Published in The College Hill Independent on September 28, 2008
“When you don’t have a full stomach, it’s hard to work,” security guard Mamady Diane, 33, told the Independent. Like many others in the West African nation of Senegal and across the globe, Diane is finding it harder and harder to afford the rising cost of food. Today, Diane will skip lunch and has only eaten a small piece of bread for breakfast. “I’ve never seen food prices this high before,” he says. Food prices have risen sharply in Senegal this year, a product of a complicated and tangled world food market in which developing countries are struggling to compete for their daily sustenance.
Between January and May, the price of rice (a staple of the Senegalese diet) more than doubled, and despite some recent decreases the price has remained at record levels. Prices for wheat and corn have also shot up with unprecedented speed. In a country where, according to a New York Times poll, more than 40% of the population couldn’t afford to buy food at one point or another during 2007, the recent price increases have been disastrous.
Violent protests broke out in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, in late March, with protestors blocking streets and throwing rocks. Police, in full riot gear, responded with tear gas and bully clubs. An activist barged into the National Assembly with an empty sack of rice held above his head in protest of apparent political blindness and throughout Senegal, “On a faim” (we are hungry) was sprayed in black paint across billboards featuring photos of the country’s president Abdoulaye Wade. There is widespread frustration and anger at Wade’s seeming indifference to the situation. One oft-cited example is his government’s lavish spending on preparations for a conference of Islamic leaders despite the developing food crisis.
The Senegalese government has largely denied that a problem exists. President Wade told local reporters in late April, “there is no famine in Senegal. There are no hunger riots in Senegal.” Wade promised during his election campaign to lower the cost of rice, and the record prices have been an embarrassment to him and his party. As a result, Senegalese media outlets that attempt to discuss the crisis or even show footage of the protests have reported facing intimidation, with one television station even being raided by the police.
Despite the government’s claims, the food shortage extends beyond the poor, and even wealthier families are being forced to cut back on food. One woman living in Dakar’s upscale Fann neighborhood who spoke to the Independent anonomously says that several days each week she only eats lunch because her neighbors and coworkers would notice if she skipped it. “It’s unacceptable for them to see that I don’t have the money to feed myself and my children but, with prices like this, I’m tired,” she says. “We’re all tired. We can’t afford to live when it’s like this.”
In poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of Dakar, families have resorted to eating pain de retour, a porridge made from stale bread and sour milk. “I can remember a time when people in Senegal ate three meals a day,” Babacar Gueye, a professor of Political Science at Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University told the Independent, “that’s simply not the case anymore.”
Senegal is hardly alone in its suffering. In nearby Burkina Faso, where price increases were even more widespread and dramatic, riots overtook two of the country’s largest cities in February. Throughout the country, local police responded with force to angry civilians protesting in the streets and hundreds were arrested. In response, the government was forced to release emergency food stores and deploy hundreds of soldiers to keep order in Ougadougou, the capital.
In April, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that rising food prices “could not only push millions of people deeper into poverty but also have larger political and security implications” and warned that “the rapidly escalating crisis of food availability around the world has reached emergency proportions.” Despite Ki-Moon’s call to action, as recently as August 12, Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, the world’s largest food aid distributor, assessed the situation, saying, “food prices are not abating, and the world’s most vulnerable have exhausted their coping strategies.”
To those living in developed countries, the rise in food prices can be an inconvenience and an annoyance, but in the developing world, the consequences of this unprecedented worldwide rise in food prices are far more extreme. Sheeran has been widely quoted as saying, “for the middle classes, it means cutting out medical care. For those [who live] on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.”
The major culprit for the crisis is a matter of some debate, but most experts agree that it’s actually a confluence of significant changes and unfortunate circumstances. The growing world population increased demand for grain, while climate change resulted in droughts and below-average harvests. At the same time, exceptional growth in China and India is resulting in richer populations who eat more meat, which requires significantly more grain to produce. Efforts in the United States and Europe to develop biofuels, like corn-based ethanol, serve to further drive up demand and raise prices. The current crisis stems from these factors, along with market distortions caused by government export quotas and tariffs, as well as the increased cost of fuel.
As Joachim von Braun, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, said in a statement, “this global food crisis is a complex problem that cannot be solved with simplistic approaches. More effective and coherent action is needed now to help the most vulnerable populations cope with the drastic hikes in their food bills and to assist developing countries with strategies to increase agricultural productivity.”
Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects for governments and non-governmental organizations worldwide has been to decide exactly how to help. The World Bank distributed 3,500 tons of genetically improved seeds to farmers in Burkina Faso. The World Food Programme, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation delivered a package of more than $17 million in emergency grants to small-scale farmers and mothers and children in developing countries. Unfortunately, von Braun and most other experts agree that these short-term interventions, while necessary, won’t solve the larger problem. In the long-term, it seems that only a concerted international effort to fix distortions in the food market coupled with scientific progress to increase the crop yields and reliability of small farmers in the developing world will guarantee some degree of food security. For the moment, Mamady Diane and others like him will go on skipping meals.