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1. A perfect storm accentuating inequality worldwide 1 2. Inequality and food security2 3. Food security and inequality: risk and trend analysis3 4. Policy solution 4 Downloads
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Inequality in the Arab region:
Food insecurity fuels inequality


Food insecurity is a brutal face of inequality. It divides nations and breaks societies. Stories of hunger are millennia old, yet the narrative is growing increasingly complex under globalization, climate change, population growth and geopolitics.

In the Arab region, food insecurity is currently being aggravated by the impacts of the war in Ukraine and the global cost-of-living crisis, which is heavily affecting food prices. In some countries, conflict has destroyed the ability of farmers to produce food and has devastated the livelihoods of people so that they can no longer afford nutritious food. In other countries, economic crises have decimated livelihoods and the ability of national Governments to provide for their populations.

Hundreds of millions of families across the Arab region live in a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger. Families are making difficult decisions as to how to portion their food and what they can cut from their daily diet. Those facing overlapping inequalities are the most vulnerable to hunger. The threat of hunger increases the desperation of the already desperate, forcing them to take unprecedented risks. They may take dangerous jobs or sell their only assets just to feed their families, exacerbating the vicious cycle of poverty and hunger.

Children living in poverty in the Arab region are at risk of being left behind. Without access to sufficient nutritious food, they are unlikely to develop on par with more fortunate, well-nourished children. They are more likely to experience poor health and are less able to afford decent medical care. Their education and psychosocial development will never catch up with that of their peers. They will have fewer opportunities available to them as they grow up and will face life-long exclusion and compound inequalities.

Food insecurity transcends hunger. It affects sovereignty and stability. Globally and throughout history, well-fed populations have been those to flourish; however, when populations are kept in poverty and denied access to food, social unrest, instability and violence follow.

The Arab region holds enormous wealth. We have enough food in the region to feed our populations. So why do we still face food insecurity?

The answer lies in inequality. The Arab region has the greatest income inequality in the world. It is also characterized by massively unequal access to nutritious, healthy food and the ability to afford it. One third of the region’s population are hungry and another third of the population are obese.

The solution requires solidarity and redistribution. One nation alone cannot solve the problem. Arab leaders need to come together to increase food availability, access, utilization and stability. We must support our agricultural sector and workers, adopt innovative digital technologies and promote regional trade. We must focus on redistribution through progressive policies and comprehensive social protection systems. We must also respond to the dangers of climate change by reducing our emissions, adapting to new practices and enhancing disaster risk management.

We must act now to deliver practical policy solutions to feed our communities. It is unacceptable that anybody should face hunger, let alone starvation, when there are enough resources for all. Food security is a necessity, not an option. We must leave no one behind in our quest to feed the region.

Rola Dashti,
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
and Executive Secretsry of the Economic ans Social Comission
for Western Asia (ESCWA)

Report team

Lead authors

Mehrinaz Elawady

Director, ESCWA Cluster on Gender Justice, Population and Inclusive Development

Reem Nejdawi

Chief, Food and Environment Policies Section, Climate Change and Natural Resources Sustainability Cluster, ESCWA

John O'Toole

Principal Economic Affairs Officer, ESCWA

Maria Pilar Ouro Paz

Economic Affairs Officer, Climate Change and Natural Resources Sustainability Cluster, ESCWA

Executive Summary

The Arab region is the most unequal in the world, and inequality is increasing in various aspects. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, high interest rates and growing debt burdens in some countries, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, and the impact of the war in Ukraine – which has disproportionately affected food and energy prices – are all contributing to widening inequality, both between and within countries.

Considering disparities between countries in the Arab region, oil producers are set to benefit from the current environment as Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries gained as much as $5.8 billion in 2022 as a direct result of the war in Ukraine. By contrast, middle-income Arab countries lost about $6.7 billion due to higher food and energy prices, which would elevate their high public debt burdens and limit the financing available for basic public services. Already, regional public spending on health, education and social protection is below international benchmarks. Further strain on public service provision will accentuate inequality by limiting the possibility of access to basic public goods, which are much needed to provide opportunities and sustain a minimum standard of living for the most vulnerable and those living in poverty.

Concerning disparities within countries, wealthy Arab citizens are getting richer and more people in the region are becoming millionaires than ever before. In 2021, 20,000 individuals in the region newly became millionaires. At the same time, low-income Arab citizens lost one third of their wealth in 2021 and 120 million people across the region live in poverty. Gender inequality is also rife. Women in the Arab region earn on average less than a quarter of what men earn, due to societal norms and unequal legislation that limits their labour force participation and career growth. The most gender-equal country in the region only ranks 68th in the global gender gap index, whilst three countries in the region sit in the bottom 10 of the index.

People across the region recognize that they live in a polarized society. A poll by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) revealed that almost four-fifths of respondents believed that they lived in an unequal society, and more respondents considered that inequality would grow over the coming five years compared to those that believed it would decrease.

Inequalities in income and wealth are mirrored by inequalities in access to food.

Between countries, Arab least developed countries (LDCs) have five times higher food insecurity than those in the GCC, and much less access to clean water and sanitation, essentials for safe food consumption.

Within the countries of the region, 181 million people, close to 35 per cent of the Arab population, are food insecure; 12 million more than they were just one year ago. The majority of food insecure people also live in poverty. Not only are more people in the region hungry, the extent of their hunger is also more severe. There are 54 million people across the region facing severe food insecurity; an increase of 5 million over the last year. There is a real risk that famine will affect at least 460,000 people in Somalia and Yemen. Obesity rates across the region are also soaring: 29 per cent of the Arab population are obese, twice the global average.

Women are more likely to experience both undernutrition and obesity, both of which threaten the health and well-being of the population. Women of reproductive age are also more likely to face anaemia (estimated to affect one third of women of reproductive age), which increases the likelihood of babies being born prematurely and of low birth weight, and reinforces the intergenerational pass-down of inequality. Food insecurity is multifaceted. Climate change-induced floods and drought, economic crises and conflict and occupation all contribute to food insecurity in the Arab region and affect those living in poverty much more than the wealthy. The compound effect of these crises creates a more extreme impact than the individual sum of each crisis.

Limited food production in the region and massive food waste also contribute towards food insecurity. The Arab region produces less than half of the food it consumes, importing the remainder of its needs. There is enough food to feed everyone in the region, but food waste, combined with high import prices, causes millions to go without.

Still, poverty is the greatest determinant of food insecurity and whether a household can afford a safe and nutritious diet. The average Arab household spends one third of its income on food; poor households spend a much higher proportion, with their food choices being impacted by their monthly earnings.

This report analyses the four pillars of food security: access, availability, utilization and stability, from an inequality lens. It provides policy recommendations to address food security from the perspective of inequality.

It also calls for regional solidarity to redistribute resources from those that have plenty (Governments, corporations and individuals) to those that do not. A wealth solidarity fund can support regional redistribution, as can greater use of progressive fiscal policy to build comprehensive social protection systems. Social protection should not only protect against the immediate deprivations of poverty, but also provide assets, opportunities and skills so that beneficiaries can be permanently lifted out of poverty. Increased investments in health, education and social protection would support the impact of social protection systems. National nutrition strategies can reduce both undernutrition and obesity, and increase the public’s awareness of healthy eating and exercise practices.

Finally, this report provides recommendations to make agricultural systems, and to some degree social protection systems, more shock resistant, in order to reduce the impacts of shocks on the most vulnerable. Early warning systems, disaster management units, and climate change mitigation and adaptation can also protect against the growing impacts of climate change. When shocks do occur, immediate humanitarian assistance, without political implications, is key to protecting the Arab population.



We are facing hunger on an unprecedented scale, food prices have never been higher, and millions of lives and livelihoods are hanging in the balance. The war in Ukraine is supercharging a three-dimensional crisis – food, energy and finance – with devastating impacts on the world’s most vulnerable people, countries and economies. All this comes at a time when developing countries are already struggling with cascading challenges not of their making – the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and inadequate resources amidst persistent and growing inequalities.

