Greater Welfare Reforms for tackling food insecurity in the Islands

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Neo-realist theory has long been the focal point in the debate on security within International Relations (IR). Human security as a concept has been introduced to go beyond the classical perception of security. The Neo-realist view is based on the primacy of States within the broadened agenda of security. Neo-liberalism has engaged concepts about social justice in order to agree to a more generous welfare State.   As supplies dwindle globally, the prices of staple foods can be seen reaching record heights.

This state of affairs creates competition between social and economic goals. When considering global social goals, the levels of hunger remain precariously high for several reasons.  The socioeconomic dynamics linked to food insecurity and the worsening state in nutrition emerging from the Covid-19 (Coronavirus disease) pandemic and the war in Ukraine — a major agricultural powerhouse in Europe — is heightening these challenges on an unparalleled scale. The rising price of oil also represents a direct fiscal cost as higher oil prices inflate crop prices. In addition,   fertiliser shortages have added to the increasing concerns about the price and scarcity of food. 

In the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)  islands, the higher costs of food and fuel are a serious issue. The five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion  are extremely susceptible to the impact of precarious economic conditions and insecurity of food and nutrition. Most Indian Ocean islands rely heavily on imported food products given their limited agricultural production. Hence, to mitigate such impact on future food security, innovative tools are needed by these five Island States. 

The system of food security in these States should have dual objectives: providing minimum nutritional support at an affordable price and ensuring price stability. A strategy to promote healthy nutrition and to reduce socio-economic inequalities in food subsidy programmes.  Furthermore, prudent policies are essential to maintain the nutritional well-being of the most vulnerable members of society.  In order to support the policy of future food security, the food subsidy programmes and policies of the five Indian Ocean islands need to expand coverage targeting lower-income families. As food security is an urgent issue, these States need to reinvigorate their collective voice which is more likely to be heard to bring about a situational difference.

Factors affecting food security situation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is in the midst of a severe economic crisis with a large number of people being affected by the scarcity of food and fuel. Inflation rates have risen alarmingly as the country faces one of the worst economic crises in recent decades. Sri Lanka’s nationwide inflation determined under the National Consumer Price Index (NCPI) has increased to 54.6 percent in June 2022 from 39.1 percent in May 2022.

This situation has been sparked by a shortage of foreign currency. Rising international prices and the sharp decline in domestic agricultural production, aggravated by the ongoing economic crisis, are projected to escalate severe food shortages and price inflation likely resulting in a further deterioration of food security over the next months. The rapid price increase for staple food items like rice and vegetable have resulted from the steep decline in agrarian production. Development and humanitarian partners have estimated that nearly 5.7 million citizens require immediate humanitarian assistance in Sri Lanka. The UN food agency (World Food Programme or WFP) would be drafting a food crisis response plan.  In addition, there are high levels of inequalities along geographic dimensions in Sri Lanka. In 2021, according to the UNDP’s (United Nations Development Programme) Human Development Index (HDI), out of 189 countries and territories, Sri Lanka was ranked at 72 and placed within the category of ‘High Human Development’. In order to advance human capital outcomes, Sri Lanka needs to address shortfalls in learning outcomes, particularly in the poorer regions of the country.

Tackling the water scarcity problem in the Maldives

 Small islands in the Indian Ocean such as the Maldives are particularly vulnerable to shocks to the food system. Notwithstanding the country’s rapid economic and social development, the population’s vulnerability in terms of food insecurity remains high, as the Maldives is a nation consisting of small islands that are highly dependent on imported food. During the dry season, the outer islands of the Maldives experience a shortage of drinking water. Despite the lack of access to freshwater, nearly 65 percent of the islands across the Maldives are provided with desalinated water. The island nation has developed a social protection system that is well-functioning and reasonably integrated. This systems place emphasis on children. According to this year’s Human Development Index (HDI), Maldives is ranked 95 out of 189 countries (UNDP, 2020).

Mauritius Social welfare policy 

The Mauritian economy was severely affected by Covid-19.  Even though it has been recovering in 2021-22, the economy will be susceptible to global economic developments.  This year, the Mauritian   policy is concentrated around mitigating the economic and social impact from the coronavirus pandemic. Being a welfare State, about 50 per cent  of the country’s budget is spent on social services including free health and education. Mauritius overlooks new social risks that have emerged from the island’s economic transformation from a monocrop economy to an economy based on innovation. With a comprehensive social welfare system, Mauritius stands out amongst many African States. The island nation has made considerable progress in its drive for social equality and poverty reduction and presents an exemplary model of development. Mauritius is classified as an upper middle-income country.

Seychelles rises in the HDI ranking

For Seychelles food security continues to remain a challenge. The main downside risks for Seychelles are the prolongation of the conflict in Ukraine leading to higher crude oil prices, high inflation and rising import prices. It will be necessary for Seychelles to implement fiscal measures to support low-income households. Seychelles is ranked 67th out of 189 countries in the 30th edition of the UNDP’s  2020 Human Development Index (HDI), the second-highest score in Africa coming one rank after Mauritius (seychellesnewsagency, 2021).

State welfare remain crucial for Réunion

The public policies of Réunion islands   in the Southwest Indian Ocean aim to support the sustainable economic model.  For many of the island’s inhabitants, benefits from State welfare remain crucial for their wellbeing. However, the education level of the country’s workforce is affected by the impact from brain drain. Réunion is also susceptible to food insecurity and external market shocks. 

Strike a balance for sustainable development

The rising energy prices combined with the massive hike in food prices have worsened inflation. The five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion have frequently appeared on diplomatic radar screens. In the Post-Crisis context, the action plans of State-led welfare and social protection systems of these five IOR islands aim to strike a balance for sustainable development. The resilience of these islands can be tested in the coming decades when their economies work towards food security and sustainability. 

About the Author:

 Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) umbrella. As a Lecturer he focuses on comparative politics of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Dr. Fernando is an academic specialist in International Relations and an adviser on New Regional Diplomacy. He has received accolades such as the 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union.

By Dr. Srimal Fernando