Expert Commentary

Food crises and political instability in North Africa and the Middle East

2011 paper correlates incidences of social unrest (as identified by news reports) with the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization global food price index.

The spring 2011 protests and revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East — commonly referred to as the Arab Spring — were fueled by many factors, including frustrations with existing political regimes, a growing youth population, online social networks and a shortage of employment opportunities. An additional factor that deserves attention in this circumstance, and more broadly in geopolitics, is the role elevated food prices may have played in fomenting unrest.

A 2011 paper by New England Complex Systems Institute, “The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East,” correlates incidences of social unrest (as identified by news reports) with the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) global food price index between 2004 and 2011.

Key study findings include:

  • As the FAO food price index rose above 180 in 2008, more than 60 food riots occurred in 30 different countries in the region. As the food price index declined to 140 in late 2008, incidences of social rest also diminished. This pattern repeated itself in late 2010 and early 2011, including in the Arab Spring uprisings.
  • Food riots are likely to occur when the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s FAO Food Price Index equals or is greater than 210. Incorporating longitudinal data from January 1990 to May 2011, the chance that the social unrest of the Arab Spring occurred by chance during an episode of high food prices is less than 6%.
  • Riots that have occurred during low global food price periods have coincided with domestic food supply issues, including refugee conditions in Burundi (2005) and flood and agricultural disruptions in India and Somalia, respectively (2007).
  • The researchers estimate that the next period of food price index inflation will occur in July 2012 (considering only current prices) or April 2013 (adjusting for inflation).

The research team ties episodes of food inflation and social unrest with the erosion of citizens’ faith in government to ensure access to basic human needs: “In food importing countries with widespread poverty, political organizations may be perceived to have a critical role in food security. Failure to provide security undermines the very reason for existence of the political system.”

A complementary 2011 study published in The World Bank Researcher Observer, “Higher Food Prices in Sub-Saharan Africa: Poverty Impact and Policy Responses,” notes how reducing taxes on food — the most popular policy response to rising prices — primarily benefits non-poor residents of the region. The authors of this study suggest that targeted implementation of safety net programs may ensure that fewer people are adversely impacted by fluctuations in food prices.

Tags: Middle East

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