Syria's decision to make cash payments to thousands of vulnerable families and reduce some taxes could help stem food insecurity and rising poverty, but many still do not have enough to eat, say experts.
Payments have begun to be made from a new fund designed to help 420,000 vulnerable families. The National Social Aid Fund has been in the pipeline for several years, was set up in January and made its first payments on 13 February.
Two days later, the government reduced duties on a range of basic foodstuffs including rice, tea, powdered milk, coffee and bananas. It also lowered taxes on vegetable oil, margarine, unroasted coffee and sugar.
Shortly after the ouster of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January, the government also announced a 72 percent rise in heating fuel subsidies for public sector employees.
"Traditionally the Middle East and North Africa has been relatively food secure,” said Arne Oshaug, a nutrition and food security expert at Akershus University College in Norway. “But many countries now produce less and rely on imports which are subject to price fluctuations.”
This is beginning to affect more affluent people too. An index of food vulnerability by Nomura, a Japanese investment house, found that on average 47.9 percent of household income is spent on food in Syria.
"When people spend so much of their income on food, a slight variation in the price can upset their ability to eat enough to avoid hunger,” said Oshaug.
Syria is faced with decreasing oil reserves and a growing population, limiting its options. Food prices have been rising and at the same time some subsidies, such as on fuel, have decreased.
"It's very hard to survive,” said one herder on the outskirts of Damascus. “We can barely afford the basics of tea, bread and sugar.”
In 2005, a UN report found that 30 percent of Syrians lived below the poverty line, and of these, 11.4 percent below the subsistence level.
The situation has since deteriorated, in part due to several years of drought. In a 27 January report, UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food Oliver de Schutter estimated the number of people who may be food insecure at 3.7 million.
"Since 2006, the country has endured four consecutive droughts," Schutter noted. "The drought of 2007-08 was particularly devastating, placing additional burdens on the country.
Although rainfall in 2009 and 2010 has been greater than in the three previous years, it was poorly distributed. While the impact on pasture land was positive, crops failed in the rain-fed areas of the most vulnerable agro-climatic zones."
In the northeastern region, he added, drought had resulted in significant losses particularly in the governorates of Al Hasakah, Dayr Az Zawr and Al Raqqah.
In January, the World Food Programme (WFP) and government emergency drought response was extended until May after the UN found food insecurity was an enduring problem.
"There is a situation of food insecurity in the drought-affected areas,” said Selly Muzammil, World Food Programme (WFP) spokesman in Syria. “Our latest assessment shows 25 percent of the rural population in the five surveyed governorates are experiencing food insecurity.”
The situation has been further aggravated by the yellow rust crop disease and adverse weather, which have reduced agricultural output, causing Syria to turn to imports. According to Agriculture Ministry figures, wheat, barley and cotton yields fell last year by 17, 20 and 28 percent respectively.
Experts said the situation could lead to chronic food insecurity and also hit the economy. "Malnutrition and learning impairment are just two possible consequences,” said Oshaug, adding: “Research has shown that food insecurity is directly linked to a reduction in a country's GDP.”
Last week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that countries in the Middle East need to focus on inclusive growth and targeted help for the poor.
In an interview with IMF Survey magazine, Masood Ahmed, director of the IMF's Middle East and Central Asia department, said the authorities in the region had announced expenditure increases of up to 3 percent of GDP since the recent unrest began in Tunisia.
But he warned that efforts must be sustainable."To address the fiscal constraint without necessarily reducing other important expenditures, it is important to improve and modernize existing safety nets,” he said.
More funding, better targeting
Humanitarian agencies said more money was needed to tackle food security in Syria. WFP’s emergency funding appeal for the country fell short of its target.
A lack of funds last year meant it could only distribute food to 215,000 of the 300,000 beneficiaries targeted. Some 2,000 children were being given food supplements to prevent stunting.
Experts said it may also be necessary to target interventions in a better way. "We need to rethink development support in general,” said Oshaug. “There needs to be a greater focus on people's needs rather than what politicians are willing to do.”
Another area Syria needs to tackle is unemployment. Officially at 11-12 percent, independent economic analysts say it is running at 20 percent. The number of new job openings is believed not to be keeping pace with rising demand.
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