Source: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Global Report on Food Crises, 2022

Uncertainty once again dominates multiple economic and social realities globally, and the Arab region is no exception. The world is facing several compounded crises which are contributing to food insecurity: increasing inequalities in access to resources and opportunities; rising inflation; increasing food and fuel prices; global supply chain challenges; the impact of climate change; and the lack of strong, resilient local and regional supply networks. The combination of these factors has led to the worst conditions witnessed in recent times and could threaten the stability and prosperity of nations around the world.

The record levels of high food and fuel prices have triggered a global crisis that is driving millions more into extreme poverty, magnifying hunger and malnutrition while threatening to erase hard-won gains in development. The war in Ukraine, supply chain disruptions and the continued economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with increased debt and high interest rates are reversing years of development gains and pushing inflation and notably food prices to all-time highs.

The complexity and force of these crises are evident in the Arab region and are shaping and driving inequalities given the already weak regional resilience regarding capacity to absorb shocks and the historically rooted inequalities.

This second edition of the Arab inequality report follows the same approach as the first edition, “Inequality in the Arab region – A ticking time bomb” (2022), which examined the challenge of youth unemployment in the region. The present report is also inspired by the Pathfinders Alliance for Action on Inequality and Division that seeks to identify practical and politically viable solutions to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 on reduced inequality. This report presents the latest findings on inequality in the Arab region so as to inform public policy design. It focuses on the combination of the perfect storm of the cost-of-living crisis, food insecurity and energy poverty as factors of inequality hitting the Arab region. It also examines the challenges facing food security in the region, taking into consideration the latest global and regional developments. It provides a practical set of actions that identify how opportunities can be shared more equally to reach the most vulnerable populations and reduce inequalities in food security.

The report has three main purposes. First, to provide an update on the multidimensional forms of inequality that were identified in the first edition of the inequality report, which are: wealth concentration and inequality; income poverty; income inequality; and gender inequality. Second, the report flags the issue of food security as a significant form of inequality that can threaten the region’s security. Third, the report discusses alternative policy solutions that could tangibly reduce inequality, particularly the pertinent challenge of food security in the region.

The report is based on a desktop review, in addition to a public online survey on food security in the Arab region. The survey was disseminated on social media platforms to solicit people’s perceptions on food security in 2022. The purpose of the survey was to understand the perceptions and concerns of people in the Arab region in general and on food security in particular. The survey was not based on representative samples but on random responses from social media users, and as such results are indicative and cannot be generalized. Informative interviews were conducted with policymakers from the Arab region to complement the findings of the online survey. Case studies in four countries (Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania and the State of Palestine) were conducted using health and demographic surveys, as well as household expenditure and consumption surveys to analyse inequalities in food consumption patterns.

1. A perfect storm accentuating inequality

Key messages


COVID-19 exacerbated a difficult situation in the Arab region, and the war in Ukraine significantly worsened conditions.


Around 120 million individuals are living in poverty in the Arab region.


With the exception of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, wealth inequality is increasing; the wealth share of the top 1 per cent rose while that of the bottom 50 per cent decreased.


There were 20,000 new millionaires in the Arab region in 2021. The average income of the top 1 per cent in the Arab region is 128 times higher than the average income of the bottom 50 per cent.


While the United Arab Emirates is ranked in the highest place in the Arab region in terms of closing the gender gap, it is in 68th place globally.


Women in the Arab region earn less than a quarter (23.9 per cent) of what men earn.


Public spending on health, education and social protection in Arab countries is lower than international benchmarks, making it harder for those living in poverty and the most vulnerable to access public services.


High debt, increasing interest rates and slow growth increase the debt burden on future generations and accentuate inequality in access to public services and economic opportunities.


The Arab region has experienced unequal gains and losses resulting from the war in Ukraine; the GCC gained $5.8 billion as a result of the war, while middle-income countries (MICs) lost $6.7 billion.


Let’s have no illusions. We are in rough seas. A winter of global discontent is on the horizon. A cost-of-living crisis is raging. Trust is crumbling. Inequalities are exploding. Our planet is burning. People are hurting – with the most vulnerable suffering the most.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, 2022

A. Global and regional developments

The Arab region has structural inequalities that are historically rooted; combined, they reinforce and exacerbate each other. For example, the region has had the highest rates of youth unemployment in the world for the past 25 years, standing at 23 per cent. The gender gap has been systematically above the global average. Climate change is a looming crisis, with the region already being the most water-scarce and most food-import dependent in the world.

The complexity, overlap and scale of the crises that the region is facing have worsened their impact and minimized any progress that the social and economic policies in place can make to reduce existing inequality. This has been coupled with a possible reduction and diversion of official development assistance (ODA) to the Arab region due to the war in Ukraine and the shift in priorities.

Global and regional developments that are impacting conditions are discussed in this section. These developments include: the war in Ukraine; the cost-of- living crisis; increased debts; and exchange rates and terms of trade.

1. The war in Ukraine: compounding crises

The war in Ukraine has worsened an already difficult situation in the Arab region. The economic effects of the war vary from one country to another depending on each country’s financial situation, debt level and import dependence, with a devastating overall effect on the entire region. The war in Ukraine has affected economic growth, which decreased from 4.9 per cent to 4.4 per cent worldwide. Coupled with high inflation rates, this is resulting in recession and causing stagflation in 2023.

As an immediate effect of the war in Ukraine, there has been a steep increase in oil and gas prices worldwide, including in the Arab region. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) built three scenarios to assess the impacts of the war:

  1. A baseline assuming that the war had never broken out and the average price of a barrel of oil remained at $70;
  2. A short-term conflict ending in June 2022 with an average oil price of $100 per barrel;
  3. And a long-term conflict with an average oil price of $170 per barrel.

2. The greatest cost-of-living crisis in a generation

The main transmission channels generating the costof- living crisis include: rising food prices, rising fuel and gas prices, rising interest rates and tightening financial conditions. Each of these elements have important effects of their own; taken together, they can also reinforce each other, creating vicious circles. This phenomenon had already started due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. As the cost of living increases, workers are looking for new jobs where their wages rise with inflation; and pay increases may entrench inflation.

The increase in food and fuel prices, for example, has led to a disproportionate increase in the number of people living in poverty in Arab countries. According to ESCWA projections of growth in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, the Ukraine war has resulted in rising costs of living due to the complex situation in the energy and commodity markets, resulting in an estimated 15 per cent increase in food prices and 25 per cent increase in fuel prices in 2022.

Consequently, poverty reduction in these three countries has slowed. Using ESCWA poverty lines, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia witnessed an increase in poverty in 2022 compared with previous years, especially in comparison to the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (figure 1).

Figure 1. Poverty headcount ratios using ESCWA poverty lines in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, 2021–2022

Source: ESCWA projections. For more information on the forecasting methodology, see ESCWA (2022a). Available here.
Note: For Jordan, the poverty rate was computed using ESCWA poverty lines. See ESCWA (2022b). Available here.
Surging Energy Prices and Energy Poverty

Global fossil fuel prices started rising in 2021 as global demand recovered after the COVID-19 pandemic, while supply remained tight following years of subdued investment in the energy sector. In relation to the war in Ukraine, prices soared to historically high levels in early 2022, especially for natural gas, given the disruptions to trade in energy commodities and concerns over future supply. The Russian Federation has a large global footprint in natural gas, crude oil and coal markets, accounting for about 20 per cent, 10 per cent and 5 per cent of global exports of those commodities, respectively. By the end of the first quarter of 2022, crude oil prices had doubled, coalpricestripledandnaturalgaspricesincreasedmorethanfive-foldrelativetoearly2021. About half of the increase in crude oil and coal prices is expected to last through 2026, while for natural gas, about a quarter of the increase is expected to persist through 2026.

Energy poverty is an equality issue. A household is defined as being energy-poor if they spend more than 10 per cent of their disposable income on energy services, leaving little for other expenses. Energy poverty rates are rising across the Arab region, reflecting the significant increase in energy prices globally.

There is a strong income gradient in terms of the impact of energy price increases. Recent increases in energy costs (including motor fuels) led to a much higher percentage of after-tax and transfer income for the lowest-income fifth of households compared to the highest-income fifth. This is because a larger share of lower-income households’ spending is on energy, which is used for cooking, heating and electricity.

Poorerhouseholdsspendmoreof theiroverallincomeon energy, whilehigher-incomehouseholds may be able to more easily absorb the hikes in energy costs. As fuel bills go up, those people with lower incomes, including older persons and rural households, are hardest hit and suffer the most duetotheirexpenditurepatterns. Inthefaceofrapidlyincreasingnumbers, householdsarehaving to choose between putting food on the table or buying back-to-school clothes. In many countries, over half of parents have cut down spending on household and medical bills, loan repayments, clothes, hobbies and transport in order to be able to afford food. People have been forced to choose between using electricity and feeding their families. Many are skipping meals most weeks to feed the children in their care.

3. Increased debt: adversely impacting public spending

With inflation rapidly climbing to multi-decade highs and price pressures broadening globally across many economic sectors, central banks have recognized the need to urgently address inflationary expectations to avoid further disruptive adjustments later. Central banks have increased interest rates markedly in an attempt to push down inflation.

The average annual growth of public debt in the Arab region has steeply increased over the past decade and remained higher than the growth rate of GDP10 until 2020 (figure 4).

Figure 4. GDP growth vs growth of public debt in the Arab region

Source: ESCWA calculations, based on data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

4. Exchange rates and terms of trade

The surge of international prices has put pressure on the international reserves of food-importing countries and consequently their exchange rates. The Arab region, as a net food importer, has been severely hit by global food price increases. In addition, there have been devaluations in the Egyptian pound, the Lebanese pound, the Moroccan dirham and the Tunisian dinar. Currency depreciations reduce the purchasing power of individuals and put additional pressure on State budgets.

The surging value of the United States dollar has broad implications for the global economy, devaluing currencies in other countries. A strong dollar pushes import prices up, which can add to inflation. The value of the dollar is also consequential for emerging economies since it puts these countries at greater risk of defaulting on their debts.


Facing rapid declines and severe fluctuations in local currencies, food markets and food businesses that import food commodities, foodstuffs and food ingredients internationally in strong currencies, such as the United States dollar, are converting their final retail prices into dollars also. This increases food price inflation and locks local prices into global currency movements. Changes in the value of the United States dollar impact local retail food prices in the Arab region. For local populations, those who have access to United States dollars through working for multinational corporations or international conglomerates, or those in receipt of overseas remittances are relatively buffered from local currency fluctuations.

Food price subsidies in some countries act as a shock absorber in reducing the impact of international currency fluctuations on consumers. However, the ability of these Arab countries to withstand international currency fluctuations is being tested by pressures on fiscal spaces and the scale of the local currency depreciations.

The dollarization of food prices in food wholesale and retail markets, and in food businesses and restaurants further increases food insecurity for lower-income households, those living in poverty and vulnerable populations relying on charity, social assistance payments, overseas remittances, or minimal wage employment in the informal sector, and that are paid in depreciating local currencies. Dollarization increases inequalities.

B. An overview on inequality in the Arab region

People’s perceptions of social and economic inequality in the Arab region show a negative outlook. As shown in figure 6, people are largely negative about their current and future situations. Only 21 per cent of respondents believe that they currently experience some or full equality, and only 14 per cent believe that inequality will improve in the next five years. Concerningly, of the 69 per cent who believe that society will become more unequal over the coming five years, the majority believe that there will be a large increase in inequality.

Figure 6. People’s perceptions of social and economic inequality

Source: Results of ESCWA online opinion poll.

1. Income poverty

Since 2010, income poverty21 has been on the rise, erasing poverty reduction gains made in previous decades. Poverty reached an average of 36 per cent in the region (excluding GCC countries) in 2022 (equivalent to 121 million people living in poverty). The Arab region is the only region worldwide with increasing poverty rates over the past decade. The problem of rising income poverty has been particularly severe in Arab conflict-affected countries. As shown in figure 7, there was a hike in the number of people living in poverty in the Arab region between 2019 and 2022, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine crisis, and the impact of rising food and fuel prices in oil-importing countries, which host the vast majority of the populations living in poverty. It is important to note that figure 7 does not include Lebanon, Libya, the Syrian Arab Republic or Yemen due to data limitations. Poverty is expected to have increased significantly in these countries since 2010 due to conflict and political instability.

Figure 7. Poverty trends using ESCWA poverty lines for selected Arab countries, 2010–2022

Source: ESCWA projections and poverty lines. For more information on the forecasting methodology, see ESCWA (2022a). Available here ; and ESCWA (2022b). Available here.
Note: The countries included are Algeria, the Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, the State of Palestine, Somalia, the Sudan and Tunisia.

2. Wealth inequality

According to the most recent estimates of regional wealth distribution as of end of 2021, the stock of personal wealth in the Arab region – when measured in nominal dollar terms – has appreciated since prepandemic times. At the same time, the distribution has become more unequal, as many of those at the top of the wealth distribution benefited the most from this upwards global financial trend, while those at the bottom who carried the burden of the upheavals and the rising cost of living, saw their assets depreciate, and were often forced to use their savings.

Figure 9. Average personal wealth in the Arab region, December 2000–December 2021

Source: ESCWA estimates based on data from the Credit Suisse 2022 Global Wealth Databook.
The snowball effect of global wealth concentration

Wealth concentration has serious implications on stopping climate breakdown, since the richest are those emitting huge amounts of carbon. Oxfam estimated that the richest 1 per cent (63 million billionaires) alone were responsible for 15 per cent of cumulative emissions. This is almost twice the amount of emissions of the whole of the bottom half of the global population. The 125 richest billionaires had total carbon emissions of 393 million tonnes, which is about the same as the size of France.

Carbon emissions not only affect climate change, but also farming and the future of food security.

Source: Oxfam, Carbon Billionaires: the investment emissions of the world’s richest people, 2022.

3. Income inequality

The Arab region continues to record the highest levels of income inequality globally, with notable variations among its countries. There are significant variations both within countries and between countries in terms of inequalities in the Arab region, ranging from Qatar, which has among the highest GDPs per capita in the world, to Yemen, which is among the world’s poorest countries.

In the Arab region, the poorest 50 per cent of the population holds only 9 per cent of the region’s total income, while the richest 1 per cent monopolizes 23 per cent of the region’s total income. In effect, the average income of the top 1 per cent in the Arab region is 128 times higher than the average income of the bottom 50 per cent.25 This represents a big difference compared to other regions of the world, where the gap between the poorest 50 per cent and richest 1 per cent is narrower. In Europe, for example, the poorest 50 per cent accrue almost 19 per cent of the region’s income, which by far surpasses the 12 per cent share of the richest 1 per cent. In East Asia, the bottom 50 per cent and the top 1 per cent claim 14 per cent and 15 per cent of the total income, respectively (figure 13).

Figure 13. Income distribution by region, 2021

Source: ESCWA calculations based on data from the World Inequality Database.

4. Gender inequality

The Arab region has a persistent gender gap. It was at 37 per cent in 2022, compared to 39 per cent in 2021. Despite this slight progress, the Arab region continues to hold the second-largest gender gap worldwide. Across the 13 Arab countries covered in the 2022 Gender Gap Index, the United Arab Emirates is noticeably further ahead, with a gap of 28.4 per cent, placing it as the highest ranking in the Arab region, yet only 68th globally. Meanwhile, Algeria, Oman and Qatar are among the countries trailing behind. The countries that showed the most significant improvement in the region in 2022, relative to 2021, were Kuwait, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

At the current rate, it will take the Arab region 149 years to close the gender gap while the global projected rate is 132 years (figure 14).

Figure 14. Gender Gap Index closed to date in the Arab region, 2022

Source: ESCWA calculations based on the World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Reports, 2022.

2. Inequality and food security

Key messages


Food insecurity locks inequality into the next generation: children born to women with an iron deficiency are more likely to be born prematurely and have a lower birth weight.


The Arab region is characterized by severe inequalities in access to quality nutritious food; 33.3 per cent of the population are food insecure and 28.4 per cent are obese.


Undernourishment affects 11.9 per cent of the region’s population (53 million people), higher than the global average of 9.3 per cent.


The Arab region produces less than half of the food it consumes.


A third of the women of reproductive age in the Arab region suffer from anaemia.


Floods and droughts, hyperinflation, and conflict and occupation contribute to high levels of food insecurity in Iraq, Libya, the State of Palestine, Somalia, the Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen.


Between 76–120 kg of food is wasted per person per year in the Arab region, with varying rates between countries; wealthy households waste more food than those living in poverty.


