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Archive for the 'Income Equality' Category

Food Wars?

Posted in Education, Fragile States, Globalization, Income Equality with tags , , , on January 16, 2013 by michaelkeating

by  John Michael Denney


As winter recess comes to an end for American college undergraduates, international relations majors are likely to be choosing between classes with powerful names like War, Peacebuilding, Ethnic Conflict, and Democracy. Imagine the surprise and laughter if one of those classes was named Food or the Stomach and Rebellion. But this might not be too far off, as a growing body of evidence shows that war, regime change, and political upheaval might not be as complicated as we first imagined. Indeed, it could all come down to having enough to eat.

In a paper out of the New England Complex Systems Institute, a group of interested scholars put together a very convincing graphical overlay suggesting that massive global food price spikes caused the uprisings of the Arab Spring and the global political unrest in 2007/2008. They draw their food price data from the FAO’s Food Price Index, which averages five separate commodity price indices.


If this graph is to be believed, then there appears to be a very strong case for food prices being at the very least strongly correlated with political instability. But that’s not all; a quick look at the historical record shows that food shortages and price hikes preceded some of the world’s most famous political revolutions, such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the revolutions of 1848. The idea that food affects politics is actually quite simple when compared to complex analyses involving ideological shifts, economic growth, historical factors, and leadership personalities.

So what then does this mean for policy?  If food is such a strong driver of instability and political upheaval, what does this mean for security studies in the 21st century? At the very least it means that policymakers need to start taking climate change as a legitimate security threat. Policies like massive agricultural subsidies in the United States and Western Europe have worked to enrich Western farmers at the expense of developing world farmers and massive waste. These must, at the very least, be reconsidered given the way the saturate the market with cheap food, outcompeting indigenous competition in the developing world.

It would be easy to dismiss developing world rebellions and revolutions as low on the U.S. security agenda, but conflict in the developing world does affect the West. At the very least, it costs the West money. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that the United Nations system, paid for mostly by the West, has spent over 40 billion dollars in the past century on controlling developing world conflict. Much of this conflict, a UNEP report notes, is motivated by environmental factors. Indeed, as the environment continues to deteriorate, especially in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, these conflicts are likely to increase as groups compete for control over vanishing water, arable land, and other natural resources.

Policymakers should also view this information as a better way of understanding how to promote development. Food prices are only going to rise as global climate conditions worsen, and the case of the Arab Spring shows that relying on food imports is an ultimately self-defeating strategy. More attention needs to be paid to fostering sustainable agricultural systems in the developing world, particularly in the areas targeted by international agricultural investors, a topic covered in an earlier post in this blog.  Policymakers have long focused on issues like balance of military power, trade routes, and energy control, but food is an existential part of society. It will come as no surprise to biologists that a group of animals goes into disarray when food resources are depleted, so why should it surprise policymakers that societies need food to function?


John Michael Denney is a graduate student in the International Relations Program at UMass Boston.

Globalization and Social Equality

Posted in Democratic Development, Globalization, Income Equality with tags , on December 10, 2012 by michaelkeating


Rebecca Schiel

The Economist published a special report on inequality and the new progressivism and it highlighted some very interesting and counterintuitive trends in inequity in the global environment.

The report claims that while the largest inequality gaps have occurred in emerging states, the sharpest declines in inequality have also taken place there. This reversed pattern of growth in the past few decades (from richer countries to poorer ones) has narrowed global inequality while at the same time increasing inequality within individual states.  Aside from the market forces at work in emerging economies, governments have taken notice of growing social unrest and attention paid to gross inequality.

From the Arab Spring to the banking bailouts in the US the evidence of popular unrest over inequality is mounting. Governments are forced to take notice not only because inequality can cause wastefulness, but also because the poor masses will not stay dispossessed for long. And while different parts of the world view and measure inequality differently, the primary objective is to raise all boats. The report provides case studies of states/regions and their specific efforts within education and government sponsored programs aimed at eliminating inequality. Asia (China and India) and Latin America (Brazil) and their varying degrees of success and the areas of their failures are reported on below.

China experienced growth at break-neck speeds over the last 30 years and with that came unprecedented levels of inequality. Part of this trend toward unparalleled inequality has had to do with the urbanization of the workforce and the ensuing prosperity that has come to those leaving agriculture. China has taken notice that the focus of globalization on technology and innovation will primarily benefit the skilled and educated workforce and as such they have chosen to educate their urban populations. However, China is still experiencing inequality at higher levels than most other places. One of the main reasons for this inequity is the rampant cronyism in the Chinese government.  The other problem adding to inequality in China is the outdated Hokou system. Those registered as rural rather than urban are at a huge disadvantage in education, housing, and employment opportunities.

In the case of India, one is able to see not just the rampant inequality but also the great strides made in bridging the gap. The juxtaposition of these descriptions makes clear the relative quality of iniquity; sometimes the difference between a mud house and a brick house makes all the difference. The Indian government has taken up a program of rural employment whereby a wage floor is guaranteed and unemployment is being tackled. While incomes for average Indians have doubled in the last two decades, inequality has also grown. Additionally, India has experienced increased social mobility that has come from government sponsored education and infrastructure, two areas that are notoriously lacking in the slums of India. Not only has absolute mobility increased in India but so has relative mobility. In other words, parents’ economic standing has a lesser effect on the opportunities of their children. However, there are still stumbling blocks for India; among them are a lack of infrastructure, lack of basic education and attendance, and government programs that are effectively working against the poor (such as resource subsidies).

Brazil paints a much more positive picture. As the report points out Latin America traditionally had the most unequal societies but recently that trend has changed. Over the last 10 years, incomes in Latin America have exploded which has helped the poor to catch up with the rich thus bridging the inequality gap somewhat. And even though Latin America did not experience the same rapid growth of Asia (Latin America experienced growth at about ½ the rate of Asia) its poverty rate fell by almost 1/3 in the same time span. The success is largely due to government programs aimed at lessening the wage gaps for the poorest and a focus on education has created more literate and mid-skilled workers. Furthermore, an emphasis on rule of law in formerly lawless slums has created growth and prosperity where some never thought possible.

Looking at these case studies in a more general way one can discern very obvious patterns leading to both the successes and failures in facilitating growth and either widening or narrowing the inequality gaps. China and India have both focused on education thus creating a skilled workforce capable of meeting the demands of global workplace. Government programs in China, India, and Brazil have focused on the inequality problem at hand and created programs designed to spread the wealth through social spending. Brazil targeted crime in the slums and created an environment where both employment and education were possible. However, government intervention can often create negative effects. Energy subsidies in both India and China benefit only the most well-connected and effectively further impoverishes the already vulnerable. Furthermore, government wealth redistribution may be having the adverse effects on competition and the entrepreneurial spirit. While the effects of globalization may be working to undermine some of the social gains of the 20th century it may also be working to bridge the gap between the richest and poorest by way of education, increased social spending due, and an interconnected global workforce.

 Rebecca Schiel is a graduate student in the International Relations Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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