Rasna Warah: Handle the inevitable food crisis before it is too late

ONE OF THE FIRST TASKS of the new coalition government should be to steer Kenya away from an impending food crisis, which is already having a devastating impact in many parts of the country and is threatening to become a global crisis.

The World Bank has already announced that 33 food-importing countries could face social unrest in the coming months because of rising food costs.

News reports indicate that rising cost of basic foods have already sparked protests in Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Cameroon, Mozambique, Senegal, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Bolivia and Indonesia.

The rising cost of rice has led to riots in the Philippines, where the government is even urging fast-food restaurants to offer only half portions of the grain on their menus.

Fearing mass uprisings, especially in urban areas, the government of India is subsidising basic commodities and banning rice exports so as to soften the impact of rising food costs and inflation, which has risen to more than 7 per cent this year.

The impact of the food crisis has been particularly hard on the urban poor, as they are less likely to grow their own food, and suffer most from inflation-inducing forces, including the rising cost of fuel, which has been partly blamed for the crisis.

According to UN-Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities Report 2006/7, “Even in situations where a country produces enough food, hunger may persist in urban areas because when inflation hits food supplies, poor urban families may be forced to use up to 80 per cent of their disposable income on food, which means they have little money left over for non-food items, such as rent, school fees and transport.”

A researcher at the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa has noted that the impact of the food crisis will be felt most acutely in African countries, where there is already a lot of anger in urban areas around issues such as unemployment and lack of basic services, especially among the poor.

Kenyans are not known to protest over food prices – we tend to take to the streets only to voice our support or opposition to a political party or leader, not because we cannot afford to feed ourselves or our families.

But given our fragile political situation, rising inflation (now at more than 20 per cent), high unemployment, an impending drought and a declining economy, it won’t be long before people begin to protest in other ways – through crime, looting and violence

High food prices can thus lead to other forms of social instability and anarchy. This scenario is too horrific to even imagine.

THE HISTORY OF FALLEN REGIMES is intimately linked to the cost of food. When Marie Antoinette asked Parisians to “eat cake” because they couldn’t afford bread in the late 18th century, Parisians responded by taking her to the guillotine.

What our politicians don’t seem to understand is that survival issues have the potential to bring about regime change. If they are not careful, and if they dilly dally with the country’s future, they will be forced out of office through civil action on a massive scale.

The current food crisis, which is already being felt by Kenyans, could erupt into a political crisis.

Because we have not had a government in place for more than three months, and because thousands of our farmers are sitting idle and dejected in camps, any attempts made by the Government to mitigate the impact of the food crisis will be a little too late – unless measures are put in place right away to increase subsidies to farmers (especially on fertilisers) and subsidising the cost of essential food items, especially for urban poor families.

Kenya is not big on subsidies (it took us years to realise that free education is the cornerstone of every successful economy, both in the developed and in the developing world), but perhaps it is time to come to grips with the fact that without subsidies on basic commodities and services, we may be heading towards becoming a failed state, where the majority starve and the minority remain oblivious to the dying around them.

South Africa is already trail-blazer in this area; the country has put in place policies to provide a certain quantities of water and electricity for free to every household, and offers various safety nets to the most vulnerable groups. This has helped to reduce levels of inequality.

Unless the Government addresses the food crisis as a matter or priority, the country will be ungovernable in a few months.

What minister would want a portfolio that is so challenging, it is doomed to fail? Before we get to that stage, let the new government navigate us through rough waters that lie ahead before the leaking ship that is Kenya sinks.

Ms Warah is an editor with the UN.

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