Lebanon’s food crisis will get worse

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In Lebanon, the impact of the explosions in the port of Beirut, a rapidly weakening local currency and the effects of COVID-19 have pushed more people into poverty. Nine out of ten Syrian refugee families in Lebanon now live in extreme poverty. Credit: World Food Program (WFP)
  • Opinion by Sami Halabi (Beirut, Lebanon
  • Inter Press Service

Now tiny Lebanon, all too well acquainted with the ripple effects of global conflict, has been cut almost entirely from its staple food – wheat – which was supplied almost entirely by Russia and Ukraine before the conflict.

The country has not found a viable alternative to affordable wheat and without it, flour mills and bakers have struggled to supply Lebanon’s staple food, Arabic pita bread.

At the same time, global oil price spikes caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict coupled with supply chain issues from the COVID era have hammered affordability, and it’s not just bread that has been affected: the price of corn, sugar, vegetable oil and cooking gas have led to an affordability crisis that has accelerated Lebanon’s free fall on food security.

Understandably, many fear that a vicious cycle of food insecurity — currently in its infancy — could be the death knell for crisis-stricken Lebanon as the country finally enters the realm of failed states ravaged by conflict.

Lebanon cannot afford another protracted crisis. According to the World Bank, the current economic slump is one of the most serious crises since the mid-nineteenth century.

In just two and a half years, the economic crisis has raised the poverty rate from 30% to about 80%, and that’s only for the Lebanese. Syrian and Palestinian refugees – who were already poor and food insecure – fare worse as basic food prices have skyrocketed and the government struggles to find other, albeit less affordable, food sources.

The government has approached other suppliers, such as India and the US, to try and bring in alternative wheat suppliers. But in a global context where every other state depends on Russia and Ukraine for wheat, Lebanon has little bargaining power to ensure a sustainable supply, let alone outbid bigger players.

Perhaps the worst thing about the current cycle of food insecurity is that it was predictable. For decades, the international community has warned that without a true long-term food and nutrition security strategy, Lebanon’s next food crisis would be deeper and existentially damaging.

Import dependence, stemming from the neoliberal economic policies of the 1990s and early 2000s, meant that trade and services were promoted at the expense of agricultural production. The result was an inadequate food security infrastructure and financial policies that benefited the elites of hungry mouths.

Now, a vastly unequal society supported by a rentier economy, resilient sectors such as agriculture are so underdeveloped that Lebanon imports much of the food indigenous to its territory. Even simple measures have been neglected: Lebanon has never enacted a strategic grain silo policy that would have seen the country build up and buy supplies (when prices were relatively low) to avert shocks like the current one.

Such a policy could have taken advantage of the supply capacity of the Beirut Port’s national grain silos. The silos are now slated for destruction, while short-term storage alternatives are patched together. That’s because the country has neither the money nor the interest to rebuild the silos – as their presence is a thorny reminder of the incompetence (if not worse) that ultimately led to the port blast on August 4, 2020.

The one thing that seems certain at this point is that Lebanon’s food security crisis will most likely get worse before it gets better — with no near-term solutions in sight. Currently, coping mechanisms are used both at the individual and state levels. Food insecure people are eating less and less, skipping meals, borrowing food and spending less and less on health and education.

The state and the financial system that supports it have resorted to the last resort: using the very last of Lebanon’s foreign exchange reserves to buy the bare minimum of food supplies. This month, flour mills went on strike to protest their lack of fresh foreign exchange from the central bank’s reserves.

The state rushed to find a line of credit, which it eventually did from IMF funds supposedly destined to cushion the economic impact of the COVID-19. It appears that these reactive policy strategies will remain in effect at least until elections are held in mid-May, and most likely until a government is formed many months after that.

In the meantime, price taker Lebanon will continue to hope that the conflict in Ukraine will ease along with higher oil prices – an unlikely scenario given Russia’s renewed focus on the Donbas region. With no huge breakthrough expected for the opposition in Lebanon in the upcoming elections, the ruling class will almost certainly retain most of the levers of power.

Despite their track record in dealing with food insecurity, the magnitude of the current crisis forces them to take action. As usual, that will likely come in the form of piecemeal measures rather than what is really needed: a holistic solution to the financial crisis, major economic reform measures, coupled with a sustainable long-term food and nutrition security strategy. However, there is some hope.

The contours of an IMF deal have been drawn, even if there is currently a lack of sufficient substance or support from co-funders to address the size and substance of important critical issues. The program would be the start of a new process for Lebanon, one in which optimists believe the victory of a significant proportion of opposition members creates a scenario in which independents play the king in future parliamentary quotas.

In this scenario, the financial crisis would begin to be resolved, people would have greater access to their savings, and food insecurity would begin to decrease. Pessimists will bet that deeper food insecurity in an election season is just the right recipe for national instability — something the political class is all too adept at creating elections and using to delay elections and deepen patronage among people. who are getting poorer.

Reality is often somewhere between the best and worst scenario. Either way, without a clear, fair and accountable solution to the financial crisis and a genuine food security plan, Lebanon’s bellies will soon become as empty as its treasury.

Sami Halabi is the Director of Knowledge and co-founder of Triangle, where he directs the company’s strategy and knowledge output activities in the three focus areas: policy, research and media. Sami’s portfolio includes work with UN agencies, international NGOs and a range of print and broadcast media.

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© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service





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