The events in North Africa and the Middle East might now seem like a regular feature on the news agenda, but we shouldn’t forget that they caught us unaware. In our rush to speculate on how the Arab Awakening might eventually play out, we shouldn’t overlook pressing questions such as why the Arab Spring happened and why it occurred now?
The search for over-riding narratives and explanations can be a precarious business that risks generalisation and over simplification. Such narratives often tell us more about the world views and values of the story-teller than they provide accurate accounts or explanations of events in question.
This is not to say that the desire for justice, democracy, equality and political freedom across the Middle East is not real, it certainly is, but in itself does it provide a sufficient explanation as to why the revolutions took place in 2011 rather than 2007? Are there more immediate causes that explain why the pent-up political frustrations erupted with such spectacular results when they did?
Pictures of demonstrators waving baguettes on the streets of Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen draw attention to a more proximate variable – rising food prices – that might have aggravated sufficiently other drivers of dissent (social, economic, political and religious) such that popular protest became inevitable.
To what extent did the spike in global food prices act as a ‘dissent multiplier’?
In a recent Survival article, Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo, two environmental security analysts at the IISS in London, draw attention to the fact that in February 2011, wheat was trading at $8.50-9.00 a bushel compared to around $4 in July 2010. Drought and bushfires in Russia and the Ukraine, poor harvests in Canada and Australia due to excess rain and dust storms in China and ‘winter kill’ in America were all contributory factors.
There are of course other non-climatic reasons why food prices have been steadily on the rise. These include a fast growing world population, rising living standards in countries such as China, India and Brazil. The growth in global agricultural productivity has also been on the decline since mid-1990. The steady increase in the price of oil has added to transportation costs and contributed to a greater demand for bio fuels. Financial speculation in commodity prices has also pushed up prices.
The Middle East and North Africa is particularly prone to spikes in food prices. With little land and scarce water supplies, the Middle East and North Africa imports more food per capita as a region than any other. Significant population growth and changing diets have contributed to the region’s growing food insecurity.
In Egypt, families spend on average 40% of their income on food, but food price inflation has been at 20%. In a country of 83m, 40 million rely on food rations.
Highlighting the issue of food security as an aggravating factor opens up an interesting line of inquiry. Rather than seeing the current turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East as a specifically and uniquely Arab affair necessitating study in its own right, wouldn’t we better served by seeing these events as part of a wider process of popular unrest and dissent affecting other African countries such as Uganda, Mali, Niger and Mozambique.
A quick glance at Nomura’s Food Vulnerability Index shows that Asian countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rank in the same risk category as North Africa and the Middle East. The World Bank is specifically concerned about political unrest in Central America and the Caribbean, particularly El Salvador, Haiti, Grenada and Jamaica.
None of this is to claim that all countries at risk will experience Arab Spring style revolutions. But, it might suggest that countries at risk of food security are more likely to face political instability and possible upheaval should they have limited means to manage popular dissent other than through repressive means. What this might mean in the future for the fledging democracies of the Middle East should food prices continue to climb is far from clear.
It is entirely possible that the Arab Spring might have happened this year in spite of rather than because of the spike in food prices. But, the context in which the Arab Spring did take place is not inconsequential and should not be lost on policy makers. It certainly needs to be part of the narrative, if not high on the agenda of the G20.