Potential impact of COVID-19 on poverty and food security in the Arab region

Potential impact of COVID-19 on poverty and food security in the Arab region

Dec 28, 2021

The COVID-19 shock is interacting with long-lasting challenges in the Arab region. The region is characterized by low economic growth with an average GDP annual growth of 3 percent over the past 10 years and 1.5 percent GDP annual growth in 2019. Additionally, the region suffers from structural deficiencies in economic policies, high poverty rate, high inequality of opportunities and unemployment (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia – ESCWA and Economic Research Forum – ERF, 2019; World Bank, 2020b). The pandemic is expected to exacerbate poverty. Using data from 14 non-Gulf Arab countries, Abu Ismail (2020) estimated an additional 9 million people living under $1.9 poverty line by 2021. More recently, countries such as Lebanon and Egypt witnessed massive devaluation of currency, which resulted in inflation and welfare deterioration for low-income groups. In countries such as Sudan, Syria and Yemen, conflicts and natural disasters result in displaced, refugee and migrant populations, with potentially serious economic, heath and security consequences.

Countries in the region are net food importers, with all countries importing more than 30 percent of their cereal consumption. Such dependency leaves the food security of these countries, at the macro level, vulnerable to any change in international cereal prices or any disruption to the global cereals supply chain. And at the micro level, food insecurity is highly correlated with poverty, as poor households spend between 20 percent in Iraq (SWIFT, 2017) and 65 percent in Somalia (HFS, 2016) of their total expenditure on food.

The response to the COVID-19 crisis has primarily been a health response, but the measures taken to contain the disease (such as lockdown, social distancing, quarantines, curfews, etc.) came with serious social and economic implications. The measures implemented, both nationally and globally, resulted in a decrease in tourism revenues, loss of jobs, a decrease in income and massive disruption to the education system. Low levels of preparedness and limited resources and institutional capacities, as well as damaged infrastructure in countries experiencing conflict and fragility, will severely curtail the effectiveness of the response.

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