Egypt’s Rising Hunger

Guest post by Isabel Esterman, a Cairo-based journalist. She blogs here

An estimated 13.7 million Egyptians are too poor to provide their families with safe and nutritious food, a new report from the UN World Food Program (WFP) reveals.

But what is more alarming is that Egypt’s food problem is not related to supply, the WFP says, but financial access to food.

“There is not a problem of food availability,” said GianPietro Bordignon, the WFP’s Egypt country director. “The problem is financial access to food.”

A series of economic shocks—including the 2006 bird flu outbreak, the global financial crisis and Egypt’s economic decline post-revolution —have left around 17.2% of the population unable to buy sufficient food for their household, according to the report produced by the UN in conjunction with Egypt’s government-statistics agency, CAPMAS.

In fact, access to nutritious food will only get worse as more Egyptians fall below the poverty line.

Between 2009 and 2011, 15.2% of Egyptians fell into poverty, while just 7.7% were able to move above the poverty line. An additional 12.6% of the population remained in chronic poverty.

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Unsurprisingly, rising food prices and inflation are the biggest culprit for struggling families, especially for the poorest households who in 2011 spent 51% of their total expenditure on food (compared to a national average of 40.6%), according to the report.

As grim as these figures are, more recent data shows that the current situation is even worse.

The latest issue of the Egyptian Food Observatory reveals that a staggering 88.9% of Egypt’s vulnerable households don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs and have tried to cope by buying cheaper and less food.

This is a substantial deterioration from even a few months ago.

Instead of eating nutritious fresh foods, families fill their bellies with cheap, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods—especially subsidised bread, sugar and oil, paired with cheap legumes like fava beans. This is exacerbated by the country’s food subsidy system, which helps to cushion the poor against price spikes in key commodities like wheat, but is not designed to provide a balanced diet.

“If you eat bread, ful and tameyya as your staples, you will lack those essential nutrients that make a difference in early life,” said GianPietro Bordignon of the WFP.

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Indeed, the most distressing finding of the new WFP is that just over half of children under five were anemic, based on tests in nine provinces. Nationwide, an estimated 31% of Egypt’s children suffered from stunted growth in 2011, up from 23% in 2005.

This is tragic for these children, and for the country as a whole.

Children who do not receive adequate nutrition in the first five years of life are limited from realising their full physical and cognitive potential, having a huge bearing on their own future prospects and that of the entire society and economy.

So what can be done?

Well, Rebel Economy has said it often enough, and so has everyone else: reform the subsidy system.

One of the key recommendations of the WFP report is to streamline and better target the subsidy system. Cash transfers offer economic savings, but surveys show that poor households overwhelmingly prefer in-kind assistance, fearing price inflation and poor market access.

In addition to bread, which is available regardless of economic status, 73% of families who are not poor have access to food ration cards, while 19% of poor families are excluded from the program. Prioritising needy families would let the government offer more nutritious food to those who need it without any extra strain on the budget.

Steps should also be taken to reduce waste and leakage, which is estimated at around 30% in the balady bread programme, and above 40% for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Enriching foods with micronutrients like Iron and Vitamin A (which is already done for subsidised bread and oil) is an imperfect solution, but with very little cost it can provide these nutrients to people who would not otherwise be consuming them.

In the long term, the Egyptian government needs to rethink the way it spends money if it wants to break the cycle of poverty and malnutrition.

Above all, good health and high productivity depend not just on nutritious food, but also on lifelong access to quality healthcare, education and sanitation. This is a mammoth, but inevitable task for Egypt and its government, and the least it owes for the next generation.




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