COVID-19 & The Global Food Security Crisis
Key stakeholders convene to identify innovative solutions to global hunger amid the converging pandemic and climate change crises. A synthesis report on the findings of a reality-based crisis scenario from FP Analytics.
Over the past year, COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll—claiming lives, derailing economic growth, disrupting supply chains, and placing evermore pressure on global food systems. These impacts have been particularly acute across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where agricultural productivity had already been diminishing from chronic droughts and salination of the soil from rising sea levels. Countries in the region have become increasingly dependent on food imports as fresh water becomes scarcer. These vulnerabilities compounded in 2020 when swarms of locusts ravaged crops in the Horn of Africa, exacerbating food insecurity. With MENA already importing more than a quarter of the world’s grain and 21% of the world’s sugar, recent crop failures and extreme weather have pushed these shares even higher—and conditions could get worse.
COVID-19 continues to exacerbate strains on MENA’s fragile food systems and the countries reliant on the region’s agriculture, particularly the Gulf states, which import up to 90% of their food and have invested heavily in arable land in the Horn of Africa, including in Ethiopia and Sudan, as part of their plan to secure future food supplies. Expert projections from the effects of COVID-19 are dire. According to the United Nations, global economic output will shrink by $8.5 trillion over the next two years, while the World Food Programme (WFP) is projecting that the number of severely food insecure people will double, with an extra 49 million people pushed into extreme poverty in 2020 alone. A threat multiplier, COVID-19 is intersecting with other, ongoing crises, including climate change, and threatens to cause a global humanitarian disaster on the scale of World War II if immediate, coordinated action is not taken.
As the pandemic entered its 10th month, FP Analytics convened two multi-stakeholder simulations—also known as FP PeaceGames—to identify solutions to these escalating and intersecting food and health security crises. Set in the MENA region in 2021, the simulation foreshadowed the escalation of the region’s stressors that trigger cascading crises, including widespread hunger, civil unrest, and mass migration, and prompted participants to identify creative strategies to mitigate the fallout and strengthen regional food systems for the longer term. Held in December 2020, FP’s simulations echoed calls to action made by the World Food Programme (WFP) at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September and were a precursor to the global U.N. COVID-19 and food security conference planned for March 2021. Emphasizing the need for a collaborative approach to global challenges, the simulations were a timely reminder of the need for urgent, collective action to fight COVID-19 and food insecurity, and prevent further damage.
Considering experts’ and climate scientists’ projections that such scenarios are likely to recur with increasing frequency, particularly as climate change worsens, FP Analytics and its partners were eager to gather thought leaders, policymakers, and diplomats to identify creative and collaborative strategies for action. The FP PeaceGames brought together officials and experts from the region and relevant fields including public health, migration policy, and agriculture from around the world. Working in teams, participants took on the roles of varying stakeholders—and developed strategies and alliances to safeguard their constituents and strengthen regional food security.
A number of common themes emerged from the simulations, highlighting the most pressing concerns of experts and identifying critical actors in crisis mitigation and prevention.
Under-resourced humanitarian organizations challenged to respond to simultaneous crises
Throughout the simulation, participants struggled to respond to intersecting crises without creating more problems in the immediate or long term. Teams representing emergency response organizations Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) grappled with finding a balance between protecting the safety and rights of people on the move—as is their mandate—and preventing the spread of COVID-19 across borders to avoid expanding the pandemic and creating a stigma against migrants as vectors for the virus. Participants representing countries that accept a relatively high number of migrants—the European Union (EU), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Israel—expressed reluctance to allow migrants and refugees to enter their borders to mitigate disease spread, despite international law. The prospective impasse yielded an opportunity for greater collaboration among regional governments and humanitarian agencies. In response, MSF offered to provide medical assistance, including COVID-19 tests, to all incoming migrants. Deepening these types of relationships and providing needed resources to humanitarian agencies on the ground could strengthen future response capacity.
Need to balance pandemic response while facilitating food imports
Players representing the countries most affected by hunger—Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Libya—advocated for the immediate resumption of international trade, to shore up food supply chains and avoid exacerbating the hunger crisis, but repeatedly came up against the obstacle of COVID-19-related border closures and flight groundings. This struggle reflected the real-world clash occurring over whether border closures and lockdowns are excessive responses to COVID-19, or whether they cause disproportionate economic pain. In the case of the PeaceGames, participants were receptive to the call for resumptions of trade because it was urgently needed to increase the food supply to the MENA region, but trade activities weren’t discussed beyond how they could ease the hunger crisis.
All stakeholders have a role in increasing agricultural capacity and reliability
Stakeholders including the private sector, MENA-region and migrant-hosting governments, multilateral financial institutions, and the international humanitarian community have a role in supplementing and strengthening agricultural capacity in and around the Nile basins. In the immediate term, multilateral development banks and emergency response actors such as MSF and UNHCR/IOM are key actors capable of financing and delivering emergency food aid to ease the hunger crisis in the Middle East. In the context of the simulation, these organizations called on the private sector to partner with them on distribution to leverage logistics networks and get aid to as many people as quickly as possible.
In the medium term, drought-afflicted country governments—particularly in Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya—called on both the private sector and the Israeli government to support their efforts to implement climate-smart agricultural practices including introducing less water-intensive crops, and harnessing desalination and irrigation techniques that can stretch increasingly scarce water further. In addition, participants advocated using satellite imaging and other technology to map out available arable land for cultivation, to better understand soil chemistry, annual domestic food production capacity, and expected yields. Such a task would require private sector investment, creating opportunities for public-private partnerships in the MENA food and agriculture industry.
Public-private partnerships also have a role in job creation in the affected region, an undertaking that migrant-hosting communities such as the EU and GCC were interested in supporting, because unemployment drives forced and voluntary migration out of the MENA region and creates instability more broadly. While participants were not specific regarding the sectors and types of jobs they advocated creating, the World Bank suggests that the MENA region would benefit from infrastructure projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). While that project has generated its own political challenges, it represents the type of project that has the potential to generate medium-term employment while reducing emissions and lowering environmental impact. Egypt’s Environmental Pollution Abatement Project (EPAP) is another already-operational example that could provide a blueprint for other MENA-region projects, while other schemes may involve retrofitting factories and establishing clean energy infrastructure.
Diaspora communities wield power and influence
Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya—all countries with high levels of emigration—stressed the important role that diaspora communities, particularly those in the Global North, play in their native economies because they provide extra sources of aid and income. Not only do remittances contribute to these countries’ GDPs—in 2019, the World Bank estimated that remittances represented 8.8% of Egypt’s GDP, and 1.4% of Sudan’s—but communities can wield influence to lobby the governments of their new homes, and the private sector, to allocate financial resources, and provide supplies in times of crisis—notably crop failures, civil wars, or pandemics. Ethiopia’s GERD was partially funded by donations from the Ethiopian diaspora, which raised $2.1 million for the project, demonstrating the contributions of migrants and the strong relationship that many diaspora communities maintain with their home communities, which can be mobilized when needed.
Recognition of transnational threats and need to work more effectively across borders
Participants representing national governments were keen to work together to respond to the escalating crises of the simulation. Crop failures and pandemics are just two examples of threats to human security and stability that require transnational responses. Recognizing the need for collective action, participants formed blocs in which to negotiate for better loan conditions and aid distribution, and to better pool their financial resources to buy vital materials such as personal protective equipment and COVID-19 tests. While such decisions may not reflect real-world alliances and power balances, they demonstrate the importance of multilateral collaboration to act and have impact at scale.
Key Takeaways & Recommendations for Action
- Fragile states are extremely vulnerable to destabilization: Building resilience against future shocks will require strengthening government institutions such as ministries of health, agriculture, and trade to improve crisis response and shore up supply chains. For the medium- to longer-term, strategic development plans that focus investments on creating long-lasting, climate-smart jobs, including those in infrastructure that facilitate the clean energy transition, could help reduce unemployment and contribute to great socioeconomic stability and well-being. State-led efforts toward that end could strengthen trust in government and help ease dissatisfaction and unrest that often threatens fragile states in times of crisis.
- Local and regional food systems need to be strengthened and adaptive: COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of food systems and supply chains in MENA and the Gulf. As recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, creating more resilient food supply chains will require increasingly localized and diversified food systems, with more countries cultivating crops and livestock within their borders, and investing in climate-smart agricultural techniques—such as water and soil desalination, and a return to cultivation of drought-tolerant crops, which will help foster local food production that can better withstand catastrophic weather events such as droughts.
- Non-governmental actors can mediate among clashing interests: Emergency response organizations and international institutions can help balance the conflicting interests and needs of different countries and groups in moments of crisis. In the context of the simulation and as noted above, MSF, for example, offered to provide COVID-19 tests and vaccinations (when available) to people on the move in exchange for countries along popular migration paths opening their borders to migrants and humanitarian actors. The ability of MSF—and other humanitarian response organizations such as the WFP, to act rapidly and coordinate a response across borders was recently highlighted during recent crisis in Lebanon when these organizations worked with the WHO to rapidly mobilize personnel and aid within just 24 hours of the Beirut port explosion. Such collaboration underscores the continued importance of funding for NGOs and other humanitarian organizations, which has dropped off significantly during the pandemic.
- Donor fatigue presents a new challenge in crisis response: Securing the necessary funds for crisis response—estimated by the U.N. to be at least $1.7 billion for COVID relief in the region alone— has become increasingly difficult, with UNHCR reporting a funding shortfall of 51%—or $4.8 billion in 2020, largely because of fundraising difficulties before the onset of both the pandemic and the increase in migration, as reflected in the PeaceGame simulation. Four out of the 10 least-funded situations requiring UNHCR response are in MENA and the Horn of Africa, illuminating the urgent need for increased donor involvement, and for institutions such as UNHCR to identify alternate funding streams. Given that the intersectional and compounding nature of these types of crises are projected to increase, crafting responses that draw on local businesses and address more than one problem at a time will be vital to future resource and crisis management. For example, participants suggested public-private models to support local businesses in mobilizing jobless people to distribute food and other aid, helping to address the immediate hunger crisis while reducing unemployment and increasing spending power in the medium term.
- The private sector is not a panacea: Despite the willingness of participants representing the private sector to engage with emergency response and discuss the potential for innovative public private partnerships (PPPs), experts in the simulation noted the need to be realistic about what private companies are able to achieve and willing to do. Governments and multilateral bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank must foster enabling environments and—in, some cases, incentives—for private sector engagement. For example, foreign investment that can lead to job creation in fragile states will require governments to mitigate risks and demonstrate decreased violence and corruption on the ground.
- Climate change is a threat multiplier: Droughts and other catastrophic weather events are likely to increase in frequency and severity because of climate change, exacerbating existing problems such as high unemployment and resource scarcity, and contributing to instability. Addressing the drivers of climate change and taking concrete actions toward mitigation and adaptation, for example through countries’ adherence to their nationally determined contributions under the Paris climate accord, will be a key aspect of future crisis management.
Ahead of the U.N. Food Systems Summit 2021, stakeholders from the private sector, international institutions, and national and regional governments can outline their vision for a more food-secure future, and work on further developing the partnerships and coalitions necessary to protect communities from the destabilizing and potentially devastating impacts of hunger. Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of projections by scientists that similar pandemics are likely to occur with increasing frequency in the future, governments and other stakeholders need to take stock and factor the lessons being learned from this crisis into their planning to help ensure greater preparedness and more effective responses. The 2020 FP PeaceGames provided an opportunity for representatives of these groups to think through the implications of the concurrent health and food crises, and respond creatively and imaginatively. The U.N. Summit will be help turn those ideas into realistic actions and plan for the future.