Monday, March 21, 2011

Food Crisis: Hungry Citizens are Overthrowing Governments

BREAD TALK. The surge in foods and basic commodities price has sparked public unrests in many parts of the world especially in Mideast countries like Jordan, where a citizen here is seen using a baguette bread to vent his anger to Jordanian government during a street protest.

(photo by Kahlil Marzaawi)

On how to deal with middle and working class people, here’s one good advice that all world leaders (or dictators), could listen: Give them sufficient food and they would give less trouble for you –because food, after all, is the most important necessity that they need.

It was in the year of 1998 when working and middle class Indonesians conquered the streets to end the 32-year autocratic reign of Soeharto, but before those people were longing for the taste of democracy and liberty, it was actually their hungry stomach and bitter economic condition that provoked the transition in the first place.

Following the monetary crisis in 1997, the Indonesian economy was in its nadir and the ASEAN region was infected with currency crisis that was originated in Thailand; which eventually led to massive-scale currency depreciation in neighborhood countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippines.

In Indonesia, the crisis caused the price of basic commodities to rise beyond the reach of common people, and eventually increased the number of Indonesians who lived below poverty line. As people were pointless at that time and had no one to blame for their suffering, they challenged the autocracy and look for democracy as the solution.

Would Soeharto lose his power if the 1997 economic crisis did not occur? Of course, there were several other factors that contributed to his downfall. But if working-class mothers were not struggling to buy rice and basic necessities at that time, surely their husbands would not have the motive to illegally loot shopping stores and their children would not be so interested to join the street protests.

In November last year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published Food Outlook report and warned against the rising price of basic commodities and the looming food crisis as bleak outlook in 2011.

Less than four months after the ‘prophecy’ was published, it has had its tolls already, as surging global price of foods and basic commodities triggered public uproars which were responsible for the ousting of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and put other governments in balance.

Widespread corruption, unjust elections, and undemocratic government have long become concern for citizens in Mideast; but it was not until the symptoms of food crisis 2011 materialized that both Tunisian and Egyptian people truly fed up with their governments and decided to take the matter with their own hands.

In Tunisia, inflated food price and bloated unemployment rate were actually the initial motives behind the public unrest that led to the resignation of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The domino effect then went to Egypt, where people there ultimately realize that they are also experiencing the same problem as their neighbor in the west.

Egypt is the world’s largest importer on wheat; a commodity which has seen its price soaring for more than 50% since last year. In the country, food security has always become a major issue as Egyptians spend about 40% of their monthly income on food; compared to 28% for the Chinese or 6.1% for the Americans in estimations made by the US Department of Agriculture.

When the largest fraction of your income is spent on food, surely you will be the party that suffers the most if there is a hike in food price. Hence, makes no wonder if the Egyptians were among the firsts to take the bull by the horns:

“Hey life is getting harder these days, so why don’t we try the same thing with Husni Mubarak, just like the Tunisians did with their president?”

True, other causes also contribute to this 2011 Mideast revolution; such as greedy tyrants who had been clinging in their offices for too long, or ingrained corruption culture within the government that those tyrants have nurtured.

Or perhaps the influence of social media, which also deserves recognition as seemingly regimes in China, Iran, and North Korea so far have been able to evade the public uproar because their leaders have been notorious for isolating their own people from the internet.

But food crisis irrefutably played a part on the uprisings that lead to the 2011 Mideast revolution. Just recently, Rabah Arezki from the IMF and Markus Br├╝ckner from the University of Adelaide publish a research paper that confirms the relationship between international food prices and government stability. Interestingly, their research concludes that there is a positive correlation between food price increase in low-income countries and the likelihood of civil conflict and anti-government demonstrations.

The research is proven true and commonsensical in many ways. For instance, if you were about to join an anti-government demonstration, which issue that you are more likely to join: corruption or rising food prices?

For some people the answer may differ, but if surging price of basic commodities start to affect your earnings and your family, you will have a tendency to choose the latter than the former. Without doubt, people are more likely to go berserk on matters that directly affect them, such as rising food prices, compared to matters like corruption or others.

FAO recently reported that food price had reached a new record high in February; and the world is seemingly welcoming a resurgence of food crisis in 2011. The case of overthrown governments in Egypt and Tunisia is tangible proof that governments have indeed become more susceptible during these times.

This is a serious warning for all immortal-looking dictators from North Korea to Myanmar whose hungry citizens are perhaps next in line to demand revolutions.

This article was published in The Jakarta Post on Monday, March 21 2011

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