Friday, 17 October 2014

Farewell to food riots?

It has been a good year by the generally dismal standards of world food security.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation reports that perennial hunger hotspots - Bangladesh, Ghana, Nicaragua - have halved under-nourishment in a generation. In India, where one-quarter of the world’s hungry live, citizen activism is helping make the right to food a reality. World food price inflation recently dropped to its lowest level in four years, after a bumper cereal crop.

So as the FAO convenes its Committee on Food Security this week, celebrating 10 years of Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food, they might be inclined to pat themselves on the back.

Not so fast.

Ten years of guidance on the right to food hardly set the world alight – let alone put food on the table.

Hungry people rarely protest, so what sparks food riots?


What did set the world alight– and put hunger back on the policy table - was the turbulent unruliness of the global food crisis.

Map of 2008 global food crisis https://www.flickr.com/photos/wheatfields/2920729039/in/photolist-5s6uZe-ghNeYg-ghMVe5-ghMSGG-ghMJnz-7i58d8-7i584z-7i57Sv-7i5qXT-5kk29W-bF7FzV-5RhJ93-4Nkx5n-ghMBcG-7i9ksq-7i57K4-7i58nT-nhPE7-4WUNde-nhNq2-nhMcG-nhLHU-nhLHy-nhLHf-nhLJ4
Map of 2008 global food crisis hotspots. Credit: Christian Guthler - Flickr

Basic food costs nearly trebled and staple prices spiked at unimagined levels in 2008 and then, unbelievably, again in 2010-11.

Food riots erupted in dozens of countries and Port-au-Prince, Maputo and Ouagadougou saw heavy street action – often met by an even heavier police response. Lives were lost, people were hurt, economic life disrupted, property damaged, regimes toppled, elections lost. Some say the Arab Spring was triggered by fury over bread prices. The after-shocks of the protests still reverberate through the global system.

The signals sent by food rights are loud but they are not clear. It should be no great mystery as to why people protest when prices spike or food is scarce: food absorbs half of the incomes of most people in poor countries, so that people went from having wages left over to rumbling bellies in a matter of weeks.

Yet, as we know, hungry people rarely protest. (It is one reason they go unfed.)

So what about the food crises of 2008 and 2011 brought people onto the streets?

Struck by resemblances to food riots in other key moments of capitalist history, researchers in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Mozambique and the UK decided to look behind the headlines. We were not convinced that these were the desperate reflexes of hunger. We saw these as struggles for the right to food – whether politely civil society-backed or via riot. We wanted to know what they achieved.

Food riots work (usually)


The research found that riots (usually) work. All protest is dangerous - nobody takes the fight to a state armed with water cannon and tear gas without an excellent reason. But in 2008 and 2011 the reasons were as good as they get. Prices were accelerating in an out-of-control way that had nothing to do with how much food was grown or sold. People recognised this as the sign of rigged markets, believing that the rice-dealers of Dhaka and the millers of Maputo were getting fat on their hunger.

Not everyone suffered from higher prices, but for some this was the thin edge.

Protestors were mainly urban folk, often recently detached from the rural livelihoods that once guaranteed them basic food security. They were not the poorest, but they live lives of great precariousness (as we saw in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh). These people walk the tightrope of the flexible global economy, largely without a safety net. They are mostly young, concentrated, articulate, connected and growing in numbers. They are sometimes hungry. Their views of the food system diagnosed its problems with the clarity that comes with life-and-death situations.

It's not about cheaper food


Protesters were not just after cheap food: they wanted assurance of control, or as the peasants’ movement La Via Campesina has it, sovereignty, over food.

UK campaigners (2012). Credit: World Dev Movement (Flickr)
Resistance to the idea of a right to profit from someone else’s hunger was widespread and robust: in times of scarcity, profiting from hoarding or speculating or colluding is beyond the pale.

If they listened better, global policy elites would know that the limits of tolerance to unfairness had been reached.

But the channels for these political ideas were tuned to the wrong frequencies.

Political parties, consumer associations, civil society organisations all failed to take governments to task. Food riots opened the airwaves to a new sound. (This was literally true when hip hop artist Azagaia’s Povo no Poder, a tribute to Maputo food rioters, became a hit ringtone).

Protesters saw apparently endless price rises going unchecked by governments, whose main response was to bleat on about ‘global markets’. Food riots cut through worries about market discipline and fiscal space to restate the terms of the compact between states and citizens. They reminded the political classes of their responsibility to protect the right to food above the right to profit from hunger.

As the world’s food policy elite gathered in Rome this week, they should not want to rest on their laurels or think too fondly of voluntary guidelines, or of civil society partners. Food prices are low now, but as urban precariousness grows so do the profit margins from hunger. The right to food will not be replacing the food riot any time soon.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. She coordinated the research into food riots and food rights movements funded by the UK Department For international Development-Economic and Social Research Council joint scheme. 

Other blogs on Food Price Volatility:

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Aid and tax in Ethiopia: is there a crowding out effect?

Ethiopia is (still) one of the major aid recipient countries in the world.

This year the World Bank has reached a record in terms of both the number of projects and the amount of loans to Ethiopia, totalling 1.6 billion USD in 2014. In 2011/2012 the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) disbursed more bilateral aid in Ethiopia than it has ever spent on any other country in a year.

Many argue that all this is good news for Ethiopia.

With a population of over 90 million, the country remains one of the poorest in the world and it still faces huge challenges in social development and economic transformation.

“Aid enthusiasts” would argue that it is at least partly thanks to aid monies that much progress was achieved in recent years for example in terms of education, access to electricity and the development of new public infrastructure. However “aid critics” would argue that there may be great dangers associated with the disbursement of such high and increasing amounts of aid. Some observers suggested that aid can have detrimental effects on domestic institutions and others argued that developing countries would be better off without aid altogether.

Continue reading this blog...

Giulia Mascagni is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies.To learn more about the issues discussed in this blog, why not apply for a place on the IDS short course on Tax and Development

Friday, 3 October 2014

Handbags and tear-gas - profit versus the moral right to protest in Hong Kong

Two current events remind us to reassert the moral right to revolt.

First, from England, where the ghosts from the Conservative (Tory) Party past announce:

"From the dark cloud falls an acid rain that eats into liberty…"

In such purple prose did the Iron Lady plan to describe the UK miners’ strike of 1984-85, in a Tory Party conference speech abandoned after the Brighton bombing. The Guardian newspaper reports today that Thatcher felt "the enemies of freedom and democracy itself" (the Left) were behind "calculated chaos planned for the mining industry". (Note: ordinary Brits might not have had either jobs or fuel, but it was the chaos for the mining industry that was the worry).

The second event to get you thinking is the worry that Hong Kong protests may cost retailers HK$2bn says ANZ bank.

Yes, thousands of young folk have braved the displeasure of the world’s biggest authoritarian state in historic pro-democracy protests.

Credit: Mario Madrona - Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
But a key concern, according to BBC news, is the lack of shopping: "Sales of luxury goods, cosmetic products, and consumer durables are definitely hard hit’" according to (of course, of course) a banker.

These responses to protest are separated by a quarter century but united by a strong thread of logic (and handbags): the right to profit triumphs over the right to protest.

Both say that the right to profit – which in this view is naturally and always about the public good – is morally superior to the ‘right’ to disruptive types of protest.

In this view, there is no such ‘right’ to protest, because for groups of people to get together to disagree with how they are ruled might stop someone else from making money; as that is the original and natural right, anything that prevents it must be wrong.

No surprise here: all governments hate protests


They disrupt, cost the economy, give ‘the markets’ the jitters, hand power to trigger-happy riot police. And they are deeply embarrassing. The symbolic power of a good protest is that it lets everyone see how thin is the veneer of legitimacy on which public authority is exercised. Suddenly everyone can see that the emperor is stark-bollock-naked.

The Hong Kong banker and his ideological mother share a moral economic logic: the right to profit over all else – in particular over the right of the hoi polloi to protest. We have got so used to hearing this kind of tripe, which so easily takes over our airwaves to the great shame of the BBC, that it is easy to forget that there is a live and real alternative moral economic logic.

Rather more pressingly than the needs of industry or luxury brand retailing, food rioters and food rights activists of recent years give a very different view of the right – the necessity – to protest. Their moral economy is both more enduring and more relevant to a time of grotesquely rising inequalities and volatilities.

This is that people must be able to protest when their governments fail to protect them against crises of subsistence. In particular, our research shows that even though they fear the rubber bullets and the tear gas, people are still likely to protest when their governments protect the rights of powerful elites to profit over the right of everyone to eat. But only if they think they are right to.

We should not be too surprised that the moral economic logic of Thatcher is the dominant logic of the day in the UK with its ├╝ber-elite ruling class, and also in Hong Kong, with its breathtaking record of crony capitalism. The successful infection of this thinking might be why the UK population increasingly eats from charitable food banks rather than taking to the streets as they might have done a couple of hundred years ago.
Credit: Jessica Watkins - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


We must stand guard against the handbags, constantly reminding ourselves that the right to profit is the undisguised right of politically connected elites to, as they did the British trades unions, shut us up for good.


"Food Rights or Food Riots? Moral and political economies of 21st century hunger", the final report from the Food Riots and Food Rights project will be published in late October.

For information about launch events and outputs, please contact Nick Benequista, and for for any other information, please contact Devangana Kalita.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. 

By the same author: 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Challenges of a different kind - the role of food prices in the lives of the poorest in Pakistan

Countries like Pakistan always appear at the global stage to be battling big challenges such as political crises, conflicts and disasters. But the picture remains incomplete without seeing challenges of a different kind that ordinary people, particularly the poorest, face on a daily basis.

Research conducted in Pakistan, alongside nine other developing countries, for the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project provides just such a perspective. Qualitative research was carried out by the Collective for Social Science Research in 2012 and 2013 in a cluster of villages in Dadu district and in an urban working-class neighbourhood in Karachi to explore how rising food prices were affecting the poor. Three important themes emerged from our research in Pakistan which helps understand ways in which food inflation impacts the poor and the vulnerable.

The economy of the poorest is about food, not money


Survival strategies of the poorest are centred on acquiring staple food to avoid hunger. In the Dadu villages, where wheat is the only major crop these strategies revolved around the crop cycle. During harvest, activities of all the households are around acquisition of wheat either directly through agricultural labour or indirectly by providing other services in exchange for grain. The wheat is stored and consumed over several months and is also used as a currency to purchase other goods and services. For the urban poor, who engage in a range of activities including petty vending, wage labour and begging, the main priority is to acquire sufficient amounts of wheat flour or bread to fill their bellies. Many of the poorest work, borrow, or beg to ensure that they have just enough to eat, regardless of prices and wages, and they generally only scrape by. For the rural poor, wheat prices matters little because their annual cycle is focused on acquiring a target quantity of grain. Money, therefore, is almost incidental in these survival strategies which combine remunerative economic activity with borrowing and begging to stave off hunger.
A woman cooking in rural Dadu. The meal consists of saag (a local leafy vegetable) and beeh (lotus roots) cooked with green chillies, onions and tomatoes along with roti (flat bread)
Credits: Collective for Social Science Research 

Informal systems and blurred boundaries


Support from informal institutions reduce a poor household’s dependence on market denominated transactions and instead increase their reliance on other households and individuals.

