Three Square Meals: The World Food Crisis Comes to Senegal / by Chris Duffy

Transient

Published in The College Hill Independent on September 28, 2008

“When you don’t have a full stomach, it’s hard to work,” security guard Mamady Diane, 33, told the Inde­pendent. Like many others in the West Afri­can nation of Senegal and across the globe, Diane is finding it harder and harder to af­ford the rising cost of food. Today, Diane will skip lunch and has only eaten a small piece of bread for breakfast. “I’ve never seen food prices this high before,” he says. Food pric­es have risen sharply in Senegal this year, a product of a complicated and tangled world food market in which developing countries are struggling to compete for their daily sustenance.

Between January and May, the price of rice (a staple of the Senegalese diet) more than doubled, and despite some recent decreases the price has remained at record levels. Prices for wheat and corn have also shot up with unprec­edented speed. In a country where, ac­cording to a New York Times poll, more than 40% of the population couldn’t af­ford to buy food at one point or another during 2007, the recent price increases have been disastrous.

Violent protests broke out in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, in late March, with protestors blocking streets and throw­ing rocks. Police, in full riot gear, re­sponded with tear gas and bully clubs. An activist barged into the National Assem­bly with an empty sack of rice held above his head in protest of apparent political blind­ness and throughout Senegal, “On a faim” (we are hungry) was sprayed in black paint across billboards featuring photos of the country’s president Abdoulaye Wade. There is widespread frustration and anger at Wade’s seeming indifference to the situation. One oft-cited example is his government’s lavish spending on preparations for a conference of Islamic leaders despite the developing food crisis.

The Senegalese government has largely de­nied that a problem exists. President Wade told local reporters in late April, “there is no famine in Senegal. There are no hunger ri­ots in Senegal.” Wade promised during his election campaign to lower the cost of rice, and the record prices have been an embar­rassment to him and his party. As a result, Senegalese media outlets that attempt to dis­cuss the crisis or even show footage of the protests have reported facing intimidation, with one television station even being raided by the police.

Despite the government’s claims, the food shortage extends beyond the poor, and even wealthier families are being forced to cut back on food. One woman living in Da­kar’s upscale Fann neighborhood who spoke to the Independent anonomously says that several days each week she only eats lunch because her neighbors and coworkers would notice if she skipped it. “It’s unacceptable for them to see that I don’t have the money to feed myself and my children but, with prices like this, I’m tired,” she says. “We’re all tired. We can’t afford to live when it’s like this.”

In poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of Dakar, families have resorted to eating pain de retour, a porridge made from stale bread and sour milk. “I can remember a time when people in Senegal ate three meals a day,” Ba­bacar Gueye, a professor of Political Science at Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University told the Independent, “that’s simply not the case anymore.”

Senegal is hardly alone in its suffering. In nearby Burkina Faso, where price increases were even more widespread and dramatic, riots overtook two of the country’s largest cities in February. Throughout the country, local police responded with force to angry ci­vilians protesting in the streets and hundreds were arrested. In response, the government was forced to release emergency food stores and deploy hundreds of soldiers to keep or­der in Ougadougou, the capital.

In April, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that rising food prices “could not only push millions of people deeper into poverty but also have larger political and security implications” and warned that “the rapidly escalating crisis of food avail­ability around the world has reached emer­gency proportions.” Despite Ki-Moon’s call to action, as recently as August 12, Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, the world’s largest food aid distributor, assessed the situation, saying, “food prices are not abating, and the world’s most vulnerable have exhausted their coping strategies.”

To those living in developed countries, the rise in food prices can be an inconvenience and an annoyance, but in the developing world, the consequences of this unprecedent­ed worldwide rise in food prices are far more extreme. Sheeran has been widely quoted as saying, “for the middle classes, it means cut­ting out medical care. For those [who live] on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.”

The major culprit for the crisis is a matter of some debate, but most ex­perts agree that it’s actually a conflu­ence of significant changes and un­fortunate circumstances. The growing world population increased demand for grain, while climate change re­sulted in droughts and below-average harvests. At the same time, exceptional growth in China and India is resulting in richer populations who eat more meat, which requires significantly more grain to produce. Efforts in the United States and Europe to develop biofuels, like corn-based ethanol, serve to further drive up demand and raise prices. The current crisis stems from these factors, along with market distortions caused by government export quotas and tariffs, as well as the increased cost of fuel.

As Joachim von Braun, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Insti­tute in Washington, said in a statement, “this global food crisis is a complex problem that cannot be solved with simplistic approaches. More effective and coherent action is needed now to help the most vulnerable populations cope with the drastic hikes in their food bills and to assist developing countries with strat­egies to increase agricultural productivity.”

Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects for governments and non-governmental or­ganizations worldwide has been to decide exactly how to help. The World Bank dis­tributed 3,500 tons of genetically improved seeds to farmers in Burkina Faso. The World Food Programme, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation deliv­ered a package of more than $17 million in emergency grants to small-scale farmers and mothers and children in developing coun­tries. Unfortunately, von Braun and most other experts agree that these short-term in­terventions, while necessary, won’t solve the larger problem. In the long-term, it seems that only a concerted international effort to fix distortions in the food market coupled with scientific progress to increase the crop yields and reliability of small farmers in the developing world will guarantee some degree of food security. For the moment, Mamady Diane and others like him will go on skip­ping meals.