Naomi Hossain and Patta Scott-Villiers (eds): Food riots, food rights and the politics of provision
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This collection of papers is about food poverty and food riots in developing countries. Issues of international inequality (social, economic and political) are now back on the agenda with a vengeance. The traditional (or Washington consensus) view was one that emphasised the primary function of inequality as a necessary means of ensuring long term economic growth both nationally and across countries. It was a counterweight to the earlier developmental optimism of using government (the state) as the necessary planning vehicle to ensure balanced and equitable economic growth. This, the critics argued, led to inefficiency, corruption, excessive bureaucracy and eventually ran economic systems into the ground. In contrast they advocated market-based policies designed to liberalise economic systems, focus on private enterprise led production, investment (usually foreign) and trade, deregulation and fiscal discipline on the part of governments. Inevitably of course this would lead to economic inequality but with sensible controls in place greater growth would “trickle down” to the poorer sections of society.
Nowadays we are not so sure. Analysts like Piketty (2014) have argued that long term returns to capital exceed economic growth and that this has become so endemic it has begun to generate discontent and undermine democratic values. In a very detailed statistical analysis of modern capitalism over the past two-three centuries his evidence appears to show a distribution of wealth that is becoming increasingly unequal both nationally and internationally and, although there are shorter periods of balance, the long term trend is unequivocal. There are similar issues now appearing in the shorter (business cycle) period where successive periods of austerity appear to be hollowing out economic conditions for large sections of populations in both developing and industrialised countries. Varoufakis (2016) and Stiglitz (2016) are just two of a number of modern commentators who show increased levels of inequality in Europe and North America co-existing with lower than possible levels of economic production and joblessness among youth. In a sense the moderating lessons of Keynes in the 1930s have been forgotten as the so-called neo-liberal consensus has taken hold in a globalised world.
In the developing world a similar story obtains. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) poverty and inequality remain at high levels though there have been marginal improvements since the start of the millennium. Poverty remains widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 50% of people live on less than 1.90 US dollars a day, the officially recognized poverty threshold. The story is similar in Latin America and South Asia. Hence large sections of the world’s population were badly affected as a result of the financial crisis which hit everyone in 2007 and 2008.
This is the point of departure for the contributors to this volume of essays. Its focus is on food poverty and its impact on large sections of populations in low income countries over the past decade. Its basic argument in the words of its editors, is that “the ten years from 2007 were marked by a tectonic shift in the tenor of relations between rulers and ruled across the world, specifically in relation to the degree to which each polity made provision for its citizens to have access to the essentials of life”. It stresses that “the roots of the global shift in citizen-state relations lie in the politics of subsistence and struggles for natural rights, ------- [playing] out everywhere ------- [but] in different ways” (page 1).
These struggles often take the form of food riots and significant parts of the text attempt to distinguish the extent to which such riots are really about food poverty as such, as compared to more general patterns of income and asset inequality that have arisen from the 2008 crash at a global and national level. The authors are mainly academic researchers drawn from a range of international institutions; the book consists of nine chapters (including the introduction) five of which are essentially case studies of specific developing countries viz. Bangladesh, Cameroon, India, Kenya and Mozambique. The remaining chapters either try to set these cases in a wider analytical context or summarize conclusions at the end.
This is not a straightforward book for a reader who is unfamiliar with the language of modern sociological discourse. It is probably best to summarise it chapter by chapter since it is hard for the lay reader to grasp the book’s content quickly. Chapter 1 is not so much an introduction but rather a guide to the key terms and concepts that appear throughout the text. It attempts to define the idea of “food riots”, how these relate to other forms of insecurity among disadvantaged populations and their portrayal in the international media; it shows how their impact is conditioned by different types of political context both locally and globally and how the growth of food poverty in many parts of the world has been so endemic that it has become an international affront to what the authors summarise as the “moral economy”, a disruption of traditional obligations between rich and poor.
Chapter 2 (in my view by far the most accessible part of the book) summarises the essential features of the 2007–2016 period as they influenced protests and political disruption connected with access to food. It starts by summarising the main elements of the crash of the global banking system that stemmed from the unravelling of sub-prime mortgage markets and accompanying securitised debt structures that had been created as ways of minimising risk. The author argues that these impacts, combined with the high levels reached by international commodity prices, were the main factors behind a series of protests on the part of “---[enraged populations] -- who believed a tacit contract between citizen and state had been broken when basic economic needs were priced out of reach” (page 24).
The author explores this with reference to a data set of protests and political participation events from 2007 to 2013 combined with a similar set covering the period 2013 to the present. The data for the earlier period are compiled from newspaper sources available on the internet and in 84 countries. They comprise an analysis of 843 protest events appearing in more than 500 news sources split into three 2-year phases of financial volatility. These are further split into protest clusters relating to austerity, political representation, civil rights and environmental damage. Food poverty is clearly a common theme but by no means the whole story. Moreover, the protests are not confined to disenfranchised sections of poor countries but are focused more generally on matters of concern to all classes and countries including large sections of the middle class in rich countries as well. The last context-setting part of the chapter (covering the 2007–20012 period) goes into a little more detail about the role of national and international media outlets in the presentation and analysis of issues connected with food riots.
The remainder of the book deals with the experiences of the five countries chosen as cases where riots have been occurring over the past 10 years or so. The picture that emerges is one of great complexity both in the cause of riots and in the various ways that governments have attempted to deal with the issue. In some cases as with India and Bangladesh, it tells what is quite a positive story of a series of government initiatives that have made specific attempts to respond to (and ameliorate) conditions of food shortages. In Bangladesh one factor behind this response may be due to the effect the 1974 famine had on attitudes of political elites; these have clearly resolved never again to allow such desperate conditions to remain in place as when large sections of the population starved to death in the period following the war of independence from Pakistan.
The immediate impact of the 2008 crisis was for the state to try to deal immediately with dramatic rises in food prices, which they have done through a series of measures dealing with market reforms, food stocks storage improvements and improved access to foreign aid and trade. What has muddied the waters a little in the Bangladesh context is an economic structure that relies heavily on the use of cheap labour in the garment sector as a primary focus of employment. This combined with the flood-prone nature of the country produces scenarios of perpetual instability in food access and food poverty. In India food price inflation has never been as significant, though food poverty is still a growing problem.
The cases of Kenya, Cameroon and Mozambique portray government policy as being less wholehearted and perhaps slightly more disorganised. In Kenya for example, the period has been dominated by divisions that are as tribal as they have always been, with political elites concentrating their attention on matters such as the concentration and maintenance of civil power, and restoring greater balance in rural-urban relations. In all the countries investigated several things stand out. First of all the onset of the post crisis period has coincided with political instability. Second, remedial measures have not been fully thought through, as in Cameroon where a policy of rice subsidisation has affected traditional diets adversely.
However, when all is said and done the central argument of the essays in this collection is that riots about food and food poverty occur mainly out of a growing sense of alienation and disenfranchisement on the part of large sections of communities in developing countries. In a sense the hunger and associated insecurities become the focus of protest against growing inequality. Perhaps like Brexit, the focus on a particular issue (immigration in the Brexit case) becomes the scapegoat for a deeper underlying anger. It is also clear that the factors giving rise to food riots are exceedingly complex. They may have originated from the crisis in 2008 but the form they take and how they are portrayed in the popular press demonstrate an interrelatedness that defies easy analysis.
And this really is an issue that the book as a whole does not deal with. Part of the problem is that it appears to be written for a small academic readership who are familiar with the concepts and language of modern developmental sociology. In places the terminology becomes so dense that even these readers will have difficulty separating the sheep from the goats. Even more accessible concepts such as the “moral economy” for example, are never unambiguously defined though an attempt is made in chapter 1. Beyond the language itself the written text is also relatively clumsy. In places it reminds the reviewer of C Wright Mills’ well-known “translation” of several pages of Talcott Parsons into a paragraph or two of readable text with no loss of content (see Mills 1959).
More seriously though, the book lacks any coherent analytical structure. Information is provided in great detail but it is very hard for the reader to separate out the host of factors that may be relevant to food riots across the countries examined: how for example, causes of food riots are definably different or how an analysis of their impacts may contribute to remedial public policy recommendations.
The introductory chapter is simply a series of statements about concepts used in the later chapters; it makes no attempt to set out a series of hypotheses to be tested in the case studies that follow. And the final concluding chapter is simply a series of general statements about how food riots may be defined and understood as a developmental issue. The book contains a great deal of academically useful information, but it is a great pity that the authors have missed the opportunity of making this easily accessible for a wider audience such as the staff of governmental, aid and related institutions who need help to deal with on-the-ground practical problems that confront their agencies from day to day.
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- Stiglitz, J. (2016). The euro and its threat to the future of Europe. UK: Penguin, Random House.Google Scholar
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