As world leaders have their eyes fixed on the global financial crisis, which has seen western governments spend trillions of dollars to keep banks and financial institutions afloat, British aid organization Oxfam on October 16 issued Doubled Edged Prices, an alarming report about the ongoing global food crisis.
According to Oxfam, average prices of staple foods such as rice and cereals have risen up to 300% in some countries, which have pushed an extra 200 million people to the edge of starvation, bringing the worldwide total to nearly one billion. Key drivers of the crisis are increased demand, which includes increased demand for bio- fuels and meat; reduced supply due to an increase in extreme weather conditions; the hike in energy prices and financial speculation in commodity markets.
Hardest-hit are poor urban dwellers who spend up to 80% of their daily income on food and mainly live in food- importing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Middle East has not escaped the ordeal. According to the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), the price of corn and rice in Egypt has risen by more than 70% between 2007 and 2008, while in Sudan the price of wheat increased by 90%. In Lebanon, the average price of imported food has increased by 145%. Experts warned that an estimated 30% of Lebanese live under the poverty line, which could increase to 40%.
Massive bread riots in Egypt earlier this year showed what the political consequences of an empty stomach can be. The Egyptian government is currently paying billions of dollars to subsidize cheap bread production. Following years of drought and bad harvests, the Syrian government may soon be forced to start importing wheat. Meanwhile, Oxfam observed, the crisis is not a setback for everyone, as large agricultural corporations and supermarket chains have recorded soaring profits.
Interestingly, a BBC survey last summer found that 60% of respondents in 26 countries said higher food and energy prices had affected them “a great deal.” Dissatisfaction with their government in terms of tackling the crisis was greatest in Egypt, where 88% of respondents said to be unhappy with their leaders, followed by the Philippines (86%) and Lebanon (85%).
At first sight, the world’s financial and food crises could not be more different. While the first has so far mainly been felt by Wall Street bankers, boardroom directors and shareholders, the second predominantly hurts the poorest of the poor, who break their backs for a few dollars a day and for whom a 30% price increase on a loaf of bread is quite literally a matter of life and death. International aid organizations have warned that the crisis is most acute in Ethiopia where six million people survive through emergency food hand-outs, up from two million last April.
However, the crises have at least one thing in common: far-reaching deregulation and market liberalization appear have aggravated the suffering. Lack of overview and transparency in the US allowed banks to build an elaborate financial pyramid on what were essentially bad mortgage loans. In terms of food and agriculture, countries that have followed the wishes and international guidelines set by donor countries and global financial watchdogs have been hit harder than countries such as India and Brazil, which have stuck to a more protective agricultural policy.
“The trend in agriculture, as in international finance, has been towards deregulation and a reduced role for the State,” said Oxfam director Barbara Stocking. “This has had devastating effects and innocent lives have been blighted by exposure to market volatility. In countries where governments have invested in agriculture and put policies in place to target vulnerable or marginalized groups, the impacts of food price inflation have been less severe. In contrast, where there has been unmanaged trade liberalization, underinvestment in agriculture and little support from government, the effects have been devastating.”
For decades, financial organizations like the World Bank and IMF have pushed for free trade, open markets and deregulation, despite the fact that the US and Europe themselves have proved unwilling to stop paying billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies to domestic farmers. It was these same subsidies that caused the latest round of Doha free trade talks to collapse.
Haiti is an often-cited example of how open markets and free trade may in fact help create poverty. In 2007, some five million Haitians lived on less than a dollar a day, while almost half the population was undernourished — a situation only aggravated by recent price hikes and bad weather. Ironically, Haiti once was a significant rice producer, yet urged on by free trade ideologists the country opened its markets to allow for cheap imports to arrive, which caused a decline in local production and job creation. Later on, global food prices increased and thus became unaffordable for the increasingly impoverished population.
One thing is certain: less than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which prompted some conservative enthusiasts to hail the end of history, the world’s food and financial crises have painfully shown the shortcomings and limitations of the free market ideology.
Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist