Saturday, 29 March 2008

The Global Food Crisis

I had posted last time about how the rising price of wheat is usually a larger factor in local politics than other matters. The thought came back to me when I was reading a recent Newsweek article about the protests in Tibet. One of the major complaints of protesters was the rise in food prices, though they placed it in the context of Chinese claims of great economic growth and investment in Tibet over the last few years. The protesters felt that the gains from this increasing wealth was only going to Han Chinese while they had to face increasing food prices.

Tibet is not the only place where this has happened. The internet is littered with news reports about rising prices from Canada to Gaza. This interesting article at the Global policy Forum asks the question 'Are We Approaching a Global Food Crisis?' and has some relevant facts and figures about global food prices.

As the article rightly points out the rises in food prices have a much larger impact in households with low incomes, and thus on poorer countries:
"Most consumers in rich countries are affected only marginally by higher food prices. But in poor countries, many consumers spend most of their income on food. So, higher prices mean smaller portions, fewer meals and consuming foods with lower nutritional value. To afford essential food needs, many low and middle-income households must also cut spending on education and health."

Furthermore, as the article points out, 70% of all developing countries are net importers of food, and the need to import food is a burden on the economy made worse by rising prices.

In Pakistan's case, in a good year, Pakistan's agricultural production more than meet's its requirement for wheat, while in a bad year it is forced to import. The government controls the wheat market by setting the price of wheat that is provided to the millers and then again setting the price of flour in the market. This price is not allowed to fluctuate beyond a narrow band, thereby ensuring that the price of flour remains low. Due to the rise in global prices, millers would make much more money if they exported wheat than if they sold it in the country, but the government only allows the export of flour that is surplus to the country's requirements.

The wheat crisis at the end of 2007 was sparked by a combination of greed and incompetence when the previous government announced a record bumper crop in wheat, with fudged statistics, and quickly granted permission to export half a million tonnes of wheat at $200 a tonne. When it became apparent that this bumper cop only existed on paper, various people in the flour supply chain (millers, retailers etc.) realized there was going to be a shortage, which at some point in the future was going to drive prices up, so they began hoarding flour rather than releasing it for sale at current, lower prices. There were also allegations of smuggling of wheat to Afghanistan (where domestic production of wheat has all but been replaced with opium anyway). However, I'm not sure how substantial the loss of wheat is through this channel. The previous government then heroically ignored the problem until their tenure was up and dumped the entire affair in the lap of the caretaker government that replaced them. They were forced to import wheat at the then global market rate of $500 per tonne and take various measures against hording.

Thus, while Pakistan would have faced the problem of food inflation anyway, the matter was made worse by a greed-induced artificial shortage.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Mysteries of the 'Muslim Mind'

For those who wish to unlock the mysteries of the 'Muslim Mind' I refer you to one of the best articles I have read in a long, long time. It is by Barnett Rubin and can be found here at the Informed Comment Global Affairs blog. Here is the money quote:

"Recently when a reporter who was gearing up for his first trip to the region by reading books on theology and political ideology asked me how it was possible for Hanafi Muslims like the Taliban to ally with Wahhabis like al-Qaida -- was it because the Deobandi school was closer to Wahhabism? I replied (with a pinch of exaggeration) that this had nothing to do with anything, and to understand the Taliban he would be better off looking into the price of bread.

Outside of Afghanistan people want to know if Deobandis are a type of Hanafis that are closer to Wahhabis, but inside Afghanistan all people think about is the price of bread."

This is so true. To some observers (including myself), it had become patently obvious that the PML-Q was going to be trounced in the elections (as long as they were unrigged) simply because of the wheat crisis in the country. After seeing lines of over 1000 people, mostly women, waiting for days outside government utility stores in the hope of being able to buy wheat, the mixture of despair and anger felt by the poor was all too palpable. And even when the PML-Q tried to blame the wheat shortage on the PPP and the unrest following Bhutto's assassination, the charge simply would not stick as the shortages dragged on and on, and their own government's role in manipulating wheat production figures and wheat smuggling became apparent.

To the average schmoe in Afghanistan/Pakistan etc., the issues of Jihad, Sharia, Palestine etc. really don't matter. They just want bread. Take, for an example, our cook. Over the last couple of weeks he would ask for updates about the political situation. Has the new Prime Minister been selected? When will the new Prime Minister be selected? Why is it taking so long for the Prime Minister to be selected? Yesterday his patience was wearing thin. With no Prime Minister yet, he commented, who are we going to complain to about the high price of wheat and food?

The NRO, the Afghan war, Sharia, Kashmir, Iraq, corruption, etc. None of that is what counts. Quiet simply, what matters is the price of bread.

Edit: And of course not long after I wrote this post I came across this article in today's papers about the bread shortage in Egypt and President Mubarak's attempts to combat it.

America's Most Unwanted

So the poll results are in, and we now have a clearer picture of which countries Americans like and dislike. The country which Americans view most favorably: Canada. (No surprises there.) The country they view most unfavourably: Iran. (No surprises there either.)

What about Pakistan? Well its there near the bottom of the pile, just above Afghanistan and below Cuba and Saudi Arabia. A whopping 72% of respondents view Pakistan unfavourably. Well how about that.

Bonus factoid: Republicans are more likely to view Pