Despite a number of positive economic indicators, Egypt has a hunger problem: Nearly a third of all children are malnourished, according to a new report compiled by the Ministry of Health and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
The Egyptian Demographic Health Survey (EDHS) 2008, published in March 2009, recorded a 6 percent increase in undernourishment severe enough to stunt growth in children under five, pushing the percentage of stunted Egyptian toddlers to 29 percent from 23 percent in 2000.
The survey collected data in 2007/2008, when gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 7.2 percent, indicating that strong economic growth had not benefited ordinary Egyptians. A slower GDP growth of 4.7 percent is forecast for 2008/2009.
"Within the recent context of economic crises and economic slowdown, in addition to the growing epidemics of avian and H1N1 influenza, nutrition is not treated as a priority," said Hala Abu Khatwa, head of communications in Egypt for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Government-run food programmes are in place: In partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP), fortified date bars have been distributed in high-risk schools since 1963; and government-subsidized flour and cooking oil -- used to make 'baladi' bread -- are fortified with iron/folic acid and Vitamins A and D.
Yet some government policies have adversely affected the nutrition of the poorest.
UNICEF and WFP said the EDHS report of a spike in malnourished children was partly attributable to the government's decision to cull millions of chickens in 2007.
"The culling had a significant and substantial impact on household consumption of poultry and eggs, especially [on] young children, and also put considerable strain on household resources since poultry sales accounted for nearly half of the incomes of many Egyptian households," said UNICEF's Abu-Khatwa citing a 2007 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) entitled Livelihood Impact Assessment in Egypt.
Gianpietro Bordignon, the director of WFP in Egypt, attributed growing malnutrition among children to "the successive series of shocks that affected people, especially the poorest. This started with the outbreak of avian flu and the subsequent killing of poultry that lowered the intake of protein, and then the financial and food crises that followed."
No data has yet been collected on the nutritional status of the estimated 70,000 unofficial garbage collectors and pig farmers in the Cairo area who relied on pigs for meat, income and organic waste.
Since 1991 Egypt has embarked on economic reform programmes which have not necessarily helped the poorest in society.
A July report by Egypt's General Authority for Investment and Free Zones, seen by IRIN and entitled Towards Fair Distribution of the Fruits of Growth, found that 66 percent of the wealth generated in Egypt is sector specific, benefiting only those directly employed by the sector rather than the economy as a whole.
"Between 2005 and 2008, the risk of extreme poverty increased by almost 20 percent. Poverty levels are highest in Upper [southern] Egypt where 70 percent of the country's poor live," Abu Khatwa said. Upper Egypt is home to about 17 percent of the country's 82 million people.
WFP's Bordignon also pointed out that since Egypt is not a "least developed country", it misses out on international food aid.
According to the 2009 UNDP Human Development Report, 23 percent of the population are below the poverty line. Food riots in 2008 were symptomatic of widespread poverty.