Saturday, February 5, 2011

Food price inflation fueling a sense of injustice

But for all the noisy media coverage and declarations by senior policymakers, few people have remarked on the actual motives of those who, in 2008, destroyed property in Argentina, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Peru and brought down Haiti's government and are currently causing havoc in Tunisia and across the Middle East. After all, food riots have occurred throughout history but have not usually correlated with hunger or food prices. For the most part, the planet's 700 million-900 million hungry people have suffered in silence. And price volatility does not necessarily lead to screaming crowds, either. There are many more examples of people accepting volatile prices than rioting over them. So there is more to the protests than the logic of the pocketbook. A key psychological element -- a sense of injustice that arises between seeing food prices rise and pouring a Molotov cocktail -- is missing.

It is not yet clear how big a role food riots played in the toppling of the Tunisian government. But if history is any guide, Tunisians' feelings of being cheated were more important than actual food prices. Take Cameroon's experience in 2008, for example. That year, this West African nation suffered one of the most serious and protracted food riots in the world, and scores were left dead after the crowds eventually dispersed. Remembering the crisis, Alexander Legwegoh, a Cameroonian academic and an expert on urban poverty and food security, and Bernard Motuba, an accountant who left Cameroon for Canada, said that it was not just bills that caused the violence: expensive fuel drove taxi drivers to strike and then, anger over merchants' profiteering on staple products broadened the protest. "The government knew a group of merchants was taking advantage of everyone and that this would grow to a political crisis." Yet, according to Legwegoh and Motuba, as the protesters' numbers swelled, the size of loaves of bread for sale in the markets shrank while their price tags remained the same.

The real culprits, then, were retailers who stockpiled grain in hopes that prices would continue to go up. This speculation spun Cameroon's food system further out of control and bred hatred. Motuba describes the food merchants as "cutthroat business guys who don't give a damn about people." When the government sent inspectors to grocery stores and warehouses to auction off any illicit surpluses, the public cheered. Prices had not returned to their earlier levels, but a seeming restoration of justice helped calm the rioters' tempers, whose fury, according to Motuba and Legwegoh, had been rooted more in a feeling of exploitation than a fear of starvation.

[…]Policymakers today must be mindful of the psychological causes of food riots when they discuss the correct mix of trade and protectionism that will safeguard our food security. If they simply embrace the efficiency of the market, public feelings of injustice may cause more trouble than the volatile price of food itself.

More by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas in Foreign Affairs magazine here.