Them Belly Full (but we hungry): great new study on food riots and food rights

January 8, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

A fascinating new report (with too many co-authors to list, but the invariably interesting Naomi Hossain was principal investigator) summarizes the findings of a four country research project onfood riots cover ‘food rights and food riots’ in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique. Some highlights from the Exec Sum:

‘The green revolution and the global integration of food markets were supposed to relegate scarcity to the annals of history. So why did thousands of people in dozens of countries take to the streets when world food prices spiked in 2008 and 2011? Are food riots the surest route to securing the right to food in the 21st century?

The core insight of the research is summarised in the title: Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) [which they nicked, with credit, from this 2011 FP2P post]refers to the moral fury aroused by the knowledge that some people are thriving while – or because – others are going hungry. This anger rejects gross inequalities of power and resources as intolerable; it signals that food inequalities have a particularly embodied power – that food is special. Food unites and mobilises people to resist.

[Methodology]: We gained a sense of the scale and type of protests through media content analysis; conducted in-depth work with selected protest movements and communities to explore their motives for and means of organising; and reconstructed the logic of the policy response through interviews with policymakers and practitioners about the events of this time.

[Choice of Countries]: Bangladesh and India share political histories of famine, colonial rule and mass resistance, as well as much in the way of agricultural and food policy. Kenya and Mozambique are relatively poor sub- Saharan African countries with high levels of aid dependence. The international media labelled Bangladesh and Mozambique as sites of food riots during our period, while India and Kenya both featured social movements and civil society activism to establish the right to reporting.

ENTER YOUR HEADLINE HERE[Global v National]: The politics of provisions work at a country level, but this means they are ‘mis-scaled’ if the problems people face result (as they largely do) from the global food regime. Yet even in the 21st century with its complex global food economy – or perhaps because its governance is so abstract, distant and unknowable – the achievement of food security is a matter of nationhood, reaching back into colonial history, nationalist struggles and the socialisms of the post-colonial period.

The global nature of food systems means taking seriously the need for a properly global politics of food. This means a world moral economy, an international right-to-food movement, and a global response to food crises. But there are several challenges here:

What to organise around and for:

  • A global politics of provisions means internationalising an ideology or moral economy built around nationhood and national affiliation. This has happened to a degree in transnational anti-globalisation struggles such as the food sovereignty movement. But (as this report has tried to avoid showing) an ideological alternative to globalised financial capitalism that is both rooted in local realities and universally resonant risks a normative blandness that will bury the seriousness of the politics in platitude.
  • Transnational organising around the global food regime is dominated by producer politics, and there is undeniably a delinking of local and national struggles at the food consumption end of the food politics spectrum from the more internationally-networked producer politics. We currently lack a functionally global food food riots mozambique-tyresjpgconsumer movement, despite the many moves in this direction.

Who and what to target :

  • Conceptualising globalisation to politicise a response; the complexities of global food markets and their abstract, virtual nature renders the target of political protest invisible, moving, unreachable. The practicalities of political organisation are not made impossible by globalisation, but the tried and tested means of the food riot does not easily translate into transnational organising.
  • Whose behaviour, specifically, needs to change? Global policymakers are generally deaf to the meanings of food riots, unsophisticated in their understandings of domestic politics, insulated from electoral incentives. Global food policymakers need to be able to hear – and fear – food riots; food rioters need to find better ways of making them listen.

How to organise

  • Protestors need to create political spaces in which rights claims can be made and translated into language that policy elites can understand – as successful shifts in discourse by the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food demonstrate.
  • But global policymaking has not always been well supported by civil society organising or by international research. Research on ‘food riots’ has rarely amplified protestor voice, and more usually reduced the understanding of causes to the mechanics of price levels and dynamics. Aid-funded civil society often avoids subsistence protests or food rights campaigning. These are contentious issues, and donor governments are wary of subsistence-related struggles because of their historic association with the left and their unruliness. Aid donors’ usual distance from contentious and unruly politics, as well as their investments in pro-market reforms, help to ensure that they and the civil society groups they fund are distanced from struggles over food policy.
  • A really key actor is the media: as we have learned from the Indian movement, sympathetic, informed journalism can be the vanguard of a successful food rights struggle


Here’s a six minute video intro to the project