The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

On ambiguity

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Political reforms that benefit those who suffer most from economic injustice would be a welcome outcome. But long-term, wide-spread instability is in nobody’s best interest, particularly the poor who are usually the first to suffer the economic consequences.

David Bosco at Foreign Policy thinks I’m coming “perilously close to glorifying political stability” and wonders if “rising food prices are contributing to political unrest, which appears to be knocking off a succession of fairly awful Arab governments. Can we at least say that rising food prices aren’t an unambiguously bad thing?”

Well…maybe? Unambiguous is a pretty ambiguous word but let’s really get to the core of the question. I can certainly empathize with those who take to the streets to protest for a better existence as everyone should have the right to do. And political reforms that benefit those who suffer most from economic injustice would be a welcome outcome. But long-term, wide-spread instability is in nobody’s best interest, particularly the poor who are usually the first to suffer the economic consequences. And without doubt, the failure to make serious progress on food security and price volatility could mean further instability without any prospect of dealing with the underlying challenges of poverty and injustice. In fact one of the worst things for food security is violent conflict.

By the way, in some cases there can be benefits to high food prices beyond inspiring political reform. Higher prices can be good for producers of food and even more so for traders of food. (See record high profits for Cargill and ADM). Price volatility – including the very rapid price inflation that we’re observing right now– creates anxiety and uncertainty, which in turn make it hard for producers to make decisions – especially poor people who have very little margin for error. Often the poorest and most vulnerable are not positioned at all to take advantage of these high prices for any number of reasons.

But by Bosco’s logic, all sorts of horrors and pathologies might be viewed in a different light if they instigate the possibility of political change. Let’s see, one of the precipitating events in Tunisia was the self-immolation of a young man upset at heavy-handed policing of his unregistered fruit cart. Was that unambiguously bad? The truth is that food riots have a long history of presaging greater social change. Notably, the French Revolution was spurred by the demand for cheaper bread (“let them eat cake instead”). That doesn’t mean that hunger is a force for progressive reform. But it might make people desperate enough to risk life and limb.

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