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What do we know about food riots?

Went off to a rain-drenched Institute of Development Studies last week for one of those great workshops where a group of country researchers come together with case studies on a similar issue and then swap ideas on what general conclusions are emerging. The topic was the rash of food riots that struck 30+ countries in the aftermath of the 2008 food price spike, marking the onset of a new period of volatilility with big social and economic impacts (see, for example, the Oxfam/IDS project on life in a time of food price volatility, which has its second annual report coming out soon).

The starting point for the work, which is being led by Naomi Hossain, is bringing together an IDS-style ‘voices of the rioters’ approach, using focus groups and interviews, with a more theoretical ‘moral economy’ lens, drawing on the work of EP Thompson on food riots in 18thC England. As Naomi and Ferdous Jahan explain in their Bangladesh study:

‘People do not protest because they are hungry, but on the basis of powerful ideological justifications that arise from ideas about how food markets should work, the limits set by public opinion on the freedoms of (food) markets in times of scarcity or crises, and the idea that public authorities are responsible to act to protect people’s rights to food at such times. These are summarised as ‘moral economy’ ideas, and may be latently present under normal conditions. But it is mainly when shocks occur in the national or local food economy that they tend to be activated and articulated and to legitimate popular mobilisation.’

Case studies on Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique threw up some important stuff. I’ll link to the papers when they are finalised and published, but here are some initial impressions.

The importance of history and memory: one legacy of horrific 20thC famines in Bangladesh and India is that both the public and policy makers are highly sensitive to the issue of food security. In Kenya, the memory of post election violence in 2008 meant that protesters were much less likely to resort to violence this time around.

The blame game is complicated: rioters tend to blame private sector baddies (hoarders and speculators), and corrupt government officials, but demand solutions from those same governments, often contrasting today’s situation with an imaginary golden age of state responsiveness. The retreat of the state and rise of market mechanisms has had a multiple impact here – privatization, often to the hands of well connected insiders, seems to have replaced old forms of patronage (‘inclusive clientilism’?) with a more elitist version. Fewer people have their snouts in the trough these days. State retreat also weakens its ability to respond to protest.

The interplay between institutions, ‘politics as usual’ and violent protest. Where there are channels that poor people see as at least partly genuine, protests will often go that route, rather than the much riskier path of chucking Molotov cocktails. In India, protesters in Madhya Pradesh, with its vibrant Right to Food movement, were much less likely to go on the rampage than those in West Bengal, where such a movement is largely absent.

When violence does become the preferred option, what does it achieve? Mixed findings here – in the short term, a few government concessions (eg abandoning price rises), but few medium term improvements. What the research was unable to answer was the longer term impact of violent protest, for example in delegitimizing existing power holders and paving the way for new political groupings, as the anti-austerity riots in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s arguably did.

And (of course) a few constructive whinges:

The work thus far is surprisingly weak on gender. Perhaps more than any other topic, food bridges the public and private spheres, and is often a focus for women’s engagement outside the home. But while the leadership of peaceful civil society movements such as India’s Right to Food movement is largely female, riots tend to be a young guy thing. So what happens to the gender dimension when protests turn violent? I hope there’s still time to look at that before the papers are finalised.

There seems to be a possible typology of riots emerging here:

  • Defensive (drop those price rises, now!)
  • Cathartic (I’ve had enough, I want to smash something)
  • Genuine programmatic (politics has to change)
  • Manipulated programmatic (political leader stirs up riots to pursue his agenda)

Would be good to see if that can be developed further.

Finally, for once, I started to worry if there was too much deference to history here, in particular English history. University of Tennessee historian John Bohstedt described the 18th Century riots as the ‘first draft of the welfare state’ and saw events since 2008 as an analogous process, but is that true? For example, the interviews suggest very few of the rioters describe these things as food riots – they are often triggered by something else, such as transport price hikes.  Does our progressive, but still colonial historical baggage distort our understanding of what’s going on? That’s as close to heresy as I’m prepared to go today.

From:Oxfamblogs 20 February 2014