How to Think About Food Riots

haiti food riot

I just recorded a radio segment for The World with the splendid Lisa Mullins. I was there to talk about food riots. Unfortunately, I wasn’t terribly coherent and, despite the skilled editing of the folk there, I worry that my butchery of the argument I was trying to make cannot be fixed.

I was trying to talk about Egypt, Haiti and Senegal, three places from which reporters were sending news. So here’s my attempt at restitution – a short guide on how to think about the food riots.

The best place to start is to look at prices. We live in a world of global markets. The price of wheat has increased by over 130% in the past year. Last week, the price of rice increased 30% in a day.

Whom does this hurt most? Well, at an international level, it hits countries that import wheat and rice. Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. Haiti and Senegal import all the wheat that they consume, and over 80% of the rice that gets eaten there is from foreign sources too.

But merely being exposed to high prices doesn’t cause a riot. The European Union is the world’s second largest importer of wheat, and you’re not seeing riots there. Why not?

Because people are generally rich enough to be able to pay more for the food (even if they’re not happy about doing it) and because there are safety nets for those who can’t afford to eat.

The thing about Haiti, Egypt and Senegal is that the citizens there are much poorer than in the EU –a greater proportion of household income is being spent on food in these countries than elsewhere.

But poverty is not an adequate predictor either. The world’s poorest areas are rural, not urban. So it’s not the depth of poverty that causes riots, it’s something else.

Historically, there are two things to look out for. The first is a sudden and severe entitlement gap, a gap between what people believe they’re entitled to and what they can in fact achieve. Agricultural price rises have risen because of a perfect storm of biofuels, meat consumption, oil price rises and bad harvests.

That inflation has meant that people believe they ought to be able to feed their families at one level, but end up being able to feed them at a significantly lower one. The existence and spread of this entitlement expectation gap is one of the things that matters a great deal in the precipitation of food riots.

But there’s a second element too. You tend see riots in places where there isn’t any other means of making the government listen. It’s a sign, in other words, that democratic politics has been exhausted. Haiti has long been beset by political instability, and now has a US president – René Préval – installed. He recently commanded people to return to their homes, perhaps not realising that through their protests, the people were commanding him to make their food cheaper.

In Egypt, protest is also the only method of recourse- opposition parties like the Muslim brotherhoods have been banned. In Senegal, President Wade has a slightly more citizen-friendly government, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why protests there have been less violent.

But the real question here is why governments are unable to respond to the needs of their citizens. There are two answers. First, the policies that would mitigate the price rises (grain reserves, tariffs, social expenditure for poor people) have all been eroded by decades of neoliberal development policy.

In order to implement this policy, governments have had to close their ears to the demands of their people. The World Bank won’t give loans without ‘structural adjustment’. There has been a strong financial incentive, in other words, for governments to behave less democratically. This, incidentally, is what the modern development project means.

So, with policies to safeguard the poor in tatters, with no means to redress the widespread and dire hunger, and with governments that merely go through the motions of democracy, is it any surprise that, once again, we’re in the era of the food riot?