Food Security Situation in Iraq

This article by Hadi Fathallah for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offers interesting insights on the current food security situation in Iraq, based on reports by international organizations like the World Food Programme, Arabic and western press reports.

The wheat harvest in ISIS controlled territory has declined, in contrast to civil servant salaries, producer subsidies from the central government in Baghdad do not reach ISIS territory anymore. The government has not budgeted funds for procurement of wheat from ISIS areas in its 2015 budget. The coverage of the Public Distribution System for refugees in non-ISIS territory is limited.

Food imports will need to increase at a time when oil prices have declined and more spending is directed towards military and security issues. The food security situation in Iraq is about to get more critical.

The Myth of Climate and Water Wars in the MENA

El Pais, Spain’s largest daily newspaper, has published an article of mine about “The Myth of Climate and Water Wars in the Middle East“ (in Spanish).

Like our earlier article in Footnote1 it argues that water scarcity and climate change are  serious issues, but that primary reasons for unrest in the Middle East can be found in its political economy.

The climate and water war narratives might be intuitively appealing but they are not convincing in comparison. The environment is not an external category that would transform itself mechanically into sociopolitical outcomes.

Economic Crisis of ISIS: Media Overview

The main thesis of my policy brief in October “How Long Will ISIS Last Economically” has been increasingly picked up in the media and think tank papers, i.e. that the ISIS economy is a “Ponzi scheme of looting” and far from self-sustaining.

Below you find a list of media articles that expand on this theme and have quoted my policy brief:

Slate Magazine ; BBC ; CNBC ; National Post ; Die Zeit ; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ; Democracy Digest ; Jamestown Foundation ; Business Insider ; The Marshal Center ; Al Ahram Hebdo .

These articles also contain further interesting details, most notably the sequestration of houses of retired government personnel in Deir el- Zor (Al Hayat):

Washington Post ; Al Hayat ; Der Spiegel

Update on Economic Issues of ISIS

Germany’s largest weekly Die Zeit has run a feature on the lack of economic sustainability of ISIS that has also been translated into English. It quotes my earlier policy brief of October: How Long Will ISIS Last Economically? and shares its conclusion that the ISIS economy is based on looting and far from self-sustaining.

Meanwhile the UN has estimated that ISIS had revenues from ransoms of $35-45 million in 2013. Revenues from such ransoms have likely decreased as I have argued, as Western journalists and aid workers have been deterred from traveling to the region and local hostages fetch lower prices.

The Die Zeit feature in fact points out that hostage taking has increasingly targeted the local population. Prices for local hostages ($20k-50k) are considerably below those for western hostages ($3-5mn).

In October David Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury Department, estimated the ISIS income from oil at $1mn per day with a declining tendency. He also saw the revenues from ransoms reduced at $20 mn in 2014.

Cracks of ISIS’ Ponzi scheme of looting have already started to appear. Prices for meat, eggs and vegetables have doubled and tripled in some cases.  Defections of senior ISIS officials have been partly attributed to economic problems of the organization.

ISIS tried a publicity stunt when it announced its intention to introduce its own currency based on gold, silver and copper (sic) coins. Even if it managed to loot enough precious metals to issue such a currency it would likely face Gresham’s Law and the challenges of maintaining realistic exchange rates within a bimetallic currency, not to mention a tri-metallic one.

Yet ISIS is not the only organization with economic problems in Iraq: The government in Baghdad faces severe funding shortages as oil prices have declined while it needs to ramp up expenditure to rebuild its military capacities (if they ever existed given 50k “ghost soldiers” who only existed on payrolls).

The Iraqi government also continuously grapples with corruption: The Grain board chief was sacked because of a spoiled rice shipment, only to be replaced by his predecessor who took kick backs in 2009.

Review of Oil for Food in Journal of Peasant Studies

The Journal of Peasant Studies has published a review of Oil for Food by Max Ajl of Cornell University who approaches the topic from a critical world system view.

Ajl likes the historic parts and the analysis of agro lobbies and profit motivations behind food security strategies, but he would have liked to see much more categorical conclusions, which I am afraid I cannot give. There is no either/ or: Clientelistic lobbying geo-strategic considerations and genuine food security concerns are all part of the mix that I have encountered.

“Indeed, he could and should have stated much more clearly that food security is a discourse which is mobilized in the region and elsewhere for ends having little to do with securing food: namely, the distribution of state rents to social elites in ways which would otherwise be difficult to publicly justify. Still, it is to Woertz’s credit that he has done such a skilled job of amassing and synthesizing a tremendous pile of historical and contemporary evidence – even if, upon surveying it, the reader comes to far less ambivalent conclusions about the real interests behind notions of ‘food security’ in the Gulf than the author does himself.”

Commodities Trade in the Atlantic Space

I have just returned from the Atlantic Dialogues conference 2014 that has been organized by the German Marshall Fund and the OCP Policy Center.

In terms of food security issues it was quite interesting that considerable know-how transfer is taking place between Brazil and Sub-Saharan Africa and that Morocco tries to position itself as fertilizer provider of choice to both agricultural regions. (On this issue also see my recent article in Third World Quarterly about Mining Strategies in the MENA).

The Atlantic Dialogues conference is in its third year now and adds a south-south dimension to the notion of Atlantic Space. This year a conference volume has been published that can be downloaded here.

This chart in my article about the transatlantic trade in agricultural and mineral commodities highlights some interesting facts.

