News / Africa

Nations Seek to Prevent Uprisings by Controlling Food Prices

Violent protests in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia recall 2007, 2008 food riots

Thousands of demonstrators protest in central Cairo to demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and calling for reforms. (Jan. 25, 2011)
Thousands of demonstrators protest in central Cairo to demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and calling for reforms. (Jan. 25, 2011)

As food prices soar worldwide, experts are advising policymakers that certain strategies to calm the markets - and the populace - do more harm than good.

Recent demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria recall memories of food riots in several countries in 2007 and 2008. While experts say the situation today has not reached that level, lessons learned then are part of a new guide the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has published aimed at help policymakers wrestling with high food prices.

Don't ban exports

"I think the most negative experience in 2008 was the ban on exports," says FAO senior advisor Garry Smith.

India, Vietnam and other countries banned rice exports after bad weather damaged their crops. But taking rice off an already tight world market kicked global prices even higher.

"That's one of the things we strongly discourage," Smith says.

But Russia banned wheat exports this summer after drought ruined a third of its harvest.

"It's obviously also contributed to the current price situation," Smith says.

India has also banned onion exports in the face of high domestic prices. Experts are most concerned about the impacts of rising prices on an FAO list of 77 low-income countries that rely heavily on food imports, including 25 in Asia and 43 in Africa.

Price controls

Ethiopia is trying to control inflation by setting maximum prices for staple foods. Smith says that approach rarely works.

"It's all very well for a government to say, 'That's the maximum price,'" he says, "but what typically happens is product just moves to a black market."

In the legal markets, merchants forced to sell goods at a loss cannot afford to re-stock. In parts of Ethiopia, VOA reports on shortages of price-controlled goods such as cooking oil and oranges.

"Both export bans and price controls are pure political posturing," says agricultural economist Chris Barrett at Cornell University. "They tend not to wind up benefiting the poor populations that they most need to benefit."

Reserves buffer prices

Experts say global grain reserves currently are large enough to prevent a crisis on the scale of 2007-2008.

Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, are looking into increase their national reserves to build a bigger buffer.

"A buffer stock is very effective at helping to take the top off price spikes," Barrett says. However, he adds, "Those are typically expensive to maintain. They're very vulnerable to political manipulation when the states wants to suppress prices a bit, especially in the run-up to elections."

Boost imports

Governments can take a lighter approach by lowering tariffs to boost imports of staples.

Maximo Torero with the International Food Policy Research Institute says this approach can help, but it must be done carefully because the government will lose revenue.

"They have to get that money from somewhere else to keep their budget in balance," he says. "So, those types of policies can only be implemented for short term periods if you don't want to get into a fiscal problem."

Algeria has decided to accept that risk. Riots already broke out there earlier this month. FAO's Garry Smith says boosting imports will bring prices down.

"The question," he says, "is whether it's used as just a blunt instrument to be dumped into the market at subsidized prices and push the whole market down, or whether it's used to support needy groups."

Target the needy

Smith says targeting measures to needy groups is a much better way for governments to tackle the crisis. While he pans Ethiopia's price controls, he praises the country's safety net program.

"Local communities identify needy households," he says. "That's a way that we can better assure accurate targeting of need."

In addition to providing funds those families can use to buy food in local markets, the program also creates jobs for the unemployed in water or conservation projects or other plans aimed at improving agricultural productivity.

Smith says that's important, because investing in agriculture is how countries will avoid these problems in the future. But even though 70 percent of the world's extremely poor live in rural areas, Smith says, "Politicians will always err towards choices [that] will pacify urban communities because they're the ones who rise up."

Preventing those uprisings may be the goal in the short term. But Smith says a country's long-term food security lies with its farmers.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Troops Depart

Afghans are grappling with how exodus will affect country's fragile economy More

Video Scientists Say We Need Softer Robots

Today’s robots are mostly hard, rigid machines, with sharp edges and forceful movements, but researchers at Carnegie Mellon University say they should be softer and therefore safer More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs