World Food Programme rations monthly aid in Yemen as supply chains creak
The maxim is that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon but for Arif Husain – chief economist of the World Food Programme – the issue is a pressing threat to life, now more than ever.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic is having a significant effect on food security for tens of millions of people.
For a growing group of vulnerable countries, a spiral of shortages has combined with a collapse in the earning power of the poorest people. Many are not able to buy food when it is in the markets.
On the front line of this turmoil is Mr Husain, who tracks the hammer blows from the sudden disruption. Two of the worst-affected countries are Syria and Yemen.
One benchmark he used was that people would spend about 50 per cent of their income on food. Mr Husain said families in Syria now borrowed money to eat.
“In Syria the prices of our food basket have risen in the last three months by 70 per cent,” he told The National.
“Prices were up 205 per cent last year and are 15.8 times higher since the start of the war.
“With war, Covid and inflation, how do you expect people to live?”
As the UN’s logistics and global food supplies arm, the WFP stepped in to absorb some of the shocks to the worldwide supply chains caused by restrictions imposed during the pandemic. The organisation had to readjust to new pressures.
In Yemen, the WFP was vital to efforts to feed 12 million people each month, but since spring it has rotated recipients, giving to six million in one month and the other half the next.
More than 90 per cent of Yemen’s food is imported, a vulnerability that is exposed whenever the currency weakens.
“The supply chains for these hard-hit places are not working as usual,” Mr Husain said.
Abeer Etefa, Middle East director at the WFP, said the shift was vital to hold the line against Yemen falling into famine.
“We need to extend the resources as much as we can. When we say the word ‘famine’ it means we have collectively failed this country,” she said.
What makes it more difficult for Mr Husain is many of the tools of the economist profession are no longer functioning as reliable indicators.
He pointed to the equivalent of 400 million people being taken out of the global workforce by pandemic restrictions – the International Labour Organisation estimates that 93 per cent of workers were affected at some point
– as taking away livelihoods. This means people cannot buy food.
Even if there is less food around, prices are not necessarily reflecting this scarcity because consumer demand has gone.
“Price signal prices may stay normal in any given place but what’s missing is a measure of purchasing power,” Mr Husain said.
“Just to go solely by prices is not OK, because purchasing power is not there.
“Governments have spent $11 trillion (Dh40tn) to contain the pandemic and limit its damage and in addition there has been $6tn provided by central banks for liquidity.
“Despite that massive injection you have 270 million people at risk of starvation in 2020.”
The WFP is facing an increase in the number of people it provides direct assistance to this year alone to 140 million.
Ms Etefa pointed to the tripling of prices in a year in Syria and its meaning for the ordinary person. “Apples are a luxury as the price has gone up 450 per cent,” she said.
“These are very resilient people and this is pushing them to the edge.”
A boy carries food aid given by the World Food Programme in Syria, where prices increased by more than 200 per cent last year