, gas and petrol. Travelling by bus from Ouaga to Bobo now costs 6, 000 CFA Francs, while it used to be 4, 000. A 150% rise is a lot. And even if there is more breeding in the north and east of the country, meat becomes more expensive because of transport. And since a lot of food comes from Ivory Coast, due to the political unrest there, prices are going up even more: a litre of cooking oil - mostly coming from the neighbouring country - has increased by 30% between November 2010 and January 2011. This makes things difficult to sustain."


In Senegal, it is pretty much the same situation: "Look", says SOS mother Maty in Kaolack, "I cook traditional meals for the children, all of them contain rice, from thiébou diène, yassa, domada, thiou, mafé and also kandia soup. This is difficult to change. I try to bargain a little more and look for an economic diet. The crisis was huge three years back, but now it is not only cereals, but also all prices rising, from tea and coffee to sugar and oil." In many villages, in order to maintain the quality of education and medical care for children, family budgets are adjusted namely when it comes to clothing expenses.


Treats like cakes, chocolate and fruit are over and out in Jordan. An SOS mother from SOS Children's Village Irbid, in the north of the country, tells us that prices for sugar, maize and chicken have increased by 30% and bread by 10% (because it is subsidised). Petrol and electricity are also up by 10%. Youth who have reached to age of being able to understand it learn that the economy worldwide is very much connected and listen to explanations on the importance of water resources and sharing food.

Photo: SOS Archives
Lunch at the SOS Social Centre in Imouzzer - Photo: SOS Archives

In Morocco, the government compensation programme delayed the impact of international food prices and the surge in oil prices on households. But climate change is a reality: this winter, rains were both delayed and reduced and when it rained, record flooding - when compared to the past 30 years - left its mark on the two grain producing regions, the Sousse and the Gharb. While prices of wheat are compensated for, too, vegetable prices have also soared. SOS Children's Villages Morocco decided to focus on school meals, concentrated in locations with food insecurity with high poverty levels as a safety net mechanism and an incentive to maintaining the enrolment of girls and boys in schools. Since October 2010, more than 80 school children have received lunches and afternoon snacks at the canteen of the SOS Children's Villages family strengthening programme in Imouzzer Kandar, a Middle Atlas mountain town with large pockets of deep poverty. Oftentimes, these children would not have had anything to eat in the evening and would not have done their homework as there was no light - wood and electricity are too expensive. Now they do their homework at the SOS Family Centre with an educator. A similar programme also operates at the SOS family strengthening programme in Imzouren in the Rif Mountain up north.


In Egypt, 50 % of the very poor eat onion and bread at the best of times. In the long run, this is not the most nutritious food. Today, some just cannot afford milk power, having experienced a 125% price increase, one litre of milk costing around $10. Baby milk is unaffordable to many. To make it less expensive, it is sold mixed up with flour, with infants ending up malnourished, which impacts on their development and health. Prices for sugar increased by 100% and for bread by 200%. An egg costs 1 Euro. Soaring food prices eat up a poor families' budget, making them even more vulnerable. Faced with this, even the SOS family strengthening programmes have to carefully consider when deciding on taking on additional children at risk to participate. But for how long could it go on that way?

Reasons for severe effects on North Africa, Middle East and the West of Africa

Photo: SOS Archives
A shopkeeper from Lebanon - Photo: SOS Archives
Middle East is a region where increased occurrences of water shortage are decreasing cereal harvest. These are countries where any tiny drop of water has a role. With an agricultural sector limited because of water supply scarcity, limited and even diminishing arable land and climate change, the region is particularly vulnerable to food price shocks. Combined with some of the highest rates of population growth in the world (1.9% much higher than the world rate of 1.2%), they are large food importers and many have to rely on imports to meet about 50% of their food needs. Wheat is Middle East's most popular foodstuff. According to the Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development, "today Arab countries are the largest importers of cereal in the world - more than 58 million metric tons in 2007 - and most import at least 50 percent of the food calories they consume." The region is highly exposed to international prices. The number of "food-insecure" people has been increasing in the region.

Moreover, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal, along with Sudan and Egypt, will be amongst the possibly worst-hit by soaring food prices because they combine low income and a high recorded level of their food import on most common foodstuff, says the FAO low-income food deficit countries (LIFDC) review in January 2011.

Response of SOS Children's Villages

In 2008/2009, SOS Children's Villages was not isolated from the food crisis. To protect every single child in care from the consequences of the soaring prices of mainly cereals, SOS Children's Villages took a closer look at the most hard-hit countries and implemented specific food programmes in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Tunisia. This was aimed at helping children living in the SOS Children's Villages, SOS mothers, youths, families from the family strengthening programmes and all children attending SOS Schools and Kindergartens.