Of course these social arrangements, which might protect individuals from prolonged periods of hunger, come at a social cost in the form of humiliation and loss of respect. Food is circulated in a community though reciprocal exchanges between neighbours and family, regular charity by somewhat better-off households and individuals (who may themselves be poor in the wider scheme of things) and through begging by those entirely dependent on alms for survival. These various forms of non-monetised food transfers often occur in overlapping layers. Reciprocal gift exchange might be extended to one-sided support for some time, and people who might accept charitable donations on religious occasions might sometimes beg outright.

For people on the margins, the household or the basic social arrangement for cohabitation and joint consumption also has fluid boundaries. While ‘normal’ households are often identified as the unit that shares regular meals among its members, we found diverse arrangements in place which ensure the sustenance of individuals.

For example, children are easily able to go their neighbours or relatives to eat when there is not enough food in their own home. An adult woman doing domestic work might count on eating lunch at her employers’ house, and then coming home to prepare a meal for other family members. Households break down under conditions of stress, and often the first sign of male household members leaving is them not eating meals with the rest of the family.

Idiosyncratic changes overshadow price shocks


The longitudinal design of the study enabled us to survey the same households in two different years providing rich data on the changes experienced by the household over the year. We were able to identify conspicuous changes that a household undergoes such as variations in its earning potential and livelihood, alternation in its size and composition, and conflicts within, which are sources of positive as well as negative shocks. For instance, the social and economic condition of one respondent improved after her husband got a job in the police while another respondent’s husband had to give up his rickshaw, the main source of their earnings due to his inability to meet rental payments.

One of our case-study households, flood-affected migrants in Karachi, were evicted from their uncle’s house after a family dispute while another respondent, also a flood-affected migrant, who was initially living in a warehouse was joined by his family and had moved into a house. The severity of these events at the individual and household level appears to have more of an impact on people’s lives making the effect of inflation secondary.
Mr O, a flood-displaced migrant, who survived on charity food in his initial days in Karachi, was joined by his family in 2013. Here his mother is seen preparing a roti (flat bread). the staple food in our research sites
Credits: Naila Mahmood/Collective for Social Science Research

Next steps


In-depth qualitative research provides insights into how the effects of macro-level changes such as inflation and government policies are experienced by poor individuals and households. In the third round of fieldwork, starting soon, we will re-visit our informants to see how their well-being has changed over the last year. We aim to go beyond the quantity of food consumed by asking informants about their perceptions of the quality of the food they consume and how consumption habits and food preferences change over time.

Mysbah Balagamwala, Research Associate, and Haris Gazdar, Senior Researcher, Collective for Social Science Research, Pakistan.

Friday, 19 September 2014

A year after Westgate: what has Kenya learned?

Social media symbol of sympathy
for Kenya after attacks - ILRI (Flickr)
A year has passed since Al-Shabaab militants laid siege of the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi.

The attack, believed to have been carried out by four gunmen, left 67 dead and laid waste to the luxury complex. President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to form an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the attack and the actions by the police, armed forces and other responders.

It briefly seemed that the Westgate tragedy would precipitate a sober, hard-headed review of security threats and appropriate responses to these.

Yet, twelve months on, and with many more attacks having transpired, insecurity has become the fodder of Kenya’s insipid politics rather than a catalyst for a serious debate.

Meanwhile, as violence roils the country’s periphery and the prospect of further Al-Shabaab attacks looms, Nairobi has no coherent strategy to strengthen security.

How did it go so wrong?

The underlying logic of Kenya's security responses has been to externalise the threat


While the reasons for Kenya’s deteriorating security are complex, the central underlying logic of its security responses has been to externalise the threat. Al Shabaab is seen as an external threat to peace and stability in Kenya, which must be protected against conflict spill-overs from Somalia.

This logic underpinned Operation Linda Nchi, a military incursion by Kenya launched in 2011, ostensibly to create a buffer zone between it and areas of Somalia’s south stricken by warfare. Yet, insecurity has worsened measurably since then, with Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit reporting 133 attacks in Kenya since the operation was launched. At least 264 people have been killed and 923 injured, with most attacks taking place in Kenya’s north-eastern and coastal regions. Hand grenades have been the weapon of choice for the terrorists alongside improvised explosive devices (IEDs), landmines, bombs and guns as well as machetes.

