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Arab poverty is Europe’s problem

June 8, 2016

The call for ‘bread and freedom can also be seen as an axiomatic set of priorities: first comes bread then comes freedom.

Bread is cheap these days, as commodity prices fall. But, cheap is a very relative concept when faced with absolute poverty. In recent history, the steepest rise in commodity prices was witnessed between January and June 2008. Following this steep rise in commodity prices nearly three years ago, food riots took place in Mexico (December 2007), Indonesia (January 2009), Burkina Faso (February) and then Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, etc. In 2011 food prices approached the 2008 peak. And Arab Spring happened.

Egypt’s national statistical service said on Sunday that the population of the Arab world’s most populous country has surged by 1 million over the last six months, reaching 91 million. Egypt’s population in 2010 was 78,9 million people, that is, a demographic expansion of 21 million people – the population of Spain – in five years.

The statement on Sunday warned that the rate of demographic expansion disrupts the country’s growth with more than 25% of Egyptians living in dire poverty according to the 2013 census. Egypt’s fertility rate slowed down in the 1980s and 1990s but the trend spiked up again in 2007 according to the World Bank.

Within a century the Arab population expanded fivefold and continues to do so at an annual average of 2.3%. According to UN projections, Egypt will reach a population of 121 million people in 2050; Algeria 49 million; Yemen 58 million. This means that more jobs need to be created —especially since Arab women are dynamically entering the labour market—but, also, more food will have to be imported.

Egypt can’t feed its people, who also happen to be young.

Poverty, hunger, and youth are a dangerous mix.

In June 2010 the UN issued a report entitled “Index overpopulation,” addressing the status of the population and food in 77 countries, including most countries of the Arab World and the Middle East. The report assessed levels of per capita consumption, the per capita share of productive land available, livestock, water resources, etc. The most crucial finding of this report is the level of food dependency defined as the ratio of consumption based on external sources. Arab countries were high up in the list of the most food dependent states in the world: Egypt was the 14th most food dependent country in the world, depending to cover 77% of its nutritional needs. Qatar was the first.

Egypt has taken advantage of tumbling international commodity and energy prices to phase out costly and largely unsustainable food subsidies in a country where tens of millions live with $2 a day or under. That poverty is not sustainable, for Egypt or for Europe.