DUBAI, 8 March 2013 (IRIN) - Researchers and civil society activists in the Arab world have always complained that a lack of information has contributed to poor policies on development and resource management.
"Arab countries do not have enough data and when they have it they are reluctant to share it among them," says Hamed Assaf, a water resource management specialist at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
Now, aid workers and policymakers working on food security and looking for easy access to malnutrition data in Yemen, or how rainfall tends to vary in Syria, can turn to a handy web-based tool.
"High quality and freely accessible knowledge is power, especially for evidenced-based research for effective and efficient policy design and implementation throughout the Arab world," said Perrihan Al-Riffai, a senior research analyst with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which created the tool.
Launched in February, the so-called Arab Spatial, developed with the support of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), aims to be a one-stop shop for food security data from the region.
Food security has long been a challenge in the Arab world, as many countries depend on food imports for basics such as wheat flour. But uprisings in much of the region have amplified the problem and driven more families into poverty.
"It has been extremely difficult for the millions of people who were already struggling to feed their families before the unfolding events of the Arab Spring [and] more families now face the challenges of collapsing economies and lost jobs as a result of the instability," said Abeer Etafa, a spokesperson of the World Food Programme.
But the precise impact has been hard to track. According to IFPRI, only half of the countries in the Middle East publish poverty figures publicly and even so, with varying frequency and accuracy.
The Arab Spatial software is designed to measure food security at national, subnational and local levels. Users can generate maps and metadata using more than 150 food security and development-related indicators related to poverty, malnutrition, disease, production and prices, public finances, exports and imports.
"Economic development is a main driver of food security, and simultaneously, food security is an important driver for economic development," Al-Riffai told IRIN. "That is why addressing food [in]security at both the macro, as well as, the micro levels [the most vulnerable individual] will lead to a more comprehensive approach in determining and addressing a country's development challenges."
The tool aims to empower decision-makers, civil society representatives, researchers, journalists and others. IFPRI says several government officials have already showed interest in using it and hopes governments, regional organizations and others will help fill information gaps on the portal.
In recent years, increased recognition of the similar problem of lack of data on water in the region has led to several initiatives aimed at better collection and sharing, including the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Land Data Assimilation System, the "Ask a Scientist" initiative at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, data collected by the World Bank, and a new database on natural water resources in the Arab world by the German government's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR).