How the international media framed ‘food riots’

(This paper is a pre-final version of a paper forthcoming in Food Security.)


This paper explores the framing of ‘food riots’ in the international media during the global food crisis period of 2007-12. This is an important issue because the international media’s overly simplistic treatment of food-related protests as caused by hunger leading to anger and violence, dominates public discourse, informing both global policy discourse and quantitative policy research into food riots. This paper draws on some basic analysis of a large news database to explore the effects of how food riots were framed in the international media. It confirms the overly simplistic ‘hungry man is an angry man’ thesis held across international media discourse as a whole. But it also notes differences within the media, and argues that those differences produce different effects depending on whether articles are intended to inform, analyse or advocate. Certain voices are silenced or subdued by the international media, but food rioters in the developing world appear to be treated with more sympathy than rioters in the North might expect, or than they receive in their own national media. Overall, the effect of international media coverage of the wave of food riots during the food crisis, particularly in 2008, was to indicate a global policy problem requiring global policy action. It therefore marked a political intervention on a global scale.

How the international media framed ‘food riots’

Obama’s Global Food Security Act – a new global politics of provisions?

This was first published by the Impact Initiative in August 2016

The Global Food Security Act of 2016

Terrorist attacks and a related rash of populist political uprisings in this hot and hungry El Nino season of mid-2016 pushed at least one event off the headlines it should rightly have occupied. This was the passage of the United States Government’s ‘Global Food Security Act of 2016’, signed by President Obama in July. The Bill, designed to bolster US-supported food security programmes worldwide, wrote the Feed the Future initiative into US law, authorized over USD 7bn to international food programmes, and directed the President to ‘develop and implement a Global Food Security Strategy to promote global food security, resilience, and nutrition’ with close attention to smallholder farmers, particularly women, and particularly in Africa. The Act is highly significant, although to date not so much analysed as it has been celebrated by hunger advocacy NGOs and praised by UN agencies with a food security mandate.

Food security as security against terror?

The political significance of the Act is that it treats hunger as a genuinely global problem – it matters to everyone if people are hungry, and so nothing short of the eradication of hunger is the goal. Much remains to be said about the substance of the Act, including that it further entrenches a role for Big Food in global nutrition programming (Coke has to date given USD150 million to Feed the Future for work on nutrition, a bit like the National Rifle Association paying gunshot victims’ medical costs). It also does little to reform food aid although it does make emergency aid easier to pass. But what is most striking, in a polity that can barely stomach state spending on public goods the rest of the rich world takes for granted is the powerful political consensus behind it: the Act was passed with uncharacteristically strong bipartisan support slap-bang in the middle of possibly the most divisive electoral season the US has ever seen. How did American politicians muster the political will to finance the hungry poor in places so far away and so electorally irrelevant? The Enrolled Bill version of the Act offers up the answers immediately and without preamble, citing the 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community:

(A) the “[l]ack of adequate food will be a destabilizing factor in countries important to US national security that do not have the financial or technical abilities to solve their internal food security problems”; and

(B) “[f]ood and nutrition insecurity in weakly governed countries might also provide opportunities for insurgent groups to capitalize on poor conditions, exploit international food aid, and discredit governments for their inability to address basic needs”.

If food insecurity destabilizes and ‘discredits’ regimes that cannot address their own food crises and so encourages insurgency, it is a short step to arguing that global hunger breeds global terrorism. This is plainly the sub-text of the Act. And such thinking is well-placed. As Naomi Klein argued in her recent London Review of Books lecture Let Them Drown, more and more evidence supports the argument that violent conflict is closely associated with drought and other ill-effects of climate change. The impacts on food security are presumably not far behind.[1]

Lifeboat ethics vs. Feed the Future

What seems new and noteworthy about the political rationale for the Global Food Security Act of 2016 is the short straight line drawn between national security in the rich world and food security in the poor. In other words, ‘their’ hunger matters for ‘our’ wellbeing. This is quite possibly an important political-ethical step in the global politics of provisions, even if it is not yet quite clear why or how.

What we do know is that the last time we had a major world food crisis, the so-called OPEC crisis of oil price inflation-fuelled commodity price spikes in 1973-4, there was little urgency about hunger in far-off places. Instead, the crisis was seized as an opportunity to push recalcitrant developing world governments to take on US-preferred economic, social (particularly population control) and agricultural and food policies – including importing subsidized US grains. In fact, far from urgency, the spectre of mass hunger was arguably welcomed in certain Washington DC circles as an opportunity for a gruesome kind of experiment with the Malthusian ideas of ‘triage theory’ and ‘lifeboat ethics’ that did the rounds in the 1970s. In their alarmist text Famine 1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive? (1967) the Paddocks predicted (accurately enough) a major world food crisis, arguing that poor hungry populations should receive US food aid if (and only if) they showed signs of being able to help themselves – largely by adopting Green Revolution-type industrial food production methods. Those with too large and helpless a hungry population and no disposition to follow US agrofood policy prescriptions should be left to twist in the wind.

As Emma Rothschild recorded in her seminal essay on the political uses of US Public Law 480 food aid at this time, these were not merely ideas, but ideological figleaves to cover the entwining of cold war politics with the politics of food aid: US public policy used hunger and starvation to meet its objectives. In the then-new nation of Bangladesh alone, around one and a half million people perished during the 1974 famine, a disaster usually credited to the US withholding food aid as punishment for trading with Communist Cuba. (Notably, having used PL 480 food aid to bring Bangladesh to heel over its economic, social and agrofood policies, the Feed the Future programme in contemporary Bangladesh emphasizes its strong potential with only a whiff of Malthusian concern about it being the ‘most densely populated country in the world’.) There is no longer any political justification for the neglect of the ‘basket cases’ – everyone must be fed, everyone must be developed. It is in everyone’s interests.

One difference between the food crisis of 1974 and that of 2008 is the absence of important political and agrofood policy misalignments: 2008 was the moment of peak globalization, a time when the globalized corporate food regime was arguably at its most integrated. And so unlike in 1974, a food crisis in one part of the world became a test of global public policy more generally: did the way the world economy was being run enable the most basic provisioning? The wave of food riots around the world in 2007-08, and a second wave when food prices spiked again in 2010-11 signaled that it did not.

Food riots and food rights: the popular politics of global food security

What did these food riots teach us? In the immediate aftermath of the recent period of acute global food price volatility (2007-12), a group of researchers in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Mozambique and at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex set out to make sense of whether and how popular mobilization around food crises had made a difference to how governments tackled the food crisis. Our particular concern was that in a globalized era, the capacities of developing country governments to protect their populations against sudden price rises or food shortages might be constrained due to trade rules or import-dependence, so even governments that wanted to protect their populations against crises of subsistence might have been unable to do so. There had been numerous subsistence-related protests around the world, including in the four countries of our study where people had struggled for fair prices for bread and maize flour, for wage rises to meet higher rice prices, and for eradicating corruption so that food assistance reached those in need. But to what effect?

Having looked closely at events in those four food-insecure countries we concluded that food riots still work in the 21st century: popular protests had effectively shamed and pushed public authorities to intervene to stabilize prices, subsidize food stuffs and protect the hungry throughout world history, and similar subsistence protests (or ‘food rebellions’) play a similar role in the present day. But there is an important difference with E. P. Thompson’s 18th century English crowd: in the 21st century, even people who have to fight for their right to food have a sense of that right as among the rights of nationhood, and (under ideal conditions) the spoils of democracy. Our conclusions:

Democratic transitions offer repeated, fairly regular moments in which to reassert food rights and responsibilities. They also offer opportunities to demonstrate the withdrawal of legitimacy, of assent to rule … electoral power is experienced as a corrective on bad food policies.[2]

In other words, when people face market failures or shortages in their most basic provisions, they turn to their governments for action. The ‘politics of provisions’ as the historian John Bohstedt terms the forceful popular negotiations over policies of subsistence – remain matters of national democratic competition. And this remains true even though the sources of those market failures are now firmly located in the global food system. It is with national politics that people feel they have traction, and so we are left with what Nancy Fraser defines as a problem of scale. If we take seriously the global nature of food systems we need to take seriously the need for a properly global politics of food. This means a world moral economy; an international right to-food movement; a global social protection response to food crises.

Resilience vs. precarity

After 2008, the shiny new watchword in global food security became resilience. Nobody is pretending any more that making the world food secure is going to be easy, so people will need to equipped to cope when prices spike or shortages loom. The Global Food Security Act of 2016 takes resilience very seriously, connecting it to small farmer efficiency and higher incomes, and to integration into value chains and agribusinesses. It is, as was the case in the 1974 World Food Conference, again a policy response concentrated on boosting production, not on protecting against the inevitable downsides of markets.

The problem now is that resilience in the face of food insecurity may not come from integration into food and agricultural markets; in fact, marketization on adverse terms produces precarity, the very opposite of resilience. We know this because some of us from the Food Riots project continued to look closely at how people adjusted to higher and more volatile prices after the food crisis period. Our findings show that the process of adjustment to the changing food system has been one of increased integration into markets as people respond to the squeeze of higher prices. But that integration has been on poor terms. People have a) ramped up their efforts to earn cash incomes by whatever means necessary and b) squeezed ever more value out of the food they consume, including by eating more processed and industrialized food than in the past. The relationship between the work people do and the nourishment this affords them has been pulled out of kilter by higher food prices, and people are working harder and longer just to stay fed. And so in the post-food crisis period we find more precarity than resilience, as people on low incomes find they work harder and in riskier, difficult or demeaning occupations, amid growing competition for cash incomes.

Obama’s answer to the threat of food crisis is mainly more markets. But it is increasingly clear that market integration needs to come with greater protections for when those markets (inevitably) fail. This latest wave of the Great Transformation has still not been met by the social protection response it needs, in large part because the emancipation necessary for people to organize to claim such protection against the global economy has not happened. This may be one reason for the sharp rise in populist politics in the rich world, where entire working classes feel they are the long-term losers of globalization, unprotected against the financial and commodity price shocks as well as the long-term wage declines and rising inequality. Now even the organizations at the frontline of neoliberalism are beginning to challenge its wisdom, pointing out that austerity and curbing state spending has been counter-productive and increased inequality.

It is in this light that we need to view the political rationalization of Obama’s Global Food Security Act. People may use riot to hold their national governments to account over subsistence crises, but what can they do when the sources of insecurity in their most basic provisions are globalized? The Global Food Security Act treats the threat of terror as a species of dispersed global food riot, but it is in everyone’s interests that people are protected against food crisis without such acts. What is needed now are the political means to enable people at risk of hunger to lay claim to the kinds of social protection that will protect their right to food from the uncertainties of a globalized food system. What will that global politics of provisions look like?

[1] Peter Gleick makes the point for Syria, specifically. See

[2] Pp. 52.

Unruly Politics and Rude Accountability

Rude Accountability, or why shoutiness makes for good-enough governance

This is a paper about informal modes of accountability – about why relatively powerless people with little money or social standing can sometimes hold powerful public authorities to account using no more than the sharp edge of their tongue. It is about Bangladesh, because for reasons of political history and social structure, ‘rude accountability’ works particularly well there. This is just as well, as formal accountability – good governance – is in short supply. An earlier version of this was published as an IDS working paper.

Read more…Rude Accountability


The Significance of Unruly Politics in Bangladesh

With the gaze of political economy and institutional analyses fixed firmly on the politics of the patron, far less attention has been paid to the politics of those whose position is mainly that of client. In fact, we know less about the contemporary ‘politics of the governed’ than of the immediate post-Independence period, because the village study tradition of class and power analysis that enriched 1970s and 1980s political sociology appears to have now more or less disappeared; the few and limited analyses of popular politics available suggest, however, that clients are not total prisoners. This paper looks at both elite and mass modes of politics. Unruliness – framed variously as informality, fragility etc – is the substantive governance issue in Bangladesh, and political unruliness is at its nucleus.

Read more…Unruly Politics in Bangladesh


Them Belly Full (But We Hungry): Food Rights Struggles in Bangladesh, India, Kenya

This report synthesises the findings from the four country case studies produced for the project. It is intended as a summary introduction to the main findings of the research, and a preliminary comparative analysis across the four cases. 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 research synthesised here interrogates this moment of historical rupture in the global food system through comparative analysis of Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique in the period 2007-12. The core insight of the research is summarised in the title: Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) 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.

Read more…Them Belly Full

Food Riots and Food Rights

Food Riots research project

The period of food price volatility between 2007 and 2012 sparked what observers have called ‘food riots’, which have historically marked moments of fundamental economic change, when states have lost their ability to preserve the welfare of citizens. Food riots, however, also usher in change, often heralding new forms of public accountability for hunger. This research project explores what recent events say about this historic moment, and about the possibility of protecting food rights, by looking at the causes and consequences of food-related riots and right-to-food movements in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique.

Go here for more information on this research project.

Squeezed: Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility

Half a decade after the price spike of 2007-2008, food price volatility has become the new norm: people have come to expect food prices to rise and fall rapidly, though nobody knows by how much or when. So what does the accumulation of food price rises mean for well-being and development in developing countries? And what can be done to improve life in a time of food price volatility? Squeezed provides some preliminary answers to these big development questions, based on the first year results of a four-year project conducted across 10 countries with different levels of exposure to price rises. While high and rising food prices no longer come as a surprise, rapid price changes and the cumulative effects of five years’ worth of price rises are still squeezing those on low incomes.

Read more…Squeezed

Help Yourself!

I loved this title but I think I was alone on this one. This was the second year report from Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility and it was about accountability for hunger. We found that most people felt that they were pretty much left on their own when it came to protection against food insecurity – you have to help yourself or you will go hungry.

Read more…Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility

Delicious, Disgusting, Dangerous: Eating in a Time of Food Price Volatility

The third year results of the study Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility uncover the realities of what people on low and precarious incomes are eating. For the consumer, there are undeniable benefits from the integration of world food trade: more stable supply, wider choice. Changes in food habits mean people are finding new ways to enjoy food and new foods to enjoy, often with greater convenience and ease. There is much to savour in the eating landscape as new markets for purchased and prepared foods open up. But the loss of control this brings has detrimental impacts on wellbeing. Most people feel they understand little about how new foods affect their health and nutrition; knowledge that they had accrued over generations and longer with respect to their customary cuisines. People have real worries about a new culture of fast food and fake food; they worry about additives, nourishment and food hygiene, and they feel that governments do too little to protect them from the risks.

Read more…Delicious, Disgusting, Dangerous

Them Belly Full (But We Hungry): Food Rights Struggles in Bangladesh, India, Kenya

This report synthesises the findings from the four country case studies produced for the project. It is intended as a summary introduction to the main findings of the research, and a preliminary comparative analysis across the four cases. 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 research synthesised here interrogates this moment of historical rupture in the global food system through comparative analysis of Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique in the period 2007-12. The core insight of the research is summarised in the title: Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) 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.

Read more…Them Belly Full

A Common Sense Approach to the Right to Food

Despite the growing activism and debate around the right to food in the past decade, there has been little exploration of what the right means in everyday life and in the routine encounters between states and citizens. This paper draws together original qualitative research in nine African, Asian and Latin American countries on how people talk about the right to food. It does so on the assumption that accountability for hunger depends on people being aware of that right. The paper explores what people at risk of hunger have to say about what the right to food means in their location; its source and origins; and responsibilities for upholding it. It concludes that while ideas of the right to food do not generally use international human rights language, an understanding of innate or natural rights to food is ‘common sense’: shared across contexts and groups, and part of how people negotiate their right to food in everyday life. Among other findings, the paper concludes that in a period of rapid economic and social development, the right to food of older people looks particularly fragile, and merits special attention.

Read more…The Right to Food

Who Wants to Farm? Youth Aspirations, Opportunities and Rising Food Prices

Based on analysis of interviews, focus group discussion and household case studies with almost 1500 people in 23 rural, urban and peri-urban communities in low and middle income Asian, African and Latin American countries in 2012, this research digs deeper into some of the established explanations as to why youth in developing countries appear reluctant to enter farming, and identifies conditions under which capable and enterprising youth are being attracted to farming, and entry-points for youth participation in policymaking around agriculture and food security.

Read more…Who wants to farm?

Poor Man’s Patriarchy

Alex Kelbert and I wrote this for a great symposium called Undressing Patriarchy back in 2013, but it is also based on the Life in a Time of FPV projectI realise now other people had already made these points and more elegantly and cleverly. But I think its a good paper because it connects food insecurity to masculinity. It is always women being referred to when experts talk about ‘gender and food security’, but global patriarchy means there are few societies in which men are not seen as ‘the breadwinner’, no matter how families are configured. So food crises are always crises of masculinity.

Poor Man’s Patriarchy

Snapshots of crisis

The 2008 food, fuel and financial crisis was the moment when globalisation really and truly caught up with us all. Not everyone realised this and many sensible people said the moment was only a crisis for global elites, because most people living on low and precarious incomes lived lives of constant crisis. Nevertheless, something definitely happened in that year that shook things – markets, politics, peoples, environments – up and made us realise that as the artist David Shrigley so wisely put it – Its Getting Worse. Hydra-headed crises, the Perfect Storm, whatever you wanted to call it, it was a moment for pause. (The advantage was, in the end, seized by the political right almost everywhere in the world, but that is another story).

Accounts of crisis

I was involved with groups doing a lot of research at that time. Not all of it was ‘gold standard’ but all of it did something important: it tried to be in the moment, to take snapshots of the crisis, to capture the mood and talk and feeling on the street. You can think of it as an effort at a popular political sociology of global economic crisis.

The first piece of work was a study using participatory methods commissioned by the UK Department for International Development in late 2008. DFID very sensibly wanted something to report to the G20 meeting about how poor developing country folk were experiencing these shocks. From commissioning to reporting Accounts of crisis took 10 weeks but if it was quick it was also very powerful. All of us involved found we were absorbed and dismayed, and sometimes very shocked by the stories people told us in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya and Zambia. Mwila Mulumbi’s images of a Zambian food basket became famous.

We followed the 2009 study up with a second round of research, Social Impacts of Crisis with the same communities in 2010, this time including Yemen instead of Jamaica. This was when we first started to hear about the food crisis beginning to engulf the Middle East, of which Yemen, being the poorest country, was at the frontline.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked if we could do a similar piece of work to explore how globalisation might be affecting people living in poverty in the UK. Impacts of global crisis on UK communities and poverty was my first experience of researching poverty in the UK, but the research proper was done by colleagues in Oldham in Lancashire (Bridget Byrne and Pasha Shah), Newhaven in East Sussex (Elizabeth Harrison) and in Kildress, in rural Northern Ireland (Aidan Campbell and Bebhinn McKinley). What shocked me most about the study was a young woman in Newhaven who was concerned about her children’s health and whether she could afford to feed them properly any more:

[From ‘The Impact of the Global Economic Downturn on Communities and Poverty in the UK’, 2011]
One mother of small children in Newhaven felt the poorer quality of food she was buying had affected her children’s health:
Whereas before they would always have like grapes, strawberries – they’re so expensive … Ellie’s not going to have that as a treat, she’s going to have crisps and a biscuit, things like that. It’s terrible when you say it out loud actually, it really is awful. But that’s exactly what I used to do with Jason before, when we had money, was his treat would be fresh fruit, because he loved it, with a pile of yoghurt or something on top, he loved it. But I can’t even buy yoghurts really these days, they’ve gone through the roof.
This mother saw a difference between the robust health of her four year old when he was a baby, and her eight month old daughter:
She’s always a bit run-down. She hasn’t been too bad for the last couple of months actually, but,before that she seemed to be ill from the day she was born, nothing too serious but always a constant cold or cough, or things like that. And I’d say that was her diet.

This study made me realise that even while the global elite are increasingly all looking the same, wearing the same rolexes and carrying the same handbags, global poverty is beginning to converge too. It is not only those on low and precarious incomes in developing countries who cannot afford to feed their children nutritiously, but even people a 10 minute train ride from my own office in East Sussex.

And then in 2011, even while the rich world was reeling from the global financial crisis, food prices spiked again. And with Duncan Green of Oxfam, our researchers produced this report with the painfully apt title Living on a Spike.

Living with Crisis was a book edited by Rasmus Helberg (he did all the heavy lifting) at the World Bank that I was involved with. Its got a lot of good case material based mainly on ‘real time’ qualitative research into the global ‘triple F’ crises of food, fuel and finance in 2008 – how people adjusted and coped, and what it was like in different parts of the world. Amazingly enough you can get the whole thing for free here.

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 15.50.46

Other papers from the social impacts of crisis research c. 2009-11 are

‘Coping and Resilience during the Food, Fuel, and Financial Crises’ (with Rasmus Heltberg, Anna Reva and Carolyn Turk) in Journal of Development Studies 49 (5) (2013)

‘Invisible impacts and lost opportunities: evidence of the global recession in developing countries’ (with Rizki Fillaili and Grace Lubaale) in Journal of Poverty and Social Justice 18 (3) (2010)

‘A ‘Lost Generation’? Impacts of Complex Compound Crises on Children and Young People’ (with A. McGregor), in Development Policy Review (2011)

Anatomy of Coping: Evidence from People Living Through the Crises of 2008-11‘ (with R. Heltberg, A. Reva and C. Turk) World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5957 (2011)

[Not all of these are freely downloadable, so contact me if necessary.]

The right to food should be common sense

My total admiration for human rights defenders is not matched by clarity about why they think the law is A Thing. It isn’t, or it isn’t much more than an idea, unless someone does something with it. The right to food seems to me to suffer in particular from being an excellent idea that hasn’t yet got round to being A Thing that people can do something with. Its a bit broad and its a bit nebulous and its never very clear who should do what about it.

With this somewhat fuzzy notion about what was wrong with the right to food, with colleagues Alex Wanjiku Kelbert and Dolf te Lintelo we wrote a paper about what the human right to food means in ‘common sense’. It’s part of the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project so the actual research was done by our colleagues in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Viet Nam and Zambia (for which many thanks).

By ‘common sense’ we meant that a) groups of people agreed with the meaning – it was commonly agreed upon and b) it made sense in everyday life – it was realistic and reasonable, and possibly also realisable.

People living on low and precarious incomes in developing countries do, it turns out, have ideas about the right to food. But these are more often based on faith, membership of a community, and a sense of the innate needs of human beings than on a sense of right deriving from the law. Many people don’t have any sense of the right as relating to their relationship to the state or (less still) the global community.

Human rights defenders can do a lot in these communities and countries to advance the cause of the right to food as part of international human rights law. People believe they have these rights.  But there is work to be done to translate the language of the law into the language of common sense.