Gough Report: IFPRI Conference "Food Secure Arab World"

Beirut, Lebanon: February 6-7 2012


Food Secure Arab World

Beirut, Lebanon: February 6-7 2012



General consensus and organization

IFPRI’s conference Food Secure Arab World was held to evaluate the topic of food security in the Arab World, particularly in “light of the Arab Awakening”.1 According the conference website, the goal was to encourage policy research based on evidence that would support “long-term”2 prosperity in the Arab world. A select group of participants were invited as audience members to the two-day conference, held February 6 and 7 at the UN – ESCWA (UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia) building in Beirut


The conference was organized to instruct participants on the most recent IFPRI reports followed by presentations that were primarily information sessions on IFAD and ICARDA. Secondary panels presented more detailed information on key IFPRI economic platforms like value chain efficiency and the importance of trade even after the 2007-08 food crises. In a session devoted to “Setting food security policy priorities: an international partner perspective” many panelists talked about the importance of increasing food processing opportunities in the Arab world, along with an emphasis on science and technology. When mentioning poverty the panelists and audience agreed that implementation was very difficult. But nothing further was stated on this point. The conference ended with an interactive voting system in which participants were asked to assign a value to research subthemes for the coming year. After praising the conference as multi-disciplinary, the conference facilitators asked participants to identify their discipline based on five categories. 70% of the respondents were economists (specifically economists, not agronomists).


I will summarize several key presentations from the two days, some based on specific IFPRI reports and some on other institutional reports. These excerpts reflect the three salient points that emerged from the conference and appear to be the same as those that underscore IFPRI’s policy positions and reports. The first is a belief that effectively managed, macro-level economic growth can lead to food security. The second is that trade, with some but minimal regulation, must be encouraged and is a path for countries to build upon their comparative advantages and will lead to increased growth. The final point is the goal of integrating small farmers and producers into the market economy, export-oriented production often mentioned as a possible path to this integration.


IFRPI (and CGIAR) belong to a “reformist”3 (Holt – Gimenez and Shattuck 2011) school of thought. According to this, capitalist markets can be reformed to be less socially and environmentally damaging, while still maintaining the liberalization of trade and integrating farmers into established market chains. Reformists also work to maintain the corporate global food regime through rhetorical additions to neoliberal touchstones, such as “responsible” foreign direct investment and “creative capitalism”. (Holt – Gimenez and Shattuck 2011).




Panel: Economic transformation, food security and poverty reduction

1. Beyond the Arab Awakening: Policies and Investments for Food Security and Poverty Reduction: In Arabic and English

Presented by Clemens Breisinger; Research Fellow IFPRI


Report Includes:


  • Use of the Millennium Development Goals to compare “development progress” in Arab countries with the rest of the World on the basis of data from the World Bank.4.

  • Measuring food security based on “relationship between GDP per capita growth and the incidence of poverty and prevalence of child undernutrition (stunting).”

  • Economic growth is another section of the report that traces growth in manufacturing and the service sector.

Advocates economic growth that is “pro-poor”.

“Growth has accelerated “ – but what kind of growth? Breisinger used the phrase “Decent growth” to describe Egypt and Tunisia. Based on the report, he seems to be referring to annual MaVA (manufacturing value added) per capita.5 The report does state, however, that overall economic growth does not lead to poverty reduction.6

  • Remittances: The question of how remittance flows add to a country’s macro-level food security is addressed by IFPRI through the incorporation of remittances into their determinative macro ratio. This ratio is defined as: food imports / net remittances + total exports. Net remittances are the difference between remittances received and remittances paid from a country. IFPRI uses remittance figures based on the World Bank’s World Development Indicators databank.7

  • Table 4: Public Spending by Sector8 is especially interesting for the official numbers for country spending on agriculture versus other sectors.


Policy Recommendations include:


  • Building economic free zones on the coastline of Arab countries.

  • Exporting solar energy production

  • Farms should switch from cereals to export-oriented cash crops like vegetables, the rationale being that the latter are more labour-intensive and provide more jobs.

  • Creating relevant vocational education programs that build on manufacturing-led economic growth.


