Kosovo Force soldiers, Kosovo police and members of the European Union Rule of Law mission work together to overcome a crowd of angry opposition force rioters at Camp Vrelo, Kosovo, Oct. 18, 2012, as part of the Silver Saber training exercise. The exercise, held on a biannual basis, allowed for the practice of movement and technique in a crowd riot control situation. (DoD photo by Sgt. Angela Parady, U.S. Army/Released)

The Everywhere Spring: Food Insecurity and Civil Unrest on a Global Scale

The war in Ukraine; the Covid-19 pandemic; supply chain disruptions; climate-based crop failures, and economic challenges all appear to be converging at once to create a cost-of-living squeeze on global populations. Simultaneously, disenchantment with multiple governments is growing, and those same governments face the crisis with limited and overstretched toolkits. As such, it is increasingly possible that the world will see Arab Spring-style unrest on multiple continents in the coming 12 months. In this piece, Lewis Sage-Passant discusses the possibility of an “Everywhere Spring”.

In early January, 2011, a Tunisian fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in an act of desperate frustration, directed at the conditions in his country and the policies of Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Government subsidies on everyday essentials such as food and fuel were being consistently eroded, incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy hampered people trying to make a living, living costs continued to spiral. Tunisians like Bouazizi found themselves subject to a brutal squeeze. A random indignity visited upon the fruit seller by a police officer led to Bouazizi’s final act of protest, but his frustrations echoed throughout the country, where many of his compatriots felt the same squeeze and frustration with the state.

The new technology of social media had an unprecedented effect: what might have only been a small, isolated protest in the north-eastern town of Ben Arous sparked a nationwide movement, which subsequently spread to neighbouring states. Activists had a new tool with which to organise, allowing them to mobilise and outmanoeuvre ponderous state security forces. Images and memes of revolution spread across the Arabic-speaking world, toppling regimes and sparking civil wars. The results of this were, as we now know, not universal. Some states gave birth to fledgling democracies, while others slipped further into repressive brutality.

Tunisia – until recently considered the one success story of the Arab Spring – found itself in this position in part due to an overstretching of the state. President Ben Ali had come to power in a coup, instilling in him a paranoia that he would be ousted by similar means, and, as such, he kept his military malnourished and unable to challenge him. The underfunded force was kept at arms length, committed constantly to overseas peacekeeping missions in a move that concurrently gained Ben Ali international praise, and kept officers that might plot against him in far away lands and too disaggregated to create networks of conspirators. For Ben Ali, this plan backfired spectacularly. Tunisia’s under-valued military backed the revolution, and – most ironically – decades of experience rebuilding fragile states as part of peacekeeping missions armed them with institutional expertise in how to pick up the pieces of the post-Ben Ali state. While Tunisia’s democracy died young, it survived a full, turbulent decade in part thanks to the structural reconstruction efforts by its military.

Today’s more fragile states look remarkably similar to Tunisia’s on the eve of the Arab Spring: government coffers have been drained by the pandemic, while rampant fuel and food price inflation is placing demands for subsidy that governments simply cannot afford to meet. The subsidised five loaves of bread per day that 70% of the Egyptian population receive is pushing Cairo to proscribe the sale of local wheat to private buyers, in essence cutting the price the government pays by removing competition, while simultaneously adding pressures to an agricultural sector already straining under skyrocketing fertiliser prices. Across the region, security forces (in most regional states) appear significantly less well-funded than initially thought, with many drawing much smaller budgets than previously believed. This pattern is highly likely to extend across the more fragile parts of the world with only some exceptions. Add to this the challenge of security force personnel feeling the same cost-of-living squeeze as the populations they are expected to dissuade from revolutionary ideas, and a potent mix of pressures is emerging.

Food security is one of the most significant drivers of this problem. As Britain’s domestic security service, MI5, has noted, a society is only a handful of missed meals away from significant unrest. This year has seen brutal shocks to the global flow of food, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine devastating the highly fertile eastern and southern fields that grow so many of the world’s grains and edible oils. The naval blockade of the Black Sea has compounded the problem, making exports impossible through a combination of physical interception of bulk carrier vessels, and the un-insurability of shipping due to war risks. While rail exports with the EU have been maintained, incompatible railway gauges and limited rolling stock mean that this can only replace around 20% of the seaborne food exports. This also requires an aggressive reorientation of Ukraine’s export economy, which pre-war saw 99% of its grain exports leave via Black Sea ports. Meanwhile, Russia has found itself an international pariah, unable to export its own grain due to similar shipping insurance issues and sanctions.

Should the war end tomorrow, these problems will persist. As the Islamic State’s rise in the Levant demonstrated, agricultural infrastructure takes time to be rebuilt after wars, fields must be cleared of mines, and displaced farmers must be encouraged to return. The problem is also somewhat baked in for at least two seasons: the current batch of grains struggling to be exported safely is comprised of last year’s harvest. This year’s harvest is still in the ground, and much of it will rot before it can be recovered. Even the crops that can be harvested will face uncertain hopes of adding to global hunger relief, with warehouses backed up and overflowing with the war-stalled 2021 harvest’s exports. Add to this the fact that Russia will likely remain a sanctioned outcast of the international trading system for some time, keeping the country’s potash-based fertilizers off the market, driving up prices and compounding the challenge.