The entire population of the GCC has access to safe drinking water and sanitation services while in LDCs, only two-thirds of the population have access to drinking water and less than half to sanitation services.


Households living in poverty in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen experience income loss due to climate hazards two times more than the rich.


The average Arab household spends one third of its earnings on food.


Obesity rates are higher for females than for men in the Arab region.


Food security is defined as “when people have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

Source: FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2001

A. Introduction

Despite notable progress towards reducing hunger since the 1996 World Food Summit, there are still millions of people around the world suffering from food insecurity, with big disparities between countries and households. In the Arab region, food insecurity is most prevalent in the least developed and conflict-affected countries, while less so in high-income countries. Within countries, vulnerable groups such as refugees, women and people living in rural areas are at higher risk of food insecurity.

The relationship between inequality and food security is complex and multilayered.

This chapter explores this interconnection using the Food Security Monitoring Framework in the Arab region. It analyses how inequalities exist in the four pillars of food security: availability, access, utilization and stability, and within the indicators identified in the Framework, and how they translate into inequalities in food security core indicators (undernutrition, obesity and experience of food insecurity). Inequalities are analysed at three levels: between countries; between households; and within households, and the ways they reinforce one another are considered. Figure 17 expands the Food Security Monitoring Framework to analyse the relevant indicators from an inequality lens.

Figure 17. Inequalities and the Food Security Monitoring Framework

Source: ESCWA elaboration.

B. An inequality lens on food security

1. Food availability

The first step towards food security is ensuring the availability of sufficient quantities of food in a country, supplied through domestic production or imports, including food assistance. Food availability can be measured through the total calorie supply in the country. It is primarily determined by two factors: national production and the ability to import food. The Arab region currently produces only approximately half of the calories it consumes and faces significant challenges to increase its agricultural production. The region is highly dependent on food imports and is thus vulnerable to changes in world food prices. The region imports 61.4 per cent of its cereal, which is the most important food group and main source of calories. This section describes the food availability challenges in the Arab region and the inequalities observed in all their dimensions.

Losses of soft wheat and dates in Morocco

Soft wheat losses in Morocco occurred mainly due to deficient storage practices, with up to 20 per cent losses for underground storage and 10–15 per cent losses for room storage. Dates were spoiled due to deficient storage practices, with up to 20 per cent losses for underground storage and 10–15 per cent losses for room storage. Dates were also spoiled during cultivation and harvest due to insects (10 per cent), birds (15 per cent) and poor harvesting practices (1–3 per cent).

Source: ESCWA, Working paper: food loss in Morocco, 2022.

2. Access to food

Food security involves not only ensuring that enough food is produced or imported into a country, but also guaranteeing that the entire population has the economic and physical means to access to it. Amartya Sen, in his book “Poverty and Famines”, stated that “some of the worst famines have taken place with no significant decline in food availability per head”, showing that often the most important challenge is not lack of food availability but rather access to it.

In most countries, inequalities in access to food are related primarily to differences in income and are affected by macroeconomic conditions such as unemployment and inflation rates. For conflict areas, physical access to food may be an important constraint as well.

Rural women and food security

Women are key players in food security, as they are involved in all stages of food systems, including farming, food processing, marketing and household consumption. While rural women are an important share of the agriculture labour force in the Arab region, they often have worse working conditions than men; they are lower paid and their work can be irregular, informal or low-skilled. Women are also more likely to undertake a disproportionate share of unpaid care work. Globally, women in food systems earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men.a In addition, they are less likely to own land than men, with over 96 per cent of landowners being male in most Arab countries where data are available.b Gender inequalities are reinforced by poverty dynamics, resulting in rural women facing limited access to education, healthcare, sanitation and other basic services. A 2023 FAO report estimates that reducing gender inequalities in global food systems would translate into $3 million additional profit and reduce food insecurity for 45 million people.c

a FAO, The status of women in agrifood systems, 2023.
b World Bank data. Available at
c FAO, The status of women in agrifood systems, 2023.

Variations in food prices can limit the ability of the population to access the food they need. This is especially true for those lower-income households that spend a greater proportion of their income on food and that have limited ability to cope with shocks. In 2018, the average Arab household spent 31.3 per cent of its earnings on food, with substantial regional variations; GCC citizens spent 19 per cent of their income on food, compared to 50 per cent in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Figure 18. Relationship between per capita gross domestic product and share of income spent on food, 2018

Source: ESCWA calculations based on data from the World Bank Statistics and Knoema.

3. Food utilization

In addition to ensuring that there is adequate food availability in a country and that households have physical access and the economic means to access to it, other factors are needed to ensure equal utilization of food. This includes access to sanitation and water to handle food in a safe way and consuming food in the right amounts to ensure proper nutritional outcomes.

Household surveys show that a significant number of children under 5 years of age in the Arab region regularly consume just two food groups or less, which is considered a sign of severe food poverty given that children need to consume foods from at least five out of the eight recommended food groups to meet the minimum dietary diversity for healthy growth and development. Rates of severe food poverty are particularly high in countries in conflict and LDCs such as Somalia (63 per cent), Mauritania (38 per cent) and the Sudan (34 per cent), and among the poorest population groups in each country, as presented in figure 19.

Figure 19. Percentage of children under 5 years old who consume two or less food groups per wealth quintile and country

Source: ESCWA calculations based on the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) child poverty data. Only countries with data available have been included.

4. Stability

Stability relates to the ability of countries and households to face various types of negative shocks without modifying their food consumption patterns. Shocks might be sudden, such an unexpected increase in food prices or a drought, or cyclical, such as food availability linked to agricultural harvest times.

Shocks can impact food security both at the macro level, through changes in food supply in the country, and at the micro level, through changes in the ability of households to acquire food.

The war in Ukraine and the sanctions on the Russian Federation reduced the international supply of wheat, maize, barely, sunflower, fertilizers and oil, further increasing global market prices. This has benefited oil producing countries and harmed those importing food and oil, deepening inequalities between countries in the region. Many countries in the region were strongly dependent on imports from the Russian Federation and Ukraine for key food commodities before the war: over 66 per cent of the wheat consumed in Egypt, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and Somalia, and over 90 per cent of the sunflower oil in Algeria, Egypt, the Sudan and Tunisia. A number of key agricultural inputs, such as potassium fertilizer, were also acquired from the Russian Federation.

Figure 22. Arab countries dependency on imports. Share of wheat imports from the Russian Federation and Ukraine out of total wheat purchases in 2021 (Percentage)

Source: ESCWA elaboration based on data from FAOSTAT.
Note: Only Arab countries that import wheat from the Russian Federation or Ukraine have been included in the figure. In Kuwait, 0.07 per cent of wheat imports came from Ukraine. Qatar imported 0.04 per cent from Ukraine.

Challenges to food security for refugees in the Arab region

Four of the top ten countries with the highest IDPs due to conflict are in the Arab region and it accounts for the largest number of refugees in the world. IDPs in Iraq, the Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen reached up to 15.31 million people in 2021. Somalia, the Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen account for the majority of new displacements.a

Refugees are typically at increased risk of food insecurity. While accurate and up-to-date data on refugee populations are often lacking, recent studies show how dire the situation is. Around 39 per cent of Syrian refugees in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon presented crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity in 2021.b Among those in refugee camps in Jordan, food insecurity reached 58 per cent in 2022.c In the State of Palestine in 2017, the food expenses of families living in refugee camps were 19 per cent lower than of the rest of the population, despite food representing a higher proportion of their budget (29.64 per cent) compared to non-refugees (25.70 per cent).d

Refugees are highly dependent on food aid and their diets may be monotonous and not meet their full micronutrient needs, leading to health problems. A 2016 study found anaemia rates of 17 per cent among Syrian children in the Zaatari camp (Jordan), compared to the 9 per cent rate in Jordan at large.e In addition, some studies indicate that refugee diets might have excessive fat content, leading to problems related to obesity for some individuals. In the State of Palestine, families living in refugee camps allocated higher proportions of their food budget to oils and fats compared with the rest of the population.f
A 2015–2016 health assessment of Syrian refugee children aged 6–59 months showed a 10.6 per cent prevalence of obesity.g

a FAO, The status of women in agrifood systems, 2023.
b World Bank data. Available at
c FAO, The status of women in agrifood systems, 2023.
d ESCWA calculations based on Palestine’s Household Expenditure and Consumption Survey, 2016–2017.
e Hossain, S.M.M., Leidman, E., Kingori, J. and others, Nutritional situation among Syrian refugees hosted in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon: cross sectional surveys, 2016.
f ESCWA calculations based on Palestine’s Household Expenditure and Consumption Survey, 2016–2017.
g Sweetmavourneen Pernitez-Agan, Kolitha Wickramage, Catherine Yen and others, Nutritional profile of Syrian refugee children before resettlement, 2019.

C. Food security outcomes

The previous sections show that to achieve food security, countries should have sufficient food available; the population should have physical and economic access to it; and it should be consumed in a safe way and in the right quantity and quality. In addition, all this should happen at all times, regardless of external shocks. Inequalities in the four pillars identified in the previous section lead to very different degrees of food security among countries, among households, and within households. These effects can be quantified through three key indicators: undernourishment levels, obesity levels, and households’ perceptions of food insecurity, measured through the Food Insecurity Experience Scale.

At the household level, undernourishment and food insecurity are most often found among the poor and most vulnerable population groups. Macroeconomic variables can offer some insights on the relationship between income inequality and food insecurity outcomes. Comparing GDP growth in the Arab region with the evolution of undernourishment rates shows that increases in wealth have not translated into reductions in undernourishment. While GDP per capita has more than doubled in the region since 2001, undernourishment has decreased by only 1 percentage point, as illustrated in figure 24.

Figure 24. Percentage changes in gross domestic product per capita and prevalence of undernourishment in the Arab region from baseline 2001 levels

Source: ESCWA calculations based on World Bank data.

The relationship between obesity and income inequality is more complex. Some studies suggest that obesity rates are higher among wealthy households and urban populations in LICs, and that as countries’ incomes increase, obesity rates shift to poorer populations and rural areas.107 Following that hypothesis, obesity rates in Jordan are higher among the poor, while in Mauritania and Yemen, obesity is more prevalent among the wealthy, as illustrated in figure 25.

Figure 25. Women’s obesity rates per wealth quintile and country

Source: ESCWA elaboration based on the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) Program data.

3. Food security and inequality: risk and trend analysis

Key messages


The prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity affected a total of 180.8 million people in the Western Asia and North Africa region in 2021.


About 35 per cent of the Arab region’s population is food insecure and deprived of regular access to sufficient food and nutrition.


The number of people suffering from severe food insecurity in 2021 was estimated at 53.9 million, an increase of 5 million from the previous year.


Inequality in food security is not new to the Arab region; it existed prior to the war in Ukraine.


The Arab region is experiencing a polycrisis, whereby the compound impact of multiple and overlapping crises is greater than the sum of each crisis individually.


There are stark interregional inequalities in food insecurity; food insecurity in LDCs is five times higher than in the GCC

A. Introduction

Climate change, excessive water consumption, land degradation and population growth are putting pressure on natural resources in the Arab region, leading to limited agricultural yields and putting livelihoods and food security at risk.

In recent years, Arab countries have followed different food security trends. From 2020 onwards, multiple crises experienced by the region have jeopardized some of the advances previously made in food security, potentially increasing inequalities. This chapter analyses food security trends between 2000 and 2020, followed by an assessment of different economic, political and environmental shocks experienced by Arab countries in the 2020–2022 period, for which data on food security are limited. It presents preliminary data on the unequal outcomes of the shocks among different population groups and assesses how these impact food security outcomes. Case studies using health and demographic surveys, as well as household expenditures and consumption surveys are employed to analyse inequalities in food consumption patterns.

B. Food security trends in the Arab region 2000–2020

Arab countries have followed different trajectories of food security over the past two decades, with some countries getting closer to meeting the goal of ending hunger for all, while others have seen stagnation or deterioration.

Hunger, one of the cruellest forms of inequality, continues to be a challenge in the region. It is most often measured by the PoU, defined as the percentage of the population whose habitual food consumption does not cover their energy and nutritional requirements. As shown in figure 26, in most LDCs, PoU was high in the early 2000s and moderate improvements have been seen during the past 20 years. The progress of Djibouti is remarkable, where the PoU declined from over 40 per cent in 2000 to 13.5 per cent in 2020. Countries in conflict often lack reliable data to assess the food security situation, but humanitarian groups report rapid deteriorations in times when violence escalates. In Yemen, the level of undernourishment has increased substantially over the past 10 years as the conflict continues: PoU hit 41.4 per cent in 2020. PoU has remained low to moderate in GCC countries and MICs, with some increases in Jordan and Lebanon in recent years, especially among refugee populations.

Figure 26. The prevalence of undernourishment trends by group of countries, 2001–2020

Source: FAOSTAT.

The population’s perception of food insecurity, often measured with the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), complements analysis derived from PoU figures as it is quicker to capture changes in the food security situation. Available data from 2015 for some Arab countries show low levels of food insecurity in GCC countries, while most countries in conflict and LDCs show high and increasing rates. MICs present some disparities, with food insecurity levels decreasing in Algeria and Egypt, while increasing in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.

Figure 27. The Food Insecurity Experience Scale trends by group of countries, 2015–2020

Source: FAOSTAT.

Obesity rates have been increasing in all countries in which data are available, reflecting changes in traditional diets and a lack of awareness of healthy nutritional practices. In general terms, obesity levels remain low in LDCs while they are high and rising in GCC countries and MICs. Countries in conflict such as Iraq, Libya, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen have also experienced increases in obesity rates in recent years.

Figure 28. Prevalence of obesity trends by group of countries, 2000–2020

Source: World Health Organization (WHO).

C. The convergence of multiple crises, 2020–2022

Since 2020, a series of global and national socioeconomic, political and environmental shocks have affected many countries in the Arab region, jeopardizing progress made in food security in the last decades, and accentuating inequality. In some instances, multiple overlapping crises have affected the same country, diminishing resilience and deepening inequalities. Multiple crises feed into each other and, by reducing resilience, the combined impact of overlapping crises is much more harmful to society than the sum of each individual crisis at a given point in time would be.


Port explosion in Lebanon

In August 2020, Lebanon experienced the most powerful non-nuclear explosion in history, causing over 200 deaths, $15 billion of damages, and leaving about 300,000 people homeless. About 77,000 houses and three hospitals were destroyed. In addition, potentially hazardous gases, notably ammonia gas and nitrogen oxides, were released into the environment. The country declared a state of emergency for two weeks after the explosion, during which time it experienced social unrest and largescale protests.

Multiple countries in the region experienced political crises and conflict between 2020 and 2022, resulting in the loss of lives, the destruction of physical infrastructure and the forced displacement of large numbers of people. The Syrian Arab Republic has witnessed unprecedent devastation and displacement since 2011, while Yemen is still in the midst of a widespread conflict. In Libya, political tensions remain high, 12 years after conflict erupted. Somalia has experienced decades of armed violence and political instability. In post-conflict Iraq, insecurity, displacement and damaged housing hamper people’s livelihoods, while the State of Palestine continues to experience the effects of the longest military occupation in modern history.

Famine in Somalia

Famines are declared when the food security situation reaches extreme levels: 30 per cent of children experiencing wasting; 20 per cent of the population having extreme lack of food; and two hunger-related deaths per 10,000 people per day. This definition was developed following the humanitarian emergency due to the drought in Somalia in 2011, when nearly 260,000 people died, half of them children.

Source: The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), National Voluntary Land Degradation Neutrality Targets, 2020.

Somalia has been suffering from a serious humanitarian crisis due to an extended drought, a locust invasion, ongoing conflict and weak economic conditions. Political tensions and violence continue after three decades of conflict. A total of 7,966 violent events were recorded during the 2020–2022 period. The delayed elections in 2021 caused international assistance to be temporarily halted, leading to liquidity pressures, while outbreaks of violence caused between 60,000–100,000 people to be displaced in April 2021. The number of civilian casualties increased in 2022, to the highest number recorded since 2017. It is estimated that between January and November 2022, 613 civilians were killed and 948 injured, mostly due to improvised explosive devices attributed to the armed group Al-Shabab.

Table 2. Classification of shocks experienced by the countries in the region
The earthquake in northern Syria

In February 2023, two earthquakes of magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 on the Richter scale struck the Syrian Arab Republic and Türkiye. At least 8.8 million were affected and 5,791 people died in the Syrian Arab Republic.

After over a decade of conflict, the Syrian Arab Republic was already suffering from weak infrastructure and high numbers of vulnerable populations, including 6.8 million IDPs. In north-west Syria, more than 90 per cent of the population depended on humanitarian aid before the earthquake and had minimal means with which to withstand emergencies. After the disaster, the limited government response, the lack of equipment and fuel to carry out rescue operations, and adverse weather conditions delayed the much-needed assistance. In addition, the ongoing conflict made it difficult to reach populations in certain areas, making it hard to assess damages and send aid.

It is estimated that over 5 million people in the Syrian Arab Republic were displaced because of the earthquake and 100,000 in Aleppo alone were left homeless. Women and children have been disproportionately affected. Initial estimates pointed to close to a million women of reproductive age affected, out of which 148,000 were pregnant at the moment of the earthquake and 30,000 expected to deliver in the following 3 months. Vital infrastructure, including hospitals, water reservoirs and around 239 schools, was damaged.

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2023. Available here.

D. Unequal effects of the multiple crises on food security

Food security has been significantly impacted by the crises the region has experienced over the past three years.

  • In Lebanon

    1.98 million Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees were in urgent need of humanitarian action due to acute food insecurity between September and December 2022. Of these, 306,000 people were estimated to be at emergency levels. Among Syrian refugees, food insecurity was particularly prevalent, with 46 per cent of the population at crisis level or above. Rural communities were especially impacted, with 95 per cent of agricultural households interviewed stating they would require humanitarian assistance in the next 3–6 months.

  • In Somalia

    5.6 million people experienced high levels of food insecurity between October and December 2022. Among these, 1.5 million people were classified as being at emergency level. Some populations were disproportionately affected, such as agropastoral communities in Baidoa and Burhakaba districts and displaced populations in Baidoa town and in Mogadishu. A country assessment conducted in August 2022 estimated that 1.8 million children faced acute malnutrition, including 513,550 children who may be severely malnourished.

  • In Yemen

    17 million people, more than half the country’s population, were facing acute food insecurity between October and December 2022. Of these, 6.1 million were classified as being in an emergency situation. Yemen is one of the most food insecure countries in the world as conflict, extreme weather events and inflation continue to disrupt the lives of millions of people.

  • In the Sudan

    9.6 million people were experiencing acute food insecurity between April and May 2022, including 2.3 million at emergency level. Food security has deteriorated during 2022; the share of the population affected by crisis levels of food insecurity is projected to have increased from 13 per cent in October 2021 to February 2022 to 24 per cent in June to September 2022, pushing an additional 2 million people into acute food insecurity. The regions of northen, western and central Darfur, Khartoum, Kasala and the White Nile have been particularly affected.

E. Country case studies

1. Egypt

With an estimated 104 million inhabitants in 2022, Egypt is the most populated country in the Arab region. Over the last decade, Egypt has experienced growing poverty, inequality and food insecurity. Poverty rates increased between 2010 and 2020 from 34 to 36 per cent.165 Inequalities also widened; the share of income gained by the top 1 per cent of earners was 13 per cent higher in 2021 than in 1990 while the share of income earned by the bottom 50 per cent decreased by 9 per cent.

The Household Income, Expenditure, and Consumption Survey (HIECS) carried out by the Government of Egypt during 2019–2020 allows analysis of inequalities in food expenditure.

Differences in food expenditure, while considerably lower than in general expenditure, remain high. The wealthiest group spent over five times more than the poorest on food in 2020. The biggest disparities were found in fruit, fish and meat expenditure, with wealthier groups spending 6.5–8.5 times more than the poor. The average amount spent on meat by the wealthy is higher than many poor households’ total expenditure, including healthcare, education costs and rent.

Despite spending less than the rich in absolute terms, food expenditure represents 41 per cent of poor households’ budget, compared with only 13 per cent for the rich.

Figure 30. Food group expenditure by population group, 2019–2020 quintile and country

Source: ESCWA calculations based on the Household Income, Expenditure, and Consumption Survey (HIECS).

Table 3. Proportion of food budget spent in each food group according to household total yearly consumption (Percentage)

Source: ESCWA calculations based on the HIECS.

2. State of Palestine

The State of Palestine, consequently, is facing high rates of inequality, unemployment, poverty and food insecurity, with 2.1 million people – half of them children – in need of humanitarian assistance. In 2022, poverty affected 26.6 per cent of Palestinians, with similar rates of food insecurity (28.7 per cent in 2020), and even higher rates of anaemia among women of reproductive age (31 per cent in 2019). There are, however, significant inequalities among population groups. In 2021, 66 per cent of the wealth of the State of Palestine was managed by the richest 10 per cent while the bottom 50 per cent owned just 3.3 per cent of the resources.Populations living in Gaza, Bedouin communities and refugees are among the poorest and the most affected by food insecurity.

Classifying households according to their per capita total consumption, we observe that in 2017 the wealthiest decile had a total expenditure 13 times higher than the poorest decile. In terms of food, the wealthy spent almost 7.6 times more than those living in poverty, with the biggest disparities found in non-alcoholic beverages (14.2 times more), restaurants (13 times more) and meat expenditure (11.4 times more).

Figure 32. Per capita food expenditure in 2017 for the highest and lowest population deciles by total expenditure

Source: ESCWA elaboration based on the Palestinian Household Expenditure and Consumption Survey 2016–2017.

Inequalities in poverty and food security are stark across the occupied Palestinian territory. Poverty rates in Gaza are four times higher than in the West Bank, and 90 per cent of the Palestinians who are food insecure live there.200 A 2022 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) survey found a prevalence of food insecurity of 42.4 per cent in Gaza compared to 9.68 per cent in the West Bank, with 19 per cent of families in Gaza having reduced their consumption to cope with lack of food compared to 4.4 per cent of families in the West Bank.

Figure 33. Per capita expenditure by geographical location

Source: ESCWA’s calculations based on the Palestinian Household Expenditure and Consumption Survey 2016–2017.

Table 6. Proportion of food budget spent in each food group according to geographical area (Percentage)

Source: ESCWA calculations based on the Palestinian Household Expenditure and Consumption Survey 2016–2017.

3. Mauritania

One of the most desertic and least densely populated countries in the Arab region, Mauritania is transitioning from a traditional pastoralist society to a society experiencing rapid urbanization. Poverty rates declined from 38.3 per cent in 2010 to 33.6 per cent in 2022, mainly due to increases in agricultural productivity in rural areas, migration of part of the rural poor to Nouakchott, and increases in mining exports and fisheries. However, most of the country still has inadequate access to basic infrastructure, limited education levels and low access to drinking water, sanitation and electricity. Chronic poverty remains mostly concentrated in rural areas and in the south of the country, especially in Guidimagha and Gorgol. Wealth inequality rates, while elevated, are lower than in many other countries in the region. In 2021, 57.8 per cent of the wealth of the country was controlled by the richest 10 per cent while the bottom 50 per cent owned 4.9 per cent.

The 2019–2021 Demographic and Health Survey in Mauritania shows concerning levels of health problems associated with food insecurity among women and children. Analysis reveals that wealth, education level and geographic location are correlated with specific health issues. It is estimated that over half of women suffer from iron deficiency while one in four children experience child stunting. There are big disparities in the incidence of health issues among different population groups. Rural areas, poorer households and less educated populations present higher rates of women’s anaemia, child stunting and child wasting. Obesity is more prevalent among women with higher levels of wealth and education and among those living in urban areas.

Figure 34. Differences in the prevalence of food insecurity-related problems in rural and urban areas

Source: ESCWA elaboration using data from the 2017–2019 Demographic and Health Survey in Mauritania.

Levels of women’s anaemia are generally high throughout the country, affecting over half of women (56 per cent) of reproductive age, which is above the already high regional average (33.2 per cent in 2019). There are considerable differences between the poorest quintile (68.9 per cent prevalence of anaemia) and the wealthiest (45 per cent prevalence of anaemia), and when comparing households living in Guidimagha (66.1 per cent) and Gorgol (65 per cent), some of the poorer regions of the country, with those residing in the wealthier regions such as areas of Tiris Zemour and Inchir (32.8 per cent). Similarly, anaemia rates are higher among women living in rural areas (61.4 per cent) compared to women living in urban areas (50.6 per cent).

