Flattening the recession curve through cooperation and solidarity

Highlights from the e-High Level Dialogue on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Rural Livelihoods in the NEN region 

If there is something we know for sure about this virus, is that it does not know borders, and neither limits for its tremendous impact on the world economy. COVID-19 is inducing a fast-evolving global economic recession, and country-centred solutions are not enough to contain the socio-economic spill overs of this crisis. A global problem needs a global solution, and a quickly evolving crisis requires quick counteractions. 

In this spirit, NEN organized an online high-level dialogue, bringing together 80 participants from 19 countries, including 20 ministers and deputy ministers, high-ranking UN representatives, and officials from partner organisations. The e-dialogue called upon participants to foster exchange and solidarity, and to identify common actions in addressing the impacts of the pandemic on rural livelihoods, smallholder agriculture and food security.

We had the honour of having our President, Mr. Gilbert Houngbo, introducing the dialogue. In his remarks, the President highlighted how the high dependency of the NEN region from food imports – $110 billion in the last year – poses serious threats to food security. He explained how IFAD is mostly concerned about the socio-economic consequences of the crisis, and built its response around three main pillars: repurposing of existing projects, coordination with the UN System at the Country level, and a new financial tool, the Rural Poor Stimulus Facility, worth $40 million. In the region with the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, the Rural Poor Stimulus Facility wants to protect rural youth from joblessness and poverty, concluded the President. 

“This is not a financial crisis”, said Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), “it is a people crisis.” In a region already counting 93 million poor people, and with an unemployment rate of 25%, COVID-19 will add 8 million more people to the ranks of the poor, and an additional 1.6 million jobs will be lost, without counting those working in the informal economy. In fact, a big number of agricultural workers are employed in the informal sector, exacerbating the impact of the recession on rural livelihoods and food security. ESCWA estimates that COVID-19 will add 2 million people to the 15 million currently undernourished across the region. It is then essential to intervene in a flexible and agile way, supporting the recovery of the small-scale businesses at the heart of the rural sector. Financial support will help them in getting out of poverty, with positive repercussions on food security and employment. 

Our panellists confirmed it is not food supplies, but rather supply chains to face major disruptions due to lockdown measures. “In times of crisis people want to know that they can have enough food at their disposal”, stated Mr. Bekir Pakdemirli, Minister of Agriculture of Turkey. Mr. Pakdemirli highlighted how government coordination in Turkey is ensuring that supply chains are effective as in normal times. This is possible because agricultural workers can reach their fields in total safety; and thanks to financial and social support measures for farmers and agri-SMEs. “The Anatolian land has been farmed for more than 10.000 years.” added the minister. “We don’t have only a big food supply, but also a wide know-how in terms of agriculture. We’re ready to serve our neighbours by sharing both.” 

Similar measures have also been put in place in Jordan, as highlighted by Mr. Saleh Kharabsheh, Minister of Environment and Agriculture. The most vulnerable groups, such as isolated communities and refugees, are those most at risk of sliding into poverty and hunger, and Jordan is providing 20.000 vulnerable households with emergency food packages. In the NEN region, 55 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, of which 24 million are either refugees or internally displaced people (IDPs). They will likely pay the highest toll of the recession, and it is essential to act in solidarity in order not to leave them behind. 

All panellists agreed that international cooperation is key to tackle this enormous challenge ahead of us. “There is no better time to bring everyone together, this is the time for coordinated action,” said Dr. Rania Al-Mashat, Minister of International Cooperation of Egypt. She added that, to properly respond to this crisis, each national policy needs to be designed keeping into consideration a bigger global picture, especially when tackling key areas like food security and rural livelihoods. She called on international institutions and on IFAD to play an important role in providing financial and technical assistance, as well as a vision on how to move forward as we navigate through the implications of COVID-19. 

“COVID-19 has deregulated the world” added Mohamed Sadiki, Secretary General of the Ministry of Agriculture. “The world will have changed its face after this crisis, and we will clearly see a pre-pandemic and a post-pandemic reality”. For Mr Sadiki, action to respond to this crisis must be taken today, but with tomorrow in mind. This is the time to be quick and forward-looking at the same time, since embracing this global radical paradigm shift is an effort that must be done in cooperation and solidarity. Over the past years, thanks to IFAD’s role as a South-South and Triangular Cooperation broker, Morocco has been able to share relevant knowledge on areas such as value chain development and targeting of isolated and vulnerable communities with many countries and partners, especially in Africa. Mr Sadiki suggested the establishment of an IFAD-led online platform for knowledge exchange, to carry forward much-needed South-South and Triangular Cooperation efforts in such an uncertain moment as the one we are living. 

The Near East, North Africa, Europe, and Central Asia is a very diverse region, with Upper-Middle Income Countries as well as some of the most fragile Countries in the world, each of them with its own challenges. “They say we have stay at home, when the majority of our rural population is nomadic. They say we need to wash our hands, but we have no water.” Strongly affirmed Mohamed Ahmed Awaleh, Minister of Agriculture of Djibouti. Somalia, with its 2.6 million displaced people and its devastating desert locust outbreak, also looks with concern at the development of the COVID-19 crisis but sees regional cooperation as a big hope. “We appreciate NEN’s diversity both in terms of economic development and political stability,” said Mr. Said Hussein Iid, Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources, “as it gives us important learning and partnership opportunities.” 

As of today, IFAD received 36 requests of assistance. We have been capable to revise our internal processes with unprecedented speed, and $20 million have already been re-directed to finance immediate crisis response activities. We support countries in improving and enhancing agricultural inputs, access to markets, and rural finance. We capitalize on our technical expertise to support governments in COVID-related economic analyses, especially on the impact of the virus on the supply and value chains, and on the most vulnerable segments of rural communities. 

IFAD’s ability to quickly repurpose ongoing projects to respond to the COVID-19 crisis has been praised by Mr. Boris Pasalic, Minister of Agriculture of the Republika Sprska, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The IFAD-financed Rural Competitiveness Development Project (RCDP) has been the first programme to pilot such restructuring, re-allocating €1 million towards the purchase of seeds and fertilizers, then distributed in emergency packages to the most vulnerable rural households. This measure will contribute to increase food insecure households’ self-sufficiency, crucially important in a country that is highly dependent on food imports and that could suffer major shortages due to supply chain disruptions. 

Only by working closely together we can find a way to serve the rural poor in such an unprecedented context. The world might be slowing down, but poverty and hunger are on the rise, with vulnerable populations and conflict-ridden countries paying the highest price. We must not let hunger and poverty take more lives than the virus. We need to avoid inaction: time has come for solidarity, and that time is now. The e-Dialogue organized by NEN highlighted the great challenges countries are facing during these difficult times, but also allowed them to capitalize on the region’s diversity, sharing their experiences and learning from each other. Solidarity is not always only about money, but it is also very much about experience. The virtual exchange platform that IFAD provided allows cross-fertilization among countries, since such a global challenge must be tackled by a shared solution. The commitment to cooperation and solidarity shown during the dialogue makes us hope that together we will be able to transform this enormous challenge into an even greater opportunity to lay foundations for a better world, for the sake of the new generations.