The following conclusions can be drawn for the transatlantic trade in commodities:

  • Mineral fuels dominate the global trade of commodities, the Atlantic Space is no exception.
  • No country in the word is energy independent. There is a varied trade of refined products besides the trade in mineral fuels. Some crude oil exporters like Nigeria, Angola, Mexico, and Brazil are net importers of such refined products. Net importers of crude oil like the United States and the EU, on the other hand, are net exporters of refined petroleum products.
  • China has developed into a major importer of mineral fuels, oil seeds, ores, and precious metals from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America. Yet despite this widely publicized rise of China, the Atlantic trade in commodities is still a dominant factor in global comparison.
  • The transatlantic trade ties in commodities are particularly close between North America and LAC, on the one hand and between Europe and Africa on the other hand. Trading relations between North America and Africa and between the EU and LAC are also substantial. The focus of this North-South trade is on mineral fuels, ores, precious metals, oil seeds, and tropical agricultural products like cocoa, coffee, and fruit. There is not only a lively trade of refined products from North America and the EU to Africa and LAC, but also between the two northern blocs of the Atlantic Space.
  • In comparison, South-South trading relations lag behind in the Atlantic Space. However, because of its underdeveloped agricultural potential, Africa is a major importer of cereals and sugars, which partly come from LAC, and Morocco has developed into a major supplier of fertilizers to Brazil.

Two Reviews of Oil for Food

The International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) and the Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research (JNRPR) have published reviews of Oil for Food by Pete W. Moore and Erika Weinthal respectively.

Both reviews are positive, main suggestions relate to:

a) better clarification of the two main driving forces of Gulf agricultural policies: self-sufficiency concerns and patronage politics

b) more extensive discussion of resource curse theories and Dutch disease phenomena

c) richer analysis of agricultural policies in Syria against the backdrop of the drought of the 2000s, misguided water management and rural neglect in the decade before the civil war

Thanks for reading the book and these very helpful suggestions!

Syria is in fact one of my regrets and it would have deserved more discussion, indeed. Raymond Hinnebusch’s edited volume about Syrian agriculture in the 2000s escaped my attention while writing and Francesca de Châtel’s excellent article in Middle Eastern Studies was not yet published.

In later publications I have dealt with Syria more extensively while spending some time at the American University of Beirut. During the 1990s I studied in Syria and worked there as a tourguide, getting to know the country and its people. What’s happening there right now is truly saddening and one can only hope that Syria’s shameful tragedy will end soon. With a rural population share of 40 percent sustainable policies of rural development would need to be an important aspect of any reconstruction effort.

Three New Books about MENA Food Security

Three new books have been published about food security in the Middle East and North Africa: Jane Harrigan’s The Political Economy of Arab Food Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Food Security in the Middle East, edited by Zahra Babar and Suzi Mirgani (Hurst, 2014) and The Politics of Food Security: Asian and Middle Eastern Strategies, edited by Sara Bazoobandi (Gerlach Press, 2014).

Bazoobandi`s book has emanated out of a conference at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore and compares food security strategies in the MENA with Asian countries like South Korea and China. My own article in the volume is about this topic, others deal with urban agriculture, Japan, and modern food systems in the Asia-Pacific. Particularly interesting is an article about Iranian food security by Nikolay Kozhanov who served as attaché at the Russian embassy in Tehran between 2006 and 2009.

Babars’s and Mirgani’s book entails a number of conceptual studies about the impact of supermarkets on food systems, obesity, Gulf agro-investments in Ethiopia or my own article about historic food regimes and the MENA as well as a variety of case studies about countries like Yemen, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. The book is the outcome of one of the superb workshops and collective research efforts at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown University in Qatar.

Like Food Security in the Middle East, Jane Harrigan’s book The Political Economy of Arab Food Sovereignty provides an excellent analysis of food security challenges in the MENA. By coining the term “macro food sovereignty” Harrigan describes multiple efforts of MENA governments to gain direct access and political control over food supplies, if necessary by disregarding market rationalities and economic efficiency. Macro food sovereignty is thus different from trade-based approaches to food security as advised by international bodies like the World Bank. It is also different from the original meaning of the term “food sovereignty” that has focused on the micro level and has been used by advocacy groups like La Via Campesina to call for farmers’ control over their livelihoods and production decisions.

Harrigan provides a rich variety of data and does a great job in analyzing the development discourse about MENA food security. She goes beyond domestic agriculture and foreign agro-investments and embeds her analysis of food security in the broader context of economic development, income distribution and food accessibility. Like in her earlier writings her approach is refreshingly unorthodox and challenges prevalent development paradigms.

Harrigan and I had our differences regarding the extent of Gulf agro-investments and a widespread implementation gap of announced projects. My reading of press reports and some earlier entries in the Land Matrix database certainly would be more skeptical. Some of the mentioned examples like the Qatari investments in Kenya or UAE based Abraaj Capital’s investments in Pakistan have never gotten off the ground. In the current version of the Land Matrix they are in fact categorized as failed. There also have not been specific land for oil deals, although land for infrastructure deals have been proposed.

But when reading Harrigan’s book I also find considerable agreement, for example about the need to favor joint equity projects and contract farming over fully owned plantation projects that are much more likely to alienate local populations. We also seem to be in broad agreement that preemptive displacements can be serious threats and that improved social safety nets need to be part and parcel of food security policies in the MENA. In sum this is a great addition to the growing body of literature about food security in the Middle East that is particularly helpful in linking it to the broader development debate.