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M A R C H 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
2008. Rising oil prices have forced some smallholder farm-
ers to cut back on planting crops because they can no longer
afford to buy fertilizer, which is closely correlated with the
price of oil. Approximately 15 percent of the increase in
food production prices is due to higher energy and fertilizer
Price Volatility and Unrest
Between 2006 and 2008, the World Bank tracked the
reactions of 58 countries to food price volatility and found
that 48 of them imposed price controls, consumer subsi-
dies, export restrictions or higher tariffs. Half of the sam-
ple group, 29 countries, responded by sharply curbing food
exports. This lowered prices for their own citizens but
drove them up elsewhere.
While restricting food exports affords temporary relief to
domestic consumers, particularly urban-dwellers, it ad-
versely affects farmers, who must sell their stock at lower
prices, and trading partners, especially net importers,
through higher prices. The anticipation of shortages caused
by export restrictions can also lead to hoarding around the
world by farmers, traders and even consumers. Such
hoarding offers short-term relief, but compounds the prob-
lem by reducing production incentives, potentially encour-
aging increased smuggling and corruption.
If food prices continue to increase even after govern-
ments take such steps, this tends to have political conse-
quences. These vary widely because, as the old saying goes,
all politics is local. But here are four key factors to watch:
• the rapidity and steepness of food price increases
• the level and extent of absolute poverty before price
increases occur
• the existence of functioning information feedback
mechanisms so political leaders can get data easily when
there is a food crisis in their country
• the ability of the international humanitarian system to
respond to sharp price hikes as soon as possible.
Generally speaking, societal reaction will be sharpest in
countries with large urban populations that are connected
to international foodmarkets, which quickly feel the effects
of price increases. In extreme cases, anger over food short-
ages can foment electoral upheavals, coups and popular up-
The Origins of Famine
This effect is particularly strong when widespread food
shortages deteriorate into full-fledged famines, of course.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen opens
Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Dep-
(Oxford University Press, 1983), his celebrated
statement of exchange entitlement theory, with this defini-
tion of the phenomenon: “Starvation is the characteristic of
some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the
characteristic of there being not enough to eat. While the
latter can be a cause of the former, it is but one of many
possible causes.’’
Famines occur when large numbers of people in a coun-
try or region suffer a rapid, substantial reduction in caloric
intake, causing widespread death. The phenomenon is sel-
dom caused simply by shortages of supplies, but rather by
the inability of large groups of people to obtain food, most
often due to extreme poverty.
Absolute poverty increases the vulnerability of people
to price shocks that lead to famine because they lack the
means to absorb reductions in their income or increases
in prices. The world’s poorest people spend up to 70 per-
cent of family income to buy food, so even small changes
in the economic balance between their income, assets, the
Andrew S. Natsios served as director of the U.S. Agency
for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disas-
ter Assistance from 1989 to 1991, assistant administrator
of the Bureau for Food and Humanitarian Assistance (now
the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian As-
sistance) from 1991 to 1993, and USAID Administrator
from 2001 to 2006. Vice president of World Vision, the
largest faith-based nongovernmental organization in the
world, from 1993 to 1998, Ambassador Natsios later served
as the U.S. special envoy to Sudan from October 2006 to
December 2007.
Since 2006, Amb. Natsios has been a professor in the
practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University’s Walsh
School of Foreign Service, and is also a senior fellow at the
Hudson Institute. He is the author of numerous articles
on foreign policy and humanitarian emergencies, as well as
three books:
U.S. Foreign Policy and the Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse
(Center for Strategic and International
Studies, 1997),
The Great North Korean Famine
(U.S. In-
stitute of Peace, 2001) and
Sudan, South Sudan, and Dar-
fur: What Everyone Needs to Know
(Oxford University
Press 2012). This article is an updated and abridged ver-
sion of one he wrote with Kelly Doley, titled “The Coming
Food Coups,” which the
Washington Quarterly
in January 2008.