Food riots: the new case for democracy promotion

by | Apr 9, 2008

I normally leave  scarcity issues to the other, better-informed contributors to this blog, but this week’s food riots in Haiti have brought UN peacekeepers face-to-face with the effects of rising prices, so I can’t keep my head that deep in the sand.  UN officials can talk about little except food prices at the moment.  John Holmes, the UN humanitarian chief and increasingly cited as one of the Secretariat’s stars, set out the problem today:

Combined with the negative impact of climate change and soaring fuel prices, a “perfect storm” is brewing for much of the world’s population, said Holmes. “The security implications (of the food crisis) should also not be underestimated as food riots are already being reported across the globe.”

His comments came after two days of rioting in Egypt, where the prices for many staples has doubled in the past year. And violent food protests were continuing for a second day in the capital of Haiti. “Current food price trends are likely to increase sharply both the incidence and depth of food insecurity,” Holmes said, noting a 40-per-cent average rise in prices worldwide since the middle of last year.

What to do?  Well, not unreasonably, the UN is continuing to push for more food aid to the worst off:

John Powell, the deputy executive director of The United Nation’s World Food Program, emphasized the need for developed countries to help governments in the developing world. Developing countries experiencing unrest over high food prices need help in developing “social safety net programs,” he said.

“Riots today mean you need a solution tomorrow,” Powell said. Governments with no “policy space” and under pressure from organized discontent in urban centres “is not likely to be the best decision” in trying to solve the problem, he said.

So, governments facing serious rioting make bad decisions.  Hm.  Sometimes, the real problem is that bad governments face riots.  That isn’t about “policy space”, but about the fact that autocratic or incapable regimes tend to reinforce or manipulate food shortages to their own advantage.  The popular response: rioting. 

Throwing food at the problem might be a “solution tomorrow”, if there was food to be thrown.  But it seems there isn’t – and the essential response to food riots is creating more accountable (dare one say “democratic”?) governments that are politically motivated to respond to inequalities (rather than simply offer a “safety net”, although that may have to do for now).  My colleagues who think about such things will find this blindingly obvious, but there’s a risk that the current crisis will obscure the underlying political dimensions of the inequalities involved… 

PS: whatever the precise linkage between scarcity and urban violence, nobody should attempt to intervenc before reading Planet of Slums by Mike Davis.  It should be the book of the moment, and even makes UN statistic compelling.  If you don’t have time to read that, there’s an article-length version of the case online.


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