Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The politics of food (and stuff)

You go away for nearly three weeks and you expect the world to change. To bad it didn’t. Take the issue of skyrocketing food prices. Yes, they still remain high, something I knew would happen. Yet the situation appears more dire. Another few countries experienced violent food riots (Haiti and Egypt). The World Food Program called for $500 million in increased food aid, an amount already surpassed by rising prices. The Food and Agriculture Organization worries that six countries face severe food shortfalls: Lesotho, Swaziland, Moldova, Iraq and Zimbabwe. Doomsday scenarios are now all the rage.

Interestingly, worries are now emanating from unexpected places. G-7 finance ministers met over rising food prices – and a sinking U.S. dollar – which they fear could threaten the planet’s political and social stability. World Bank President Robert Zoellick calls for a New Deal for food policy, focusing not only on malnutrition, but also the interconnectivity between energy policy, climate change, agriculture yields and the price of corn and rice

Long term prospects aren’t especially sunny, either. The Wall Street Journal claims that increasing farm costs like fertilizer, equipment and labor will force farmers to keep food prices high for the near future.

Are things really this bad? Or is it a weary Western world that watches in horror as its well constructed economic edifice crumbles before their very eyes as the expanding developing world starts to take a piece of what is rightfully theirs? (Time away from work apparently can make a Trotskyite out of most anyone.)

Don’t blame the food bill
The problem is we can’t blame food prices for everything. Yes, newspaper readers are treated to an expanding list of places where people have caused damage in the name of skyrocketing prices. But reporters are missing an important subtext.

As a person living in a country placed on the “food riot” list (Burkina Faso), I can say that rising prices does not tell the whole story for peoples’ anger. Tightening family budgets were an impetus for the violent demonstrations that struck Burkina Faso a month ago, but they were not the sole reason. What really fed this anger was apparent government inaction and – equally importantly, I’ll argue – an equally alleged lack of ruling class concern.

It is true that many governments – especially food importers, which are in the majority in Africa – are caught between a rock and a hard place: Not even Robert Mugabe can make food prices go down. But government leaders can open up or reform the economy or political process so people can voice their frustration in different forms. That’s certainly a problem in Burkina. I’d go out on a limb to say the same about the riots in Cameroon (where President-For-Life Paul Biya is attempting to add another term onto his mandate) and Egypt (with its own political succession issues). Add Senegal and Morocco to the list of politically hindered states; some would also add Mauritania.

Sure, the term good governance is thrown around with little regard for its real meaning. Democracy means more than multi-party elections and long voting lines. In Africa, people need to ask why are these riots more strongly afflicting poorly run countries or places where presidents have been in power since you could get corn for $1.50 a bushel. Keeping powerful fat cats happy has long been a tool of dictators. When the little guys are getting squeezed more than usual, long-serving rulers lose that carrot. Yes, it’s a good thing that the G-7 and World Bank investigate the underlying causes to this food price problem. It may be time they expanded their scope a little. Every smashed storefront may not only be a plea for cheaper rice, but a chance to sit at the table.


Abdul-Rahim said...

Bourgeois democracy offers no solutions for Africa in terms of poverty alleviation, it will simply be a case of the structure of the state and the deformed capitalist model crushing the normal people while giving them the illusion of choice. Only a society based on collective ownership and true people's democracy can secure the needs of the population.

Africa Flak said...

Thanks for the comment, Abdul-Rahim. While I understand and mostly sympathize with your critic of capitalism, I don't think collective ownership will ever work on a large scale. However, I am always willing to have my mind changed.

Thanks again.