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Factbook News: Food Price Volatility and Fragility in the MENA Region

Factbook Middle East and North Africa Conflict
Screenshot from the ECC Factbook: Middle East and North Africa

Global food prices are on the rise again. The FAO Food Price Index shows a clear increasing trend over the last 12 months. In countries highly dependent on food imports in order to satisfy their internal demand this is likely to have a negative impact on food security, but possibly also on political stability, if mixed with a range of preexisting social grievances. A case in point are countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which are among the world’s largest importers of cereals and other basic foodstuffs, and in which rising food prices have contributed to social turmoil in the past.

Against this backdrop, we (the Factbook editorial team) thought it was timely to review the interaction of global food price hikes and political fragility, with a particular emphasis on the events leading up to the Arab Spring revolutions. The latest additions to the ECC Factbook include a general overview of the origins and consequences of recent global food price crises, but also a series of more specific case studies that investigate the connection between food price shocks and fragility in selected MENA countries. This series is further complemented by an overarching text that discusses possible policy solutions. 

Causes and consequences of global food price hikes

As part of an effort to analyse social and environmental conflict dynamics that transcend national borders, we review the origins and international consequences of recent food price hikes. It is clear that global food price crises in 2007 and 2010 were driven by many factors: rising prices for energy and farm inputs, financial speculation and restrictive trade policies, but also adverse climatic events (droughts, floods) in major exporting countries, thus underlining the vulnerability of international food markets to sudden environmental shocks.

We further illustrate that food price hikes can contribute to fragility by adversely affecting the living standards of the poor, accentuating social inequalities and revealing the incapacity of governments to provide for their constituents. Whether or not such dynamics come into play is a matter of context, however. Food price shocks, food insecurity and fragility are most likely to interact in the presence of weakened and contested political regimes.         

Focus on MENA countries

This conjuncture is also visible in a series of country-specific case studies that delve deeper into the origins of the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world. The link between food price inflation and fragility is not deterministic, but we show that, in several MENA countries, rising food prices had an aggravating effect on a number of preexisting social grievances. In Egypt, for instance, soaring food prices combined with dire job prospects and years of political disenfranchisement exacerbated popular discontent with the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

Likewise, rising food prices were among the main concerns of those demanding the departure of Tunisia's president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, even though the Tunisian government did comparably well in protecting local consumers through food subsidies and price controls. Yet, these measures could not make up for years of economic mismanagement, corruption and social marginalisation which made food prices a politically sensitive issue. 

Entry points for preventive action

Given these past connections between food price inflation and fragility, are we likely to see an intensification of conflicts and a renewal of political crises across the MENA region, now that global food prices are on the rise again? Not necessarily. In an overview, we present and discuss different policy measures that have (or could) be implemented to reduce MENA countries' vulnerability to global food price spikes and related social and political challenges. These include efforts to strengthen domestic food production capabilities in an efficient and sustainable way, but also options for further reducing trade barriers with an amplifying effect on global food price volatility.

To learn more about our series on food prices and other cases, please visit the ECC Factbook.