Hungry for greed to end

Markets and Food Riots:
May 26, 1995

Much of the 1980s was a story of greed and misery. Countries on the verge of debt default or facing balance of payments crises had to resort to the International Monetary Fund for loans and, in return, agree to a structural adjustment/stabilisation programme. In those heady days of triumphal monetarism, the Fund was all in favour of controlling money supply via control of deficits; medicine it had already prescribed to the UK in 1976. Cutting deficits can of course be done by raising taxation but, given the nature of the elite in these countries, this was hardly likely. So those who had pocketed the loans got away with the money and the burden of adjustment fell on the poor. Food subsidies were cut, expenditure on health and education reduced, prices "brought in line with the market".

None of this should have surprised anyone. After all, in the two decades before the debt crisis the poor had hardly fared much better in Latin America or Sub-Saharan Africa. But since there was now an external element to the misery, the elite could point to the IMF and blame international forces.

Free Markets and Food Riots is a contribution to that tradition. It concentrates on the popular unrest in the period between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. After an introduction by the editors which surveys food riots past and present, there are seven case studies which, except for one on women's response, takes in regions one by one. The better essays are those which go beyond the IMF focus and study the internal dynamics.

The exclusive focus on "IMF riots" (to use a shorthand) in the introduction is, in my view, a pity because it diverts attention from the many more protest movements which go on in developing countries as the poor try to survive. Thus over the period 1976 to 1992 and across 39 countries, the editors list 146 riots. This may sound a lot but it is around one riot every fourth year per country or 0.25 per country-year. This is too few riots to be serious. Half the riots (77) are in 11 Latin American countries. India is listed as having had only three riots and all in 1992, since by definition the many riots of the Indian poor before borrowing from the IMF do not matter.

The Indian study by Mridula Udayagiri does focus much more on the longer history of the Indian development experience, though even here the rich data on the rising anti-government protest by the poor - dalits, tribals, urban and rural workers - is given much less space than the short period since 1991 when India started liberalising. Sri Lanka has always been a model case of welfare development. The change in the political leadership in the late 1970s which brought about tensions in the Sri Lankan paradise are well analysed by Herring but even he, in my opinion, gives far too little space to the Tamil/Sinhala conflict whose roots extend much further than the liberalisation period.

Women's responses are ably covered by Victoria Daines and David Seddon. They go beyond women as victims and take up the active and innovative strategies used by women in their struggle for survival. Latin America has been in the forefront of the protests. Here the decline in growth rate was much sharper (from 5 per cent in 1960 to 1 per cent in the 1980s) than in Africa, where the decline was from 6 per cent in the 1970s to 3.6 per cent in the 1980s . This region is studied by John Walton and Jonathan Shefner, combining both a quantitative and a comparative political approach. The complex interaction between the extreme inequalities of wealth, the educated and politically conscious and the oligarchic governments yields many patterns.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a puzzle. In the 1960s it had a better chance of developing than Asia, if you compared their resources, or the productivity of their agriculture, or the ratio of land to population. It had a shorter colonial experience than many countries in Asia and many countries gained independence after a relatively short struggle compared say to India or Indonesia. Still, while Asia is a "miracle" region of the 1990s, Africa's problems seem insoluble. The nature of the African state may be very much at the root of the problem, as Basil Davidson has argued recently in his Black Man's Burden. Stephen Riley and Trevor Parfitt quite properly pay a lot of attention to the political dimension in their chapter.

The pressures to repay foreign loans had a benign outcome in Eastern Europe since the single party regimes could not cope with the protests this led to. Of course liberalisation is no picnic but, although the essay by the editors on this region seems to focus much more on the later period than the earlier history, some of the horrendous costs of adjustment in that region are due to the detritus of the scrapheap of old accumulation, but this is not taken on board.

All in all an uneven but, in parts, interesting collection. If only development studies overcomes its one-sided emphasis on IMF/World Bank phobia and studies the many little domestic oppressions as well, the poor may yet be thankful.

Lord Desai is director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics.

Markets and Food Riots:: The Politics of Global Adjustment

Author - John Walton and David Seddon
ISBN - 0 631 18245 4
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 385pp

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