“The Arab World has awakened. It is time to take the next steps”.9



2. Creating Jobs for Youth

Presented by: Imed Drine and James Thurlow; Research Fellows at UNU-WIDER.10


General Comments about Youth Employment:


  • Food Security is about accessibility: similarities between Jordan / Egypt and Tunisia

  • High rates of persistent youth unemployment in Arab countries

  • But the situations for youth employment in the Arab World vary between countries and are different enough in terms of education and gender that policies need a country-specific approach.


Tunisian Case Study:


  • Most unemployed youth are less educated

  • But unemployment rates rise with education levels

  • This implies that education and schooling are overestimated in value.


Tunisia has what they call “coastal core” and “inland periphery”. Based on this they ask:


  • Why don’t young people (especially women) move from the periphery to the core.

  • Because there is a lack of information on available jobs

  • Also the costs of migration from periphery to core are high


Authors advocate:


  • Policy of subsidized migration from periphery to core for youth seeking work.

  • Call this “Subsidized Youth Mobility”.


In the question and answer period the authors stated that the coastal areas have better infrastructure and investors prefer coastal to inland areas.




Drine and Thurlow, the authors of “Creating Jobs for the Youth” advocate governmental support to formalize the center – periphery relationship in Tunisia. While their presentation posed many questions about youth and unemployment in Tunisia they failed to ask, “Why should people move?” Is it in order to make the periphery more peripheral?


Habib Ayeb’s recent commentary11 in the Egyptian Independent on the Tunisian elections clearly delineates the center and periphery in Tunisia. What Drine and Thurlow refer to as the “core” is the area in which the rich urbanites in charge of media and economy reside. Those people living in the “periphery” include the bottom tiers of the class structure and were, what Ayeb calls, the “social engine of the revolution”. This divide is geographical, political, economic and ecological.


The IFPRI presentation was based on an explicit urban bias. The element of “subsidized migration” could be seen an implied desire to quell the social engine of the Tunisian revolution. In the question and answer session they stated that there was little time or money for inland areas. Drine and Thurlow did not refer to this lack of resources for rural areas again. They appear to be attempting to address this issue through the subsidized migration scheme for Tunisian youth.


Excluding the issue of unequal resource allocation could be seen as an endorsement for abandoning agriculture in Tunisia. A total abandonment is untenable as Dorte Verner, a World Bank economist, unintentionally stated in her presentation on “Impacts and Options for Adaptation to Climate Change”. According to the World Bank, 70% of the poorest people in the world live in rural areas. Verner did not bring this up to redress the Tunisian presentation, but the data points to the fact that not every person in rural areas will be able to move to the urban core.




Food security at the Country level

Yemen National Food Security Strategy: An Update and Directions for the Future.

Presented by Merna Hassan and Olivier Ecker; Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, Yemen. Postdoctoral Fellow, IFPRI. http://www.ifpri.org/category/country/middle-east-and-north-africa/yemen


Report based on the idea that the government of Yemen “wanted to take FS seriously”. Based on a seven point plan, but the three points highlighted in the report and the presentation are:


  • Petroleum Subsidy Reform.

1. Phase out Petroleum Subsidies but not without compensatory measures. 2. Report advocates direct cash transfers to food insecure households.

3. Public investments in infrastructure, electricity, water, transport, trade and construction.


  • Gradually Implement an excise tax for qat

1. Compensatory measures like investments to promote alternative like coffee, cereals and cash crops.

2. The position is that this would also save water.

3. Report contradicts itself by saying that the export for cash crops has increased over the last decade and this is essential an “export of water”. The export of crops like bananas benefit large-scale farmers (and, it is implied, land owners).


  • Health, Nutrition and Risk Management

  • Curbing population growth – advocates a program similar to Iran.

  • Public investment in health services

  • “Food Security Risk Management” – Investing in grain reserves. 314,000 tons of cereals would be an effective reserve.



What was not referred to in the Yemen National Food Security Strategy was that Yemen has already cut petroleum subsidies in 2005. The now ousted Yemeni president A. A. Saleh, after consultation with the World Bank and other agencies, unilaterally cut subsidies through the Ministry of Planning. Such a measure avoided any necessary voting or passage of legislation in the Parliament. As Ali Kadri’s recent article documents,12 people in Yemen organized protests in response to the measure and were met with violence from police and the army. According to news reports, thirty-six people died in the protest.13


There was no mention of this precursor to the recent uprising in Yemen at the IFPRI conference. Nor was there any mention that IFPRI’s primary partner in this report and food security strategy is the same Ministry of Planning. Throughout the conference and in this report specifically, IFPRI’s partners were always state governments and international agencies. The authors also did not address the question of food security in Yemen post-Saleh.


