Arab Spring Has Sprung

A protester in Tahrir Square, Cairo. © 2011 C. Breisinger/IFPRI

Just a few years ago, the serious challenges mounting in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region went mostly unnoticed. IFPRI recognized that little research was being done there, and in 2009, the Institute formed a team devoted to the region. Work soon began in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Less than two years later, “Arab Spring” entered the public lexicon as those same countries appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Uprisings were spreading across the region. And while IFPRI’s MENA researchers were as surprised as anyone by the level and intensity of the conflicts, they understood the causes.

A country does not suddenly and unexpectedly explode into chaos. The catalysts lie just below the surface, sometimes invisible to outside observers. In a recent brief, researchers Clemens Breisinger, Olivier Ecker, and Perrihan Al-Riffai show that even before the food price crisis of 2007–08 and despite a regionwide increase in GDP, the MENA region suffered from huge gaps between rich and poor, chronic unemployment, and widespread food insecurity. Large majorities of people in MENA countries were dissatisfied with their standard of living.

When protests erupted, the IFPRI MENA team had just finalized a project with the Yemeni government, civil-society groups, and other partners to develop the country’s National Food Security Strategy. Suddenly, the Yemeni government and the status of the strategy were in limbo. But Breisinger and his colleagues are confident that the work on the strategy will not be lost. “I am optimistic that any new government will find this strategy valuable because the major issues identified remain the same and the participation in its creation was broad,” he said. There is also some indication that the MENA team will return to analysis in Yemen soon, along with international partners, to develop postrevolution scenarios.

IFPRI’s early recognition that the challenges in MENA were worth a closer look has given the Institute a foothold in the region that could be useful as countries in chaos attempt to move forward. National leaders will need to make evidence-based decisions about both short- and long-term goals, and, for Breisinger, IFPRI’s role is clear: “What IFPRI can really do to support local collaborators is to bring that evidence to the table.”