Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Revolting Ringtones: 5 Developments in the Art of the Food Riot

Four hundred years ago, food riots meant underpaid English labourers upturning the horse-drawn cart of a bolting trader to redistribute the spoils more fairly. What’s different now?

1. Revolting communications

No surprise here – tech matters. Even people on low incomes use text/SMS to organise. But transport systems play a big role too – people hang around bus stands, info travels en route. Everyone learned from the images of Tahrir Square (… Occupymany, Taksim, the FIFA riots, London’s unruly shoppers … ). (If the social network mattered much we haven’t seen evidence yet – the networks we saw were all real). But the 21st century food riot has its own meme: who can ever forget Bread Helmet Man, the Yemeni protestor in 2011? Our favourite story was that the Mozambican riots even got their own soundtrack – rap star Azagaia’s Povo no Poder (Power to the People)  was the hit ringtone for months.

2. Precarious cosmopolitans

All this development the aid world enjoins us to celebrate is giving us a hangover: a lot of these young folk bustling into the big ugly cities to do economic growth (low-paid insecure jobs to you and me) lose their ties to the land and to others in the process. Some get jobs that give them an identity and networks and a sense of place. Others, less so. All have fewer and weaker ties to the paternal sources of protection they once had. How should they cope when prices rise? No wonder they are becoming the 'new dangerous class' as Guy Standing calls 'the Precariat'.

3. Discontent and its democrats

Yes its deeply flawed, but democracy, that twice-decadal business of having your say on who gets to be the big boss, really matters. Most people know they just have to wait five years to show the government exactly how outraged they are by food crises left untended. Yes, democracy and discontent go together like cigarettes and alcohol. That’s why even gold-encrusted politicians like Nairobi’s Mike Sonko come out for the food rioters (not that they were universally thrilled about it). And that’s why the ever-popular Bangladeshi military seems to have permanently lost its sheen when, in effective power in 2008-09, its solutions to the rice price spike included to 'let them eat potatoes'.

4. Scapegoats are global

21st century governments blame the global economy when prices shoot up  - nobody believes them, but hey, it’s worth a shot – and in smaller countries it is often true. Go on, blame it on Chicago, why not. It’s all so complicated nobody really understands it anyway. You’ve got nothing to lose but your Presidency (see Point 3).

5. Lies, damn lies and international news media 

Four hundred years ago a food riot was reported locally and maybe nationally, if you and the archive-hunting historian were lucky. Nowadays all you need is a warning from Jeffrey Sachs or the Food and Agriculture Organization et al about rising prices, Oxfam piling in with some scare-tistics, and any and all protest involving poor-looking third worlders is a food riot and a headline. Not many people will bother to look more closely and the headlines will promptly be poured into the numbers-generating machine of the International Monetary Fund and the like to prove that a hungry mob is an angry mob. The imagery is, of course, perfect for a western audience desirous to know the worst of the rest.

This is why we selected this image for the cover of our report – he is so ferocious, so young, so militant – like something out of Central Casting for third world food riots. That digital camera that captured his angry little face and turned it into international news headlines was not invented 400 years ago. So the then-prosperous Mozambicans would never have known how the English starved and rioted.

Of course, a hungry mob is an angry mob. But you will need to read our research to understand why that is true. Don’t believe the hype, believe the researchers who have just spent two years finding out what really happened. How times have changed. Or have they?

Find out more on the Food Riots and Food Rights website, where you can download the country and synthesis reports.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and coordinator of the Food Riots and Food Rights research project funded by UK Aid and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Image credit: Getty images

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