In this presentation as in many others at IFPRI there was a consistent allusion to the importance of economic growth. This was repeated as though a given truth that policies encouraging economic growth (ideally manufacturing and “export led”) lead to greater food security. Again Kadri’s article on the case of Yemen is helpful. During the protests of 2005, real GDP in Yemen was growing and inflation decreasing. At the same time other indicators revealed that people did not have sufficient access to entitlements. Child malnutrition in Yemen in 2005 was almost 50%.




Food security, trade and rural development

1. The Grain Chain: Food Security and Managing Wheat Imports in Arab Countries

Presented by Maurice Saade; Agricultural Economist World Bank


Objective is to improve the import system from unloading at the port to bulk storage at the flour mill. http://www.slideshare.net/fsaw2012/session-4-b-maurice-saade




  • Arab countries are 56% dependent on grain imports.

  • Benchmark for efficiency should be the port of Rotterdam

  • Keep costs down

  • Improved wheat supply chain could mean imports diverted to reserves.



Setting priorities for food security research in MENA and the new CRP2 program of the CGIAR

CRP2 is supposed to help guide “funding allocations and implementation to reflect regional priorities” on these three themes and corresponding subthemes.


Theme 1: Effective Policies and Strategic Investments


  • Foresight and strategic scenarios

  • Macroeconomic, trade, & investment policies

  • Production and technology policies

  • Social protection policies


Theme 2: Inclusive Governance and Institutions


  • Policy processes

  • Governance of rural services

  • Collective action and property rights

  • Institutions to strengthen the assets of the poor


Theme 3: Linking Small Producers to Markets


  • Innovations across the value chain

  • Impact of upgrading value chains





Issues raised during Q and A on recommendations for the future

The CRPP2 was supposed to be participatory based on the above themes. However, before the CRP2 session was a panel titled “Setting Food Security Policy Priorities: An International Partner Perspective”. The following is a summary of some of the questions raised by the audience during this panel. The issues raised in this extensive question and answer session were not addressed by the CRP2 session.


The question and answer session after this panel was the longest and broadest in terms of content. The basis of the questions revolved around the question of food security implementation on a governmental policy level. Why, asked many participants, do policy makers say they are interested in investing in agriculture but then never act? Hoonae Kim, Agriculture and Environment Sector Manager from the World Bank, said it was a matter of convincing Ministers of Finance in Arab countries. However, IFPRI and the World Bank work almost exclusively with governments, if any agency can lobby for increased agricultural support it would seem to be them.


Other participants from the audience highlighted dysfunctions in the current agricultural economy. For example, according to one participant 90% of global date palm production takes place in the Arab World but the U.S. has 90% of post-harvest technology. The questioner used this example to highlight that Arab countries are losing revenue to the U.S. because of this divide in the farming system. Another way farmers are losing money, according to many commentators, is that middlemen who connect farmers to markets take much of the profit. One participant said that 80% of the food in the developing world is from small farmers and what are needed are more opportunities for these farmers to form cooperatives. There was not official panel or paper presented at the IFPRI conference on agriculture cooperatives.


How and where to invest money was the other primary comment in this session. One participant called for massive investment in alternative sources of power, specifically desalination plants for irrigation. Other participants hoped to see more investment in domestic agricultural research after claiming that most international agencies don’t know who the farmers in the region actually are, what they do, or how to create economic possibilities in rural areas. “The problem is not the money from the Arab governments” he said, “It is the projects. Agencies push foreign thinkers for their programs.” According to this logic, there are not enough people studying and strategizing on domestic agricultural problems.


Other participants recommended investment in trade in order to “empower” free- trade areas. This may be perceived as a call for foreign direct investment in Arab countries. One comment referenced a conference in 1985 in which the priorities were the same. When, the participant asked, will things change? The nature of the change desired was not specified. The last comment was by an economics professor at LAU. “Markets work because of the invisible hand and only operate with strong enforcement of property rights. We don’t have strong enforcement of property rights in the MENA region.” It was clear that he was speaking about private property rights in reference to land tenure.





