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- There is significant danger of focusing only on agriculture rather than a more integrated rural development that enables people to secure good productive jobs in agriculture as well as in other sectors.
- The key to developing a vibrant agriculture sector will be making investments that help people do things other than agriculture. This way labor productivity increases in agriculture and standards of living in rural space improve.
- As a development institution, our role is to help the MENA countries with innovation and to bring practical and successful strategies for investment from all over the world to our clients.
April 2009 -In this interview, Julian Lampietti Lead Rural Development Sector presents several policy options to address the current food crisis in the MENA region. He also shares his insights to advancing the rural development agenda in the MENA region.
Why is the question of food security still subject of an unresolved debate in the MENA region?
There are two sides to the longstanding debate on food security in MENA. On the one hand, there are public voices who are trying to push governments towards a self-sufficiency goal. On the other hand, there are experts who argue that the scarcity of natural resources and increasing demand for limited land and water -triggered by rapid population growth- render self-sufficiency objectives cost prohibitive. The important thing to remember is that self sufficiency and food security is not the same thing. Self sufficiency means you produce all your own food. Food security means that you have access to affordable food. Financing self sufficiency today will come at the expense of future generations in the sense that the very high investments in land and water management required to achieve such a goal will take resources away from critically important sectors such as education and health.
What can governments do in terms of addressing the concerns expressed by different stakeholders?
There is a lot that governments in the MENA region can do to improve food security for their people. Most critically, they need to improve people’s access to affordable food without tying up the resources people need to have productive and healthy lives. If people are productive and healthy they will also contribute more to society. This is particularly true in rural areas, where most of the poor people in MENA live. There is significant danger of focusing only on agriculture rather than a more integrated rural development that enables people to secure good productive jobs in agriculture as well as in other sectors. Ironically, part of the key to developing a vibrant agriculture sector will be making investments that help people do things other than agriculture. This way labor productivity increases in agriculture and standards of living in rural space improve. The other key concern that needs to be addressed is exposure to volatile food prices on international markets. There is no way around the reality that MENA countries will need to buy a significant – and increasing – share of their food on international markets. The key is to manage this exposure in new and innovative ways to reduce the potential for food prices shocks without going bankrupt in the process.
How can institutions across MENA enhance their capacity to support a food security agenda?
One of the most important institutional challenges in MENA countries is the difference in mandates between ministries of agriculture and ministries of water and irrigation. In many countries they are separate institutions that take independent decisions even though you can’t have agriculture without irrigation in many places and you don’t need irrigation if you don’t have agriculture. Getting these two institutions to work more closely together offers tremendous possibilities for getting more crop-per-drop and addressing impending issues of climate change. This will increase rural incomes and improve food security. Water is the fastest depleting resources in the region and managing the resource more effectively is critical in the future.
Is one solution fit for all across MENA?
No, there is no single solution for all countries. What is clear is that the fastest and easiest way to help households in a food price crisis is to have a system that can distribute cash to people quickly and efficiently. This of course assumes that people can then purchase the food that is available. It is important to recognize that food availability is a concern to many MENA governments. However self sufficiency is not the solution to addressing this concern because it’s both impractical and too expensive. The solution depends on the natural resources and financial resources that are available. Some countries that import almost all their wheat need to concentrate more on cost-effective storage. Other countries may want to invest more in rain-fed cropping systems. As a development institution, our role is to help the MENA countries with innovation and to bring practical and successful strategies for investment from all over the world to our clients. In this regard, we‘ve started an active dialogue with Arab funds and regional development institutions to ensure coordination and complementarity of the support we can deliver.
How can MENA governments create opportunities for the private sector in the food security agenda?
Let us agree first that the vision here is for a food security agenda that balances the needs for today with long terms implications on future generations across MENA. Within this context, the question becomes very timely given the changing dynamics between governments and private sector worldwide as a result of the global financial crisis that has unfolded in recent months. We are seeing things that we would have never seen ten years ago – like the US government asking for the head of Chrysler to step down as a condition for receiving government bailout funds. All of this means that countries need to be very careful in balancing the role of the private and public sectors. The private sector should be actively involved in places where markets work and the government should stick to a regulatory role. Where markets are not working or too small, there may be strong arguments for public intervention. A good example is the grain storage business. There are strong arguments for this being in the hands of either the public or the private sector. But what’s important is to look at the full picture. If there’s enough competition in the private sector, then it probably makes sense to put it there. If it’s in the hands of the public sector, then the thing to focus on is the efficiency of operations and governance.
How can poverty be reduced in rural areas?
Reducing poverty in rural areas will be very central to improving food security in MENA because it will give poor people the resources they need to buy food. The challenge is for governments to find new ways to channel financial resources to the rural sector without distorting markets or trapping people in low-income occupations. One interesting example to consider is linking support in the agriculture sector to use of health and education services. One can envision a system where farmers receive cash payments to manage their land and they are required to keep their children in school or give them health care. This would help break the cycle of rural poverty. Global experience confirms that conditional cash transfer is worth exploring as an alternative to improve the livelihoods of farmers and children in rural areas. The case for such success to be realized in MENA is not difficult to make given the strong call for education that Arab leaders made at the Arab Summit for Social and Economic Development that was held in Kuwait in early 2009.