Beyond the damage to the Ukrainian breadbasket, which supplies 12% of the world’s traded calories, other factors are contributing to the food and fuel squeeze. Energy costs are hitting populations on both sides, both by imparting higher costs of heating, cooking, and transport directly, but also by driving food production and transportation costs higher, indirectly raising populations’ food prices. Global logistics systems are also in a state of disarray due to labour shortages; China’s strict zero-COVID policy, and the disaggregation of supply chains that are now scrambling to find new origin points other than Russia for raw materials.

Other food production hubs have added to the pressure. Uncharacteristic climate events have lead to lower yields and crop failures, with repeatedly failed rainy seasons in the Horn of Africa, drought in Brazil, and heat waves in India increasing the pressure on the global food trade. Thailand and Vietnam, major rice producers, are contemplating price rises. Most concerningly of all, in a wave of protectionism that in many ways resembles the early pandemic’s scramble to secure medical supplies, multiple countries have now implemented food export bans in an effort to keep domestic prices low.

These issues now suggest we are witnessing a cascading failure within the global food distribution system. While there is still largely enough food grown to go around, getting it to hungry mouths is a major challenge. In wealthier, more resilient states, this means an increase in prices. In poorer states, this means famine. This is not to say that wealthier states will simply be able to grin and bear it; in the United Kingdom, 5% of households are already reporting whole days without food. 10.5% of American households are intermittently food insecure. In poorer countries, inflation is hitting the already food-insecure the hardest, while pushing the previously secure into precarity. In Thailand, street food surged in price by 8% in March alone. In Laos, food prices have doubled in the last year. Even Brazil, a major agricultural power and net food exporter, has seen food prices rise by 13.5% over the same period.

Globally-estimated impacts from the current crisis are that we will likely see an 8-15% increase in people facing food insecurity. The world bank has long noted the link between food prices and civil unrest, adding to the credibility of MI5’s “skipped meals” trigger. Now consider that popular protests that engage at least 3.5% of the population have never failed to topple governments. If a significant portion of the newly-hungry take to the streets, states will fall. Add to this the ongoing pandemic challenge, which continues to overwhelm many nation’s health services, and the citizen-state compact begins to look fragile. Societies tolerate governments who are able to deliver basic needs. When food, healthcare, and employment are all concurrently going undelivered, unrest grows.

Countries that maintain stability – generally those with robust security forces, institutions, and public buy-in to the nation-state project – will still be exposed to the impacts of this system-wide squeeze, perpetuating the cascading failure. Populations under economic pressures are more prone to the election of populists and the pursuit of protectionist policies, which generally compounds the problem. Civil unrest falling far below the 3.5% threshold can still cause deep economic disruption and violence, as was seen during France’s 2019 “Gilets Jaunes” crisis, which was itself sparked by cost of living complaints after the government introduced additional fuel taxes. While the impacts of these pressures will be less immediate, they will still be felt, dragging out the crisis in unpredictable ways. The US Federal Reserve has significant room to raise interest rates to combat domestic inflation, however with the Dollar having spiked in value since the start of the war, this carries the risk of provoking a developing world debt crisis, as nations find themselves unable to service their debts in the context of a combined strong Dollar and high interest. Where rising powers such as China would traditionally step in to make up lost international finance support, Beijing finds itself facing similar economic challenges and above all, demands stability and short-term good news stories as a backdrop for November’s party congress and Xi Jinping’s unprecedented appointment for a third term. As such, developing nations may find crisis financing difficult to secure and service from traditional and non-traditional sources alike.

The Arab Spring represented a major challenge for international organisations; NGOs; governments, and private sector organisations alike. The near-simultaneous eruption of mass protest and brushfire wars across a large swathe of the Middle East-North Africa region pushed response measures to extreme limits, demanding concurrent attention. The crisis also contributed to increased risks in other areas, such as increased jihadi recruitment from revolution-radicalised and economically disenfranchised populations, and the proliferation of arms smuggling as the armouries of toppled regimes were looted. The current crisis carries the potential for an Arab Spring-style eruption of unrest, however this time the risk zone appears to cover a much larger portion of the globe. Numerous governments are both food importers, and Dollar-denominated debt holders, meaning they are now paying a premium for both finance and commodities, at a time where treasuries are depleted.

It is increasingly likely that the coming 12 months will see an “Everywhere Spring”. This is not to say that every government will be toppled, or that every country will see violent unrest. The UK may have large food-insecure demographics and rather precarious supply chains, but it also has a relatively protest-averse population and a supportive media ecosystem for the government. The US experienced massive civil unrest in 2020, but with a robust state security apparatus, government stability was never in question. It is likely, however, that the “Everywhere Spring” will simultaneously impact the Americas; Europe; the Middle East; Africa; the Indian Subcontinent, and the Asia-Pacific region. The response of global; regional; national; humanitarian, and private institutions to a challenge of this scale would be a systemic test of incredible proportions.

The problem is being recognised by bodies such as the United Nations’ World Food Programme, but at this stage it appears unlikely that sufficient institutional momentum exists to prevent it. As such, the coming 12 months look likely to be turbulent.

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Lewis Sage-Passant is a Doctoral Researcher in the field of Intelligence, and former Military Intelligence Officer with extensive experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia Pacific regions in a variety of geopolitical analysis, security & conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis specialises in geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, the financial sector and leading technology firms.

Photo: DoD photo by Sgt. Angela Parady, U.S. Army/Released