IFPRI’s positions on food and farming have not changed since the recent revolutions in a number of Arab countries in 2010.14 What has changed is perhaps a rhetorical shift, the addition of the word “poverty” and “social protection” into the conceptual framework of their recent report Beyond the Arab Awakening. The choice of “Arab Awakening” as opposed to “Arab Revolutions” is pivotal. The term “awakening” glosses over the organizing and strategies that lead to the recent uprisings in the Arab world, the roots of the revolutions are not included in the conversation. This reference to “awakening” lacks any context of land tenure, class relations or farmer indebtedness. It also diminishes the use of force applied by regimes, some of whom worked with IFPRI and the World Bank,15 against the popular uprisings. In ignoring the revolutionary aspect of recent events, policy makers and researchers in the reformist movement seek to maintain their position as experts on the MENA region. The underlining goal of the conference appeared to be an interest in fortifying the expert position of IFPRI within the power structure of the development industry.


IFPRI’s website 16 summarizes well the themes and consensus of the meeting.


The conferees called for improving trade and market integration by unleashing the power of small businesses and improving access to financing. These were among recommendations made at the conclusion of the international conference.


Participants highlighted the importance of managing transitions in the Arab countries through building trust between citizens and the states, in addition to strengthening civil society and improving data transparency. They also called for investment in science and technology, identifying labor market policies for youth, and setting country-specific policies and strategies. Participants recommended enhancing agriculture productivity where economically viable, and increasing cooperation on water and land management that may reduce conflict risks.


This conference on Food Secure Arab World was notable for what was not said. There was no mention on why people are poor. Resources like land and water are not allocated equally and many farmers in the region are indebted,17 these factors work to retain people in poverty. While the new IFPRI report, Beyond the Arab Awakening, mentions resource allocation in reference to household food security there was no mention of the number of landless farmers in the Arab World or of the violence regimes are perpetrating to maintain control over access resources. The report and presentation on the report seemed to isolate economic conditions, macro and micro, from political context.


The presentations on Tunisia and Yemen were examples of how critical context is often excluded in the framework of IFPRI and their collaborating agencies.




The two-day IFPRI conference lacked a depth that a conference on food security during a time of revolution in the Arab World should be expected to deliver. While participants raised the issue of profits from smallholder farmers ending up in the pockets of middlemen, the IFPRI representatives failed to acknowledge that this issue may call into question their goal of integrating small farmers into established markets. Samir Amin and others have raised this point and highlighted the lack of agency farmers have in making decisions on their means of production.18 It is surprising then that IFPRI does not offer a clear response to this question of profit diverted from producers to brokers.


Even those participants trying to raise some challenge to the dominant mantra of free trade, cash crop exports and science / technology and the “Arab Awakening” seemed confused. What were lacking, seemingly purposely, were both the political context and the economic reality. In Kadri’s words.19


The Arab Revolts have shown that there are as many types of Arabs as there are many types of social classes. The Arab labouring classes were excluded from the formulation of policy by outright repression. The Arab ruling classes conjointly with Western financial elites were capable of drawing and implementing pauperising policies at every stage in recent neoliberal history leading to rebellions. The Arab, similar to the American or the Chinese, does not exist in the ‘abstract’ and outside a social context.




1 Breisinger et al (February 2012). Beyond the Arab Awakening: Policies and Investments for Poverty Reduction and Food Security.

3 Eric Holt-Gimenez and Annie Shattuck, “Food crises, food regimes and food movements: rumblings of reform or tides of transformation?” Journal of Peasant Studies, 38 (2011), 121.

4 Breisinger et al (February 2012). Beyond the Arab Awakening: Policies and Investments for Poverty Reduction and Food Security. Table 1, p.5-6.

5 Ibid. Table 2, p.16.

6 Ibid. p.20-21

7 Ibid, p.14

8 Ibid, p.23

9 Ibid. Last line of the report. p.33

14 Breisinger et al, (May 2010) Food Security and Economic Development in the Middle East and North Africa.

18 Samir Amin, “Audacity, more audacity”. (1 December 2011). http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/78392

19 Kadri (8 February 2012) op. cit.

Latest News
The Full text of the declaration adopted by the UN in 2018
We are happy to announce that Ray Bush's "Poverty and Neoliberalsm" has recently been published in Arabic.
One article about Sinay, a village in South Lebanon, and its history of contested property rights. The other about the role of property rights related political contestation in the Tunisian uprising/revolution on the example of Sidi Bouzid.

Home Video
Facebook Updates
Twitter Timeline