May 012008

Events in Haiti — located many oceans away in the Carribean — naturally enough rarely attract significant attention in Pakistan. But perhaps there is a need to take some notice of recent happenings on that distant island.

During the past three weeks, the country, the poorest in the Northern Hemisphere and among the poorest in the world, has been hit by violent food riots. The chaos has led to the ouster of Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis and brought a surge of international aid to attempt to ward of further unrest.

Several people have already died in food riots and there are fears of a worsening in the situation as food prices continue to rise. International monetary agencies have already predicted this will happen.

Somewhat closer to home, in Egypt, the government of President Hosni Mubarak faced an unusual challenge early this month, as a general strike was staged to protest rising food prices and increased joblessness. The strike, participated in by professionals, transporters, labourers and others took place despite the fact that there is almost no organised political opposition in the country. Hundreds of arrests made before the strike failed to prevent what seems to have been an almost spontaneous expression of anger by people.

These are not isolated examples. During 2008, protests over accelerating food prices have taken place in Mozambique, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Yemen, Bolivia, Uzbekistan and Indonesia. World humanitarian organisations have warned of crisis and the World Bank has warned that Pakistan is among the 36 most vulnerable countries in the world.

The food issue has dominated recent government meetings in many of these countries, with Haiti announcing a rice subsidy, and Egypt, a country that has seen bread riots during the 1970s, stepping up efforts to ensure that bread can be bought at subsidised rates at bakeries. A series of emergency cabinet sessions have been held to discuss strategy in the wake of forecasts by international experts that the food issue, resulting from a rise of at least 40 percent in prices over the year with wheat rates going up by 100 percent, would trigger immense political instability. In Bangladesh, another country on the list of those most likely to be hit by food price inflation and shortages, an effort has begun to attempt to persuade people to change food consumption patterns, with the army replacing rice or grain with relatively cheap potato in the rations served to troops.

The question of how to tackle the impending food crisis has yet to figure prominently in the political discourse in Pakistan. While it is known that some of those in government have raised the matter, there is no plan as yet to deal with the situation. National leaders, the television channels and political commentators have as yet to address the issue in any depth. In many ways, it seems that the focus on the question of the judicial restoration has given rise to a kind of national “tunnel vision” that prevents a broader view to be taken of the overall situation or to develop strategies to cope with what could be an overwhelming national crisis.

Most of us are aware of the growing turmoil people face in their lives. According to figures compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, around 2,040 people committed suicide in 2007. Another 1,400 attempted to do so. For many, financial factors, or the immense strains these cause within households, are the reasons behind individuals’ decision to end their lives. It is of course unknown how many cases of suicide go unreported, but it is thought the numbers are higher, given the fact that social and religious stigma leads many families to cover up such deaths. Accounts of parents killing children or attempting to sell children they are unable to feed, also appear from time to time in the national press.

The situation of those who live is underscored by the many studies that have found high rates of wasting (failure to reach expected weight for age) and stunting (failure to reach expected height for age). In 2003 the Japan-based Paediatrics International journal published the results of a medical study carried out in Sindh. It found a total of 483 (26%) of the 1,878 children included in the study were wasted, 977 (55%) were stunted and 259 (15%) were both wasted and stunted. Fathers who earned less than Rs1,000 per month were most likely to have children who were stunted. UN agencies and other international organisations have reported similar findings.

The implications of this situation are many. For one, they mean a still more severe crisis of food would threaten the very survival of many, with nearly 30 percent of people in the country living below the poverty line and others hovering just above it. They also mean the potential for unrest, and resultant political crisis, is immense.

The riots seen in Lahore and Peshawar in early 2006, ostensibly in protest against blasphemous cartoons published in Denmark, were in many ways a demonstration of rage by frustrated young men. The targets they attacked were the emblems of wealth and privilege. The same underlying sentiment was apparent during the rampages that followed the Dec 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, as youth smashed bank ATM machines that had never offered them the money others came to withdraw, or the cars and jeeps that they had never ridden. On a more anecdotal, but still relevant, level, people everywhere are reporting a similar sense of anger driven by despair among domestic servants or lower staff at offices. At a Lahore outlet of the MacDonald’s chain, a staff member admits to smuggling a burger to a teenage maid accompanying her charges to a children’s party. The girl, who had not been offered food, was seen attempting to retrieve bread dumped in the restaurant bin and confessed she had not eaten for almost 24 hours.

It is not difficult, then, to imagine a food crisis triggering waves of violence. The potential for this was already seen early this year, with troops deployed to prevent attacks on flourmills and stores. The challenge, then, is to evolve strategies that can help lessen the blow the crisis will inevitably inflict. To do so, it is necessary to keep an eye on the global situation and to place the food issue more squarely at the centre of national thinking, so that the resulting process of discussion and debate can help throw up some solutions and some means to minimise the suffering and instability that world bodies have warned could lie only months ahead.

The only practical solutions involve a break with the current World Bank- and IMF-dictated monetary policies. Leaving people at the mercy of the market could prove disastrous. Subsidies on food staples — for the most vulnerable people who include a third of the population — may offer the only hope. It is to be seen if the foresight and commitment necessary to make the budgetary adjustments necessary for such a step will be demonstrated over the coming weeks.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

Source: The News, 1/5/2008

 Posted by at 6:59 am

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