Table 7. Wealth quintile (Percentage)

Source: ESCWA elaboration using data from the 2017–2019 Demographic and Health Survey in Mauritania.

4. Iraq

The latest Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, conducted in 2018, sheds light on the prevalence of child nutritional deficiencies in Iraq and among different population groups. Child stunting and wasting rates are within the limits considered low by the WHO at 9.9 per cent and 2.5 per cent, respectively. At the same time, 2.9 per cent of children display a weight too low for their age while 6.6 per cent are overweight. There are significant variations in these rates according to geographical location, mother’s education level and household wealth.

When comparing health indicators among urban and rural areas, child stunting and wasting prevalence are similar across all areas, but urban areas present higher rates of overweight children; 7 per cent of children living in urban areas are overweight compared to 5.9 per cent of children in rural areas.

Analysing child nutritional deficiencies by household wealth, higher rates of child stunting are observed among poorer families than among the rich. The lowest wealth quintile presents a prevalence of stunting of 12.9 per cent compared to 6.5 per cent in the highest quintile. Children from mothers with no formal education suffer even higher rates of child stunting, at 14.4 per cent, compared to 6.9 per cent among those with upper secondary education. Child wasting and excessive weight, however, are not clearly associated with wealth or mother’s education.

Figure 35. Differences in the prevalence of child stunting by wealth quintile

Source: ESCWA elaboration using data from the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, Iraq, 2018.

4. Policy solutions

Key messages


A combination of integrated policies is required to reduce inequality.


To reduce inequality in food security, a three-pronged approach is needed: promoting solidarity, delivering visible impact, and securing credibility and trust.


Immediate provision of development and humanitarian assistance, without political implications, should be a priority to ensure that nobody suffers from food insecurity.


A solidarity fund should be established to facilitate shared responsibility between the rich and those living in poverty.


Redistribution should finance social protection systems, which should be designed to break intergenerational inequalities through providing assets, educations, skills and access to opportunities.


National nutrition strategies can improve the population’s access to nutrition and increase awareness of health eating and exercise practices.


Rural development and agricultural development go hand in hand.


Early warning systems, disaster management units, and climate change mitigation and adaptation can protect against the growing impacts of climate change.


Economic growth alone cannot achieve food security. In the absence of integrated policy solutions, inequality dynamics can cause vulnerable population groups to continue to suffer from poverty and food insecurity.

A. Introduction

Applying an inequality lens to food security should lead to the development of policies that ensure a healthy diet is available, accessible and sustained for all members of society, irrespective of their gender, socioeconomic status or geographical location. Economic growth alone is not sufficient to reduce inequality and ensure food security. On the contrary, economic growth that does not trickle down to the entire population will widen inequality. For example, profit-driven food systems risk leaving vulnerable stakeholders food insecure, particularly small-scale farmers, transporters, wholesalers, vendors, retailers and supply chain workers, as well as consumers.

This chapter builds on Pathfinders’ three-pronged approach for policies to successfully reduce inequality as presented in figure 37: (a) delivering visible impact; (b) promoting solidarity; and (c) securing credibility and trust. To deliver visible impact, policies should tackle areas that make a meaningful, material difference in people’s daily lives and address unattended policy areas.

Figure 37. A three-pronged approach to policies to reduce inequality


Source: Pathfinders, From Rhetoric to Action: Delivery Equality and Inclusion, 2021.

ESCWA conducted a poll on food security asking about the role of the Government in combating rising food prices. As figure 38 shows, the majority of respondents believe that Governments should control food prices and increase local food production.

Figure 38. People’s perceptions of Governments’ policy solutions to address recent increases in food prices

Source: Results of ESCWA online opinion poll.

B. Enhancing availability

The recommended solutions to enhance availability of food focus on two solutions related to supporting the agricultural sector and facilitating food trade.

1. Supporting the agricultural sector

a. Delivering visible impact
  1. Deliver extension and advisory services to smallholder farmers: Extension services play a crucial role in ensuring the most remote and vulnerable farmers are also productive and thus should be prioritized, with the support of grassroots organizations and rural cooperatives.
  2. Support agricultural cooperatives: Agricultural cooperatives combat inequality by enabling farmers to share risks, reduce input and transportation costs, and share best practices, and by reducing the role of middlemen, providing access to a greater market, and ultimately increasing their profitability.
  3. Embrace innovative technologies to boost agricultural productivity: Appropriate agricultural technology and practices have the potential to transform the agricultural sector, increase productivity and reduce losses and costs.
  4. Finance smart irrigation techniques: Smart irrigation techniques can support climate change adaptation and increase the resilience of ecosystems.
  5. Unlock the potential of rain-fed agriculture: Irrigated farming systems are expensive to set up and maintain; rain-fed farming systems are a better solution for increasing food production in an affordable manner.
b. Promoting solidarity

Support youth agricultural initiatives: Young people tend to favour modern technology and practices across the agriculture value chains that can revitalize agricultural systems, increase productivity and enhance food security. Supporting youth agricultural initiatives can bring positive changes to food security while empowering an age group that suffers from compound inequalities. Support to youth agricultural initiatives should focus on overcoming the major constraints young people face in access to land, finance and skills development. Young people are confronted with serious social, economic, political and environmental challenges largely inherited from previous generations, which are more acute in rural areas and in agriculture.

Governments and donors need to implement capacitybuilding and awareness-raising programmes to support young people, enact policies to strengthen their land tenure and rights, provide capacity-building in enterprise development and financial literacy, and develop profitable and sustainable projects. The provision of access to farmer field schools or youth skills development programmes is also needed.

c. Securing credibility
  1. Ensure the efficiency of public investment in agriculture:: It is important to ensure that public agricultural investments reach the most vulnerable farmers and stakeholders and reduce inequalities across food systems.
  2. Address food loss and waste: Food loss and waste impact the entire food system as they result in natural resource wastage and increase the impacts of climate change.

2. Facilitating food trade

a. Delivering visible impact
  1. Adopt preferential trade agreements for perishable goods:: Perishable goods are particularly vulnerable to trade and customs delays due to their short lifespan.
  2. Support fast and reliable testing procedures for agricultural trade: Inefficiencies in agricultural supply chains, such as multiple food tests, delays in food testing and stringent safety measures, lead to income losses for farmers and traders, notably the smallest and poorest that may have limited access to secure storage options, and create food losses and an unstable food supply system.
b. Promoting solidarity

Promote regional trade integration: Regional trade integration can offer substantial economic gains through expanding markets, integrating food supply chains and increasing the competitiveness of the Arab region as a whole. One of the priorities should be reforming nontariff measures and harmonizing regulatory frameworks; examples include phytosanitary and technical regulations, testing and certification, and adopting a common Arab Good Agricultural Practices framework.

Governments should promote a regional agricultural development programme whereby water scarce countries or those with limited arable land can invest in Arab countries with abundant land and water to increase the availability of food supplies at the regional level. Investment flows need to be regulated to maximize both economic and social benefits, while minimizing risks for both investing and recipient countries. Although not its primary purpose, regional trade integration can also lead to non-economic benefits such as the promotion of peace and security, which would significantly reduce inequalities.

c. Securing credibility

Digitalize trade and customs procedures: The digitalization of trade procedures will quicken agricultural trade across borders, reduce the risk of human error, minimize opportunities for rent seeking, and encourage agricultural trade, thereby benefiting small farmers and consumers. In particular, e-payments can reduce customs clearance times and administrative costs and ensure government trade revenue transparency.

E-payment systems were further developed due to the need to stimulate cashless economies during the COVID-19 pandemic; Governments should consolidate the gains made and maintain momentum for furthering digitalization. To be successful at the regional level, it is important that e-payment procedures are interoperable across borders and payment providers.

C. Enhancing access

1. Delivering visible impact

  • Review food subsidies

    The use of food subsidies needs to be reviewed to ensure access to healthy and affordable food for the most vulnerable. Within the current regional and global economic context, blanket food subsidies, in particular for wheat, are increasingly costly. However, food subsidies represent a safety net for those living in poverty and lower middle-class segments of society. Unlike other types of subsidies, food subsidies reach the targeted poor population, as highlighted in the Egyptian case.

