Bridging Evidence and Policy (BEP) Seminar Series: Crises and Response – Development and Humanitarian in the MENA

  • From
    CGIAR Initiative on National Policies and Strategies
  • Published on
    22.05.24

Share this to :

This article was originally posted on IFPRI Egypt Strategy Support Program site.

Introduction

Vulnerable communities in the Arab world and MENA region face numerous challenges, including conflicts, resource scarcity, and inequality which exacerbate their situation. The COVID-19 pandemic, rising food prices due to conflicts, natural disasters, and ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Sudan, and Palestine further hinder development opportunities in the region. Agile planning and evidence-based policymaking are needed to address these risks, protect vulnerable communities, and build resilience. With this objective in mind, the “Crises And Response: Development & Humanitarian Aid in Middle East & North Africa (MENA)” seminar was held on March 26, 2024, focusing on the developmental work and recent, novel practices in response to and recovery from crises.

This seminar is third in a seminar series “Bridging Evidence & Policy (BEP)”, co-organized by Sawiris Foundation for Social Development (SFSD), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the Egyptian Food Bank (EFB) and is part of CGIAR’s National Policies and Strategies (NPS) Initiative.

Opening Remarks

Mohsen Sarhan, CEO, EFB: opened the BEP seminar by extending warm welcome to all attendees and noting the goal of the seminar was to foster a dialogue on how to better save lives today and be better prepared to save lives in the future, a pivotal discussion for the MENA region. Mohsen pointed out that current challenges in the MENA region are complex, as difficulties caused by local conflicts are compounded with disruptions in global food supply chain and escalating impacts of climate change. As such, these challenges necessitate an immediate and enduring response. Mohsen recognized the resilience and strength of people in the MENA region when faced with adversities through history. However, the scale of today’s challenges requires reevaluation of existing knowledge and forging of novel solutions. Namely, as a CEO of the EFB, he has witnessed first-hand the intricate interdependence between crisis relief and strategic policy interventions, especially during two recent major relief campaigns in Sudan and Gaza. This work has taught him and the EFB that the sought appropriate solutions are not only found in the availability and immediacy of aid, but also in the resiliency and strength of the systems that connect people, help us recognize what people want, and give them what is in need.

Sikandra Kurdi, Research fellow and Egypt Country Program Leader, IFPRI: pointed out that the topic of development and humanitarian aid is lacking evidence in the MENA region, and she provided motivation for the seminar by emphasizing the importance of building the evidence base on these topics. Sikandra noted that the development community has traditionally avoided working in crisis settings due to ethical and logistical concerns. She implied that it is of utmost importance to work on the issues of food security and extreme poverty in these settings, since by 2030 most of the extremely poor worldwide will be in crisis contexts as estimated by the World Bank. Additionally, Sikandra discussed the necessity of creating links between shorter-term immediate humanitarian aid and longer-term resilience-building approaches reflecting on two theoretical examples: first, the United Nation’s Humanitarian-Development-Peace (HDP) nexus approach consisting of shorter-term humanitarian program focused on delivering life-saving aid, and longer-term development processes supporting economic growth, environmental sustainability, and institutions that provide political stability and peace. And second, the anticipatory action approach implies longer-term planning to be prepared for the shorter-term crisis. Motivated by these theoretical examples, Sikandra outlined ongoing research topics in the domain of humanitarian response, such as How to monitor and define triggers to use for anticipatory action?, How can food distribution be more nutrition sensitive?, and How effective is targeting at reaching the poorest?, to name a few. She pointed out that currently the most studied areas in the humanitarian aid research are on cash and voucher assistance as well as nutrition sensitive interventions, still evidence obtained through rigorous impact evaluations (for example, via randomized controlled trials) in the humanitarian aid and development research in general remains scarce in the MENA region. She concluded her remarks by assuring that it is possible to conduct rigorous research in crisis-affected settings while also considering ethical concerns, using as an example successful implementation of Cash for Nutrition pilot program she led in Yemen. She emphasized the effects of the program on increasing food security and reducing malnutrition levels were high given the crisis context, and that the findings were particularly valuable for expansion of the program nationwide and for the research community given the lack of rigorous evidence base.

Noura Selim, Executive Director, SFSD: opened her remarks by recognizing the timeliness of the BEP seminar on the topic of crisis and response, particularly given the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the MENA region. Noura reiterated the purpose of the current BEP seminar was to underscore the importance of evidence production and dissemination especially in the emergency and crisis states. Noura shared the mission of SFSDis to foster knowledge exchange and promote the utilization of evidence to enhance interventions that have the potential to mitigate the impacts of the crises in the MENA region. She highlighted that as a development organization, the Foundation focuses on long-term education and economic empowerment but also recognizes its role when it comes to various humanitarian crises. Noura emphasized that alliances between development and humanitarian sectors could enhance collective responses to emergencies but also lay the groundwork for formulating sustainable strategies to protect and support developmental achievements. Noura urged that it is our duty, as ambassadors of evidence-based practices, to facilitate the implementation of policies that proactively address emergencies, such as social protection and identification of resilience-building initiatives to shield vulnerable households from the various risks that jeopardize their wellbeing. Considering the Foundation’s strategic focus on multidimensional poverty and on empowering agents of change in Egypt, she proudly announced the foundation’s ongoing efforts to include its Emergency Response and Recovery (ERR) funding strategy as part of its recently launched 5-year strategy. Noura feels like the ERR will be central to Foundation’s mandates, bolstering its capabilities and capacities as well as those of its partners to timely and appropriately respond to evolving challenges, while ensuring recovery and resilience of vulnerable households.

Presentation

Rafaelle Bertini, Economic Affairs Officer, ESCWA: presented work titled “Risk-informed Policy Making: The Arab Risk Monitor”. Rafaelle pointed out that the context really matters when it comes to anticipatory action approaches, as it is important to consider the drivers of conflict. Locally, drivers of conflict are rooted in governance, political identity, and control over resources, while conflicts occur within regional and global contexts due to geopolitics, geoeconomics, competition over natural resources of different kinds, and neighborhood effects. Reflecting on the past decade, Rafaelle indicated there was a peak in the number of fatalities in 2014 with intensification of conflicts across the region, that subsequently led to internal and cross-border displacement and increased the number of people in need of humanitarian aid. Next, Rafaelle discussed the methodology behind the Arab Risk Monitor that considers the aforementioned drivers of conflict. He explained that risk has two main dimensions: vulnerability and resilience, and a combination of both provides an insight into the level of conflict risk for a country or for an entire region. For example, countries that have high vulnerability and low resilience are at the highest level of risk of conflict. In the Arab region, the main drivers of vulnerability are water scarcity, food insecurity, and corruption while the main risks to resilience are the lack of social protection and water stress, Rafaelle said, adding specific reference to Sudan, Libya, Gaza, and Yemen. He emphasized that institutions really matter for both vulnerability and resilience, as these dimensions significantly deteriorated in conflict-affected countries and the MENA region. Rafaelle further explained that when high vulnerability and low resilience, domestic drivers of risk, and socio-economic impacts of previous conflicts are not addressed, they generate a conflict trap (that is, high risk of conflict perpetuity) leading to continued deterioration of human development. Rafelle stressed there is the need for strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability by integrating risk assessment in conflict and post-conflict settings, recovery plans, and development programs. He also advocated for inclusion of risk assessments in policies considering that policies themselves could become triggers of conflict.

Panel discussion

Adeeb Qasem, Director of Economic Development Initiatives, HSA Group, Yemen: discussed the role of private sector in conflict settings. Faced with the challenging decision of whether the family business should shut down or stay, the HSA Group[i] has decided to rather adapt, out of its responsibility towards the local community and the strategic importance of food. Their key goal has been to maintain resilience and survival. Adeeb further noted that the role of the private sector is not well documented, with more evidence centered around philanthropy. “More work on moving from output reporting to impact reporting is needed”, Adeeb stressed. In this regard, IFPRI is running a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) to evaluate the impact of one of the company’s flagship interventions; the “School Feeding Program”. Through this experiment, the impact of milk distribution on children’s outcomes will be measured, including nutrition, cognitive ability, and attendance. An analogy has been drawn to IFPRI’s impact evaluation of EFB’s General Feeding Program by Mohsen, who moderated this session. The positive impacts this evaluation showed has “given EFB’ staff purpose”, Mohsen said.

Sebastian Herwing, Senior External Relations Officer, UNHCR: pointed to some of the challenges that UNHCR is facing in Sudan. Cash has been the preferred modality for UNHCR, giving beneficiaries a more dignified and efficient assistance as they consume what they need while also adding money to the economy, Sebastian argued. However, the massive influx of refugees registering for UNHCR’s programs since the conflict broke out in 2023 has added more strains to the organization’s tight budget. “The UNHCR could have handled this challenge more adequately had funds been available, but funding has been going down unprecedently, by around 60%”, Sebastian said. Asked on the way forward, Sebastian suggested that the private sector and civil society should join forces to bridge this gap. Many procedures must be simplified (e.g., replace individual assessments with group assessments for those fleeing the same area); country-level programs should be strategically appropriate to the contextual needs; and focus should be given to interventions where institutions can provide better impact instead of adopting a “we need to do more with less” strategy, he added. When asked about interventions that could generally have long-term impacts, he mentioned access to public education, inclusion in social protection programs, and universal health insurance.

Ayman Omer, Senior Program Officer and Delivery Manager of the Regional Initiative on Resilience Building, FAO: the FAO has been responding to many crises, including the current one in Gaza. Ayman explained the FAO provided animal feel in Gaza, as the organization focuses on the long-term need given the ongoing critical water crisis. Its long-term strategy is circled around food system transformation, Ayman added. The FAO is also contributing to evidence. One example is FAO’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) tool, which shows deteriorating food security situation across many countries, including Gaza and Sudan. Asked about where the focus should be, Ayman said that “there is an increasing need for a good system for anticipatory action that integrates Early Warning Systems with financial mechanisms across countries.”

Rafaelle Bertini, Economic Affairs Officer, ESCWA: answered the question: What are the actionable insights based on data for all actors? The Arab Risk Monitor, he said, adding that it predicts conflicts and is mainly designed for policy makers and incorporates a heavy training component. Another needed action cited by Rafaelle is stakeholder engagement towards data provision. “Data provision is a key challenge and collaborations between research institutes and local counterparts that provide data is critical”, he stressed.

Q&A

In this session, several important topics were discussed regarding policy response to evidence, the use of satellite data, non-traditional targeting techniques in conflict settings, research on host communities, conducting RCTs in emergency situations, and comments from government representatives.

The importance of data-sharing agreements was emphasized during the session. A dialogue – between academia, policymakers, and funders – was encouraged towards harnessing detailed, clean data and to communicate bottom-up views communicable to non-academic stakeholders. Panelists alluded to the fact that satellite data is increasingly being used extensively, both at their organizations and more broadly, but cautioned that engaging with policymakers may require less emphasis on complex data. “It is better to first exploit all available data including administrative and not-perfectly-randomly collected data”, one panelist advised. Nevertheless, non-traditional targeting techniques, such as using real-time geospatial and satellite data, have been employed by organizations like FAO to assess the impact of conflict on various resources. For example, land degradation and other natural resources data are used by the FAO to measure the impact of conflict on forestry in Africa.

Learning from the expertise of hosting communities was also stressed during the session, with many referring to research on host communities, their perception, and coping mechanisms as crucial, particularly in emergency response situations. In this domain, the UNHCR is working with Egypt’s Central Authority for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) to update its Vulnerability Assessment for Refugees in Egypt. It is also meanwhile mapping community-based organizations through which the UNHCR can channel its support to those in need. It also relies on hosting communities for early warnings as they were first respondents during crises, even before the UN. Meanwhile, the UNHCR is considering integrating resilience elements into its targeting criteria, for example including both host communities and refugees in public health programs. Some participants also pointed to the disproportionate impacts during conflict, by gender and refugees vs. host status.

In terms of research, Sikandra advised that conducting Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) in emergency situations requires focusing on policy-relevant research questions and using alternative methods such as remote sensing data and telephone surveys. These settings also require flexibility in terms of study design. Since assigning a control group (those who don’t receive intervention to detect impact) may be unethical in these settings, Sikandra recommends assigning groups to compare outcomes across groups receiving traditional treatment and to those receiving the experimental treatment.

The need for coordinated response mechanisms in conflict settings was highlighted by many actors. One reference was made to the successful coordination between Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity, Agriculture Research Center, and the Ministry of Health towards providing aid to Gaza. In Sudan, despite the government’s relentless efforts at the border, there has been some degree of duplication between those and of the UNHCR’s. According to Sebastian, repeated assessments from multiple providers have caused community fatigue.

Finally, attendees discussed the importance of establishing a graduation approach for refugees. Advocacy and enabling framework are needed to harness the skills that refugees bring, which can also benefit the host communities.

Conclusion

The seminar brought practitioners and academic experts in the development sphere to share lessons learned and the way forward for more resilience crises response. Overall, the panel discussion emphasized the need for collaboration, data-driven decision-making, and long-term strategies in crisis response and relief efforts.

[i] HSA is a family Food business Group 85 years history started in 1948 with many country offices currently.


Authors:

Lina Abdelfattah, Senior Research Associate, IFPRI

Nina Jovanovic, Associate Research Fellow, IFPRI


This work is part of the CGIAR Research Initiative on National Policies and Strategies (NPS). CGIAR launched NPS with national and international partners to build policy coherence, respond to policy demands and crises, and integrate policy tools at national and subnational levels in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. CGIAR centers participating in NPS are The Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (Alliance Bioversity-CIAT), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), International Water Management Institute (IWMI), International Potato Center (CIP), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), and WorldFish. We would like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund 


Photo credit:  IFPRI Egypt

Share this to :