Hungry for Democracy, and Just Plain Hungry
WASHINGTON – With all the focus on democracy and despots, the rising price of food is being overlooked as a trigger in the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Food prices are at an all-time high, and while the impacts are hardly felt in the United States and Europe, where basic commodities are a small portion of the total cost of diets comprised largely of processed food, the spike in commodity prices is felt much more acutely in developing countries. The densely-packed cities of North Africa, heavily reliant on imported food, are particularly vulnerable to spikes in commodity prices. Bad weather in Russia, Ukraine, and China has already pushed prices above even the highs of 2008, which led to unrest in 30 countries at the time.
Although it is impossible to know to what extent, this year’s building food crisis has fed into the revolts and revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. Bread revolts are among the oldest varieties of social unrest, and the Arab world is no stranger to them. Past decades saw a series of Arab uprisings in which food played a significant role, including in Egypt (1977), Morocco (1981), Tunisia (1984), Algeria (1988), and Jordan (1989). While not the primary catalyst in all cases, access to food, or lack thereof, was a stark reminder to the oppressed of their overall condition and poor economic prospects.
Such events led to the emergence of a delicate dance between autocrats and their populations, reinforcing an unwritten pact in which the people, at the very least, would be fed. This dance has become more and more difficult to sustain as, over time, the ability of dictators to live up to their end of the bargain has been diminished. Africa, in particular, has become increasingly reliant on imports of even the key commodities in which it had previously enjoyed an advantage, undermining the entire continent’s ability to feed itself. A vast hinterland of arable land has been exploited, mainly by subsistence farmers eking out a harsh living on small plots, lacking the means or the incentive to feed the hungry coastal cities.
Non-functioning markets at the local, regional, and national levels have made it difficult for food to travel from areas of surplus to those in deficit. In the past, regimes would employ a variety of measures to maintain a supply of cheap food, ranging from export restrictions to subsidies and price controls. From a market perspective, none of these fixes are optimal. From a political economy perspective, they are unsustainable, relying on the availability of affordable commodities at a relatively stable and predictable world-market price. Price management has long been the prop of failed regimes, as was evidenced by the 1977 riots in Egypt that erupted after the IMF and World Bank imposed conditions on lifting food subsidies in exchange for loans.
Once the price support was gone, the people began to suffer and the regime began to totter. Their increasing reliance on imports—Arab countries are projected to import 40 percent of the world’s wheat by 2021—made the autocratic regimes increasingly vulnerable to forces beyond their control. Fires in Russia, floods in Australia, biofuels mandates in Europe and the United States, changing diets in China and India suddenly translate into higher food prices worldwide. Taken together with the Arab world’s relatively young populations and high poverty rates—with populations spending up to 40 percent of their income on food—the age-old dance of the dictators has become ever more precarious to perform.
As rising prices fed growing popular discontent, hunger for food became a hunger for democracy. This has been one part of the story of the “Jasmine Revolutions” of 2011. While the toppling of aged despots is hardly a cause for lament, the spiraling hunger and poverty that has helped to drive the unrest surely is. The onset of the second food crisis in less than three years has put the world on notice that we have now definitively entered a new phase of global agricultural production. The commodity markets of the future will be characterized by increasing volatility and recurring price shocks. How policymakers respond will be critical.
As old systems break down, democracy and food insecurity must not be allowed to become one and the same. Instead of the compromised government-to-government transactions of the past, efforts to promote food security should focus instead on ground-up support of agricultural markets. Building the capacity of local farmers to produce more and helping create the conditions for commerce within countries and regions will relieve some of the pressure that comes from reliance on global markets—and on vicious autocrats.
This will not be easy; it is the hard but necessary work we face as an increasingly hungry planet. But absent enlightened leadership and genuine action on global food security, the consequences will be grim. Events in North Africa and the Middle East are just the beginning. The promising Arab spring could give way to a long, hot summer.
Mark Allegrini is a Program Associate with the Economic Policy Program at the German Marshall Fund. Joe Guinan is a GMF Fellow and Director of the TransFarm Africa Initiative at the Aspen Institute. Photo taken by Eneas De Troya
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.