Food Prices and the Arab Spring, One Year Later

I’m in Washington, DC for a roundtable on climate change and conflict at the Woodrow Wilson today, so I thought I should discuss this article in last week’s issue of The Economist which discusses food prices in the Middle East and North Africa:

It is sadly appropriate that Mohamad Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose self-immolation triggered the first protest of the Arab spring, should have been a street vendor, selling food. From the start, food has played a bigger role in the upheavals than most people realise. Now, the Arab spring is making food problems worse.

They start with a peculiarity of the region: the Middle East and North Africa depend more on imported food than anywhere else. Most Arab countries buy half of what they eat from abroad and between 2007 and 2010, cereal imports to the region rose 13 percent, to 66 million tons. Because they import so much, Arab countries suck in food inflation when world prices rise. In 2007-08, they spiked, with some staple crops doubling in price. In Egypt local food prices rose 37 percent in 2008-10.

Unsurprisingly, the spike triggered a wave of bread riots. Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco saw demonstrations about food in 2008. They all suffered political uprisings three years later. The Arab spring was obviously about much more than food. But it played a role.

The article then goes on to discuss the foolishness of food subsidies in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The problem is that the removal of those subsidies is fraught with danger — people come to take those subsidies for granted, and they tend to riot at the slightest hint of the subsidies’ removal.

I also wanted to share one of the background documents which was sent to today’s roundtable participants, a USAID report titled “Climate Change, Adaptation, and Conflict” (link opens a .pdf document), as it is a very useful review of the issues one needs to consider when thinking about the climate change–conflict nexus.

 

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