  • Develop comprehensive social protection systems

    Social protection reform should ensure universal access to essential services, including social insurance against life-cycle risks (ill-health, old age) and targeted access to social assistance against poverty (basic income and other services), which are well-proven to reduce poverty, enhance well-being and reduce inequality.

  • Provide free school meals to vulnerable school children

    Free school meals help to keep children in school by easing the burden parents face to feed their families and thus reducing the risk that children leave school to help support their families. All too often for deprived households, free school meals can provide a child’s only nutritious meal, which is crucial for children’s psychosocial development. Free school meals are linked to higher educational outcomes, thereby not only benefitting immediate food security, but also longer-term intergenerational equality.

  • Implement cash transfer schemes to protect against short- and medium-term food insecurity

    Targeted cash transfers protect the vulnerable from deprivations caused by poverty and food insecurity and are essential during crises such as natural disasters and conflicts. Successful cash transfer systems should be well targeted, large enough to enable recipients to meet their basic needs and should be responsive so that they can be quickly scaled up or down in response to a shock.

2. Promoting solidarity

  • Develop a regional wealth solidarity fund

    An Arab Wealth Solidarity Fund can address the impacts of multiple overlapping shocks across the Arab region such as those brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the energy and food price shocks resulting from the war in Ukraine, and the recent earthquake in the Syrian Arab Republic and Türkiye. The solidarity fund would tackle inequality by targeting the specific needs of the most vulnerable groups while also expanding the opportunities available to low-income households. Timing and impartiality are critical.

  • Increase public investment in education to 15–20 per cent of total public expenditure

    Education is the greatest enabler of social mobility, and investment in quality education will go a long way to reducing intergenerational inequalities. The Arab region as a whole is a long way off meeting the principles of the Incheon Declaration on commitment to education, which calls for countries to invest between 4 and 6 per cent of their GDP or between 15 and 20 per cent of their public expenditure on quality education systems.

3. Securing credibility

  • Roll out a progressive national taxation system focused on direct taxation

    Countries with high inequality rates are three times more likely to face food insecurity compared to countries with low inequality. Poverty, very often linked with high inequality, is frequently the biggest determinant of whether an individual will face malnutrition.

    Progressive fiscal policy is essential to combating both inequality and food insecurity. Taxes and transfers are some of the most powerful instruments to reduce inequality, whereby wealthy individuals and corporations are made to pay their fair share of taxes.

  • Coordinate policies to reduce duplication, inefficiencies and contradictory outcomes

    A coherent commitment to reducing food insecurity and inequality reflected through coordinated interventions will build the trust of the public and enhance social cohesion. Coordinating policies can increase their efficiency, reduce the risk of duplication and improve the chances of combating food insecurity and inequality. Multiple solutions are required across a wide range of sectors including agriculture, finance, social protection, health, education, trade, climate change, environment, infrastructure, energy, water, rural development, and research and innovation.

Water scarcity is a key limitation for the agriculture sector in the Arab region

ESCWA and FAO supported the establishment of a Joint Water-Agriculture Ministerial Council under the umbrella of the League of Arab States in 2019 and a Joint Technical Committee to coordinate regional policies that affect the water and agricultural sectors. The Committee developed guidelines on improved allocation of water resources for agriculture.

ESCWA supported cross-sectoral coordination by disseminating knowledge, enhancing capabilities, developing scientific tools, and promoting integrated and coordinated policies on food and water security, which would enhance the implementation of the SDGs.

D. Enhancing utilization

  1. 1. Delivering visible impact
    Develop national nutrition strategies and guidelines: National nutrition strategies and guidelines can be used to promote healthy diets and lifestyles across the population and reduce nutritional deficiencies amongst the most vulnerable. The programmes within this strategy can include nutritional education campaigns, greater access to sports and physical education, healthy school meals for vulnerable children, folic acid supplements for pregnant women, fortified foods and deworming campaigns.

    Governments must enact laws and regulations on food nutrition strategies and guidelines as they affect people’s food choices, and provide information on serving size, caloric content per serving and the nutritional value of products to help consumers make more informed dietary decisions. Currently, less than half of the countries in the Arab region have mandatory nutritional food labelling.
  2. 2. Promoting solidarity
    Increase public investment in infrastructure: Public investment in infrastructure, including in transport, communications, cold chain, water and sanitation, are key to reducing food loss during transport and storage and to promoting greater agricultural productivity and smallholder profitability. Public infrastructure investments are particularly beneficial to smallholder rural farmers and farm workers, who often face multiple overlapping inequalities, exacerbated by their remoteness.

    Investment in transport and communication infrastructure will support access to markets by reducing food transport time and costs, especially for rural farmers and agricultural workers. Similarly, investment in cold chain equipment will prevent food loss during transport. Public investment in infrastructure will also have a significant impact on reducing geographical inequalities and is associated with greater school attendance and uptake of medical services amongst rural populations.
  3. 3. Securing credibility
    Improve food control systems: As food safety hazards increase on a global scale, effective food control systems are more important than ever to protect consumers’ health while ensuring fair practices in the food industry. Improvements should equally target critical elements of food utilization: (a) food law and regulations; (b) food control management; (c) inspection services; (d) laboratory services; (e) food monitoring; and (f) epidemiological data, information, education, communication and training.

    Provide incentives to healthy food consumption: Increasing the affordability of healthy foods (or decreasing the affordability of unhealthy foods, for example through a sugar tax) can encourage healthier dietary choices. Governments should enact and enforce laws that limit the amount of sugar, salt and processed food, or laws that determine food marketing (for example, limiting sugar advertisements for children). The accuracy, size and placement of nutrition labels can also limit people’s uptake of unhealthy food choices and should thus be regulated by law.

E. Ensuring stability against economic, political and climate shocks

The Arab region suffers from long-lasting occupation and conflicts disrupting livelihoods and contributing to deep food insecurity. Instilling peace, enhancing political stability and ending occupation are key to achieving sustainable development and ensuring equality and food security in the Arab region.

1. Delivering visible impact
  1. Invest in nature-based solutions for food security: Nature-based solutions are increasingly recognized as an efficient and effective way to build resilience against climate change at the community level, protecting biodiversity and limiting land degradation while creating immediate jobs and supporting the transition towards a green economy.
  2. Invest in climate-smart agriculture: By ensuring that agricultural practices mitigate climate change emissions (for which the agricultural sector is a large polluter) and adapt against the increasing impacts of climate change (against which the agricultural sector disproportionately suffers), climate-smart agriculture can increase agricultural productivity, reduce vulnerability to climate risks and shocks, and support global emission reductions targets.
2. Promoting solidarity
  1. Increase financing to humanitarian agencies: Expansion and reallocation of funds to humanitarian agencies and local NGOs are needed to cater for the increased humanitarian crises that the region is facing. Humanitarian funds should not be politically driven nor earmarked for a specific country, but rather used to support the most inneed populations.
  2. Mainstream climate change adaptation and mitigation across fiscal policies: Inequalities in climate change compound inequalities in income and wealth. Not only do the most vulnerable suffer the most from the impacts of climate change, but they are also the smallest contributors to climate change. It is therefore imperative that fiscal policies mainstream climate change mitigation and adaptation. This will require providing incentives to discourage emissions and encourage emission reductions. Taxes and transfers are powerful mechanisms for encouraging emission reductions. However, polluters will need to be taxed sufficiently to discourage their status quo and there need to be sufficient incentives for the private sector to embrace clean energy alternatives.
3. Securing credibility
  1. Enhance disaster management to respond to unexpected shocks: Natural and human-made disasters can very quickly widen inequality and erode food security, particularly for the most vulnerable. Climate change increases the risk of natural disasters and thus can exacerbate inequality and food insecurity.
  2. Increase transparency in humanitarian assistance: Governments that receive humanitarian funds must effectively, efficiently and credibly use the resources available to them to provide immediate food or cash assistance to the affected populations. To ensure credibility, there must be transparency over funds received, who the donors are, how the funds are spent (including any procurement beneficiaries), and who the beneficiaries are.