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

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
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. 

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