TWQ: The Coming Food Coups - Winter 2009
January 1, 2009
The doubling of grain prices over the past two years has already set off violent protests in over 30 developing countries and led to the overthrow of the Haitian prime minister Jacques Edouard Alexis. Even though the media has provided extensive coverage and analysis of the causes of the increase in food prices, the potential political and security consequences have been given little attention. All food crises do not become famines, but the dynamics of rapid food price increases show many of the same characteristics of famines in their early stages. Though it is unlikely that famine will sweep across the globe, causing revolution, upheaval, and mass starvation, the consequences of the increase in food prices since 2004 could still be dire if prices continue to increase and a severe worldwide recession drastically reduces family income in poor countries.
The term “crisis” is not, and should not be, used to describe recent price increases because such terminology only encourages doomsday visions in Washington and other capitals, which can lead to unwise policy responses. Policymakers need to be equipped with an analytical framework that can be used to minimize the humanitarian, political, and security consequences of the recent hike in prices. Famine theory—a body of knowledge about the microeconomic dynamics of famines, the vulnerability of people to food price shocks, and the common patterns of behavior people use to try to survive in different stages of the famine—can provide a foundation for such a framework. Historically, the political consequences of famine have been manifested through a country’s political system. The political and security consequences of current price increases can be analyzed through a framework based on traditional famine theory so that donor governments will be better equipped to identify the gravest potential risks in countries with different political systems–varying from failed to totalitarian states–and implement effective policy responses.