The logic of externalising the threat is also apparent in Operation Usalama Watch, a ham-handed security operation that began in April and largely centred in Nairobi’s Somali neighbourhoods of Eastleigh and South C. More than 3,000 people were arrested and incarcerated in the city’s Kasarani stadium on various immigration and refugee infringements.

As of the middle of July, six refugees registered with the UNHCR were re-fouled to Somalia, including one mentally challenged individual and two children. The message was clear: Somalis do not belong in Kenya and they spread violence and insecurity in the country.

Images circulating on social media of Somalis incarcerated in what appeared to be large cages affirmed the worst claims that Kenya’s police and security agencies are discriminatory toward and inhumane in their treatment of Somalis, many of whom hold Kenyan citizenship.

Credit: See Li - Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Independent Policing Oversight Authority in July said that the police failed to uphold the requirements of Article 244 of the Constitution to strive for professionalism and discipline and to promote and practice transparency and accountability during the operation.

Widened gulf between security and intelligence agencies


Kenya’s security responses have widened a gulf between its security and intelligence agencies and Somalis while doing little to improve security for most Kenyans. Meanwhile, Al Shabaab has shown itself adept at stoking deep-lying grievances amongst Kenya’s Somalis, Muslims and other Coastal communities, in effect localising its jihad in Kenya.

Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the June massacre in Mpeketoni in Lamu County that left 60 dead. Kenyatta, who attributed the attacks instead to ‘local political networks,’ unwittingly, perhaps, moved security framings from a focus on external threats to internal divisions. Yet, he did so in a way that was ultimately divisive and damaging to building the broad political support needed to rethink security responses.

In the immediate aftermath of Mpeketoni, Interior Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku blamed the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), led by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, for inciting the public and stoking ethnic tension around the country leading to the violence. The arrest in July of Lamu Governor Issa Timamy, who police alleged was  complicit in the Mpeketoni attacks, furthered the impression of partisanship and retributive politics at the heart of the government’s handling of worsening violence. A high court judge threw out the case earlier this month.

Recriminations and finger-pointing but little political debate


The recriminations and threats that flew following the attacks in Lamu County show that far more is at play than Al Shabaab infiltrators. Yet, Nairobi has learned little in the year since the Westgate attacks. While there was seeming public support in Kenya for Operation Usalama Watch, this should not be interpreted as backing of operations that target particular communities. Rather, a genuine sense of fear and unknowing has taken hold. Understandably, in this climate, Kenya’s wananchi are looking for responses that are robust but also effective.

The government would be wise to end its finger-pointing and instead seek to encourage a political debate on how to strengthen security. Kenyatta’s promised Commission of Inquiry never materialised but could have provided insights into policing and intelligence failures, strengthening inter-agency coordination between the National Intelligence Service, regular police and Administration Police, and instilling greater discipline and professionalism in the military.

Further, there is need for strong commitment and engagement from the top on conducting comprehensive police reforms that goes to the heart of the service.

The recent police recruitment exercise showed the country still has far to go to rid the force of corruption and favouritism. Police rank and file are in desperate need of training on community policing, another tool the government has brandished to improve security. However, its approach too often suggests a one-way relationship where communities are used for intelligence-gathering rather exploring opportunities to address the security concerns of communities themselves and, thus, building trust and confidence in policing institutions.

A strategic response to insecurity must consider many other major internal challenges ranging from land reform, to the structure of the overall economy and accumulation of wealth that excludes most, to the citizenship and rights of minorities and young people. A more nuanced understanding of the problem of worsening security, particularly one that asks the right questions, might lead to more appropriate responses.

Dr. Jeremy Lind is a Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (UK). He leads the Addressing and Mitigating Violence programme. Patrick Mutahi is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (Kenya).