Sustainable Aid: Why The Fight Against Coronavirus Must Include Developing Nations Developing skills in farming and a move towards self-sufficiency in domestic food production must be at the center of every country's plan for a sustainable recovery.
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Everywhere in the world, governments have introduced new restrictions into our lives. Flights have been grounded, supply lines disrupted, and anyone looking online will find endless photos of empty supermarket shelves. Given the difficulties facing our own countries, we can often forget that many of the poorest nations are in need of our help.
As we begin to manage the virus, our focus now must be on the developing world, and those countries who need the most support to combat the virus, including in Africa and South America.
The World Bank has made a start, providing US$160 billion to the developing world, while the International Monetary Fund is encouraging developing nations to forego debt-service payments, and instead direct resources to fighting the virus. More will be needed, and we must ensure it is deployed wisely.
Perhaps the most useful way that aid can be targeted is by supporting the development of sustainable rural economies, rather than encouraging further urban sprawl and overcrowding.
In the developing world, progress has long been tied to the success of a handful of mega-cities, powering economic growth and acting as magnets for a formerly largely rural population. The virus has shown that many of these cities are unhygienic, often unlivable.
Slums and shanty towns, like Mumbai's Dharavi slum in India, which has already seen hundreds of cases of COVID-19, are so densely populated that even staying at home does not achieve the aims of social distancing. A model that relies on mega-cities powered by cheap labor from the slums may survive the virus, but it must not survive the effort to rebuild our economies after the pandemic.
In developing countries, both the virus and the measures governments have rightly taken to contain it threaten families' ability to feed themselves. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) found that the pandemic will significantly increase risks to food security and hinder humanitarian assistance operations. Even before the virus struck, at the end of 2019, the Global Network Against Food Crises found that 135 million people across 55 countries and territories experienced acute food insecurity.
Therefore, developing skills in farming and a move towards self-sufficiency in domestic food production must be at the center of every country's plan for a sustainable recovery. This will require a reversal of previous trends. UN research shows that as farming systems have modernized and intensified, the amount of land available for farming has been growing ever more slowly. On current trends, arable land will grow at a rate of 0.4% in countries for which data is available, despite improvements in irrigation and farming technology.
While the Middle East has largely been spared the spate of panic buying seen elsewhere in the world, the global reaction forces us to think carefully about the way we consume and deliver food. We have become used to just-in-time supply chains and a rapacious hunger for choice when it comes to food, with no regard to seasonality or where our food comes from. This is an unsustainable approach, and it must not be encouraged.
We know that rural development and lower population density can be compatible with continued economic growth and sustainability. Developing agricultural infrastructure can create employment opportunities across the skills spectrum, and sustainably deploy the natural capital of less developed countries.
The virus has taught us that many things we thought impossible can happen. Our response should not be to panic, but to try and fix what is actually in our own control. We are fully capable of building sustainable, resilient and harmonious societies. We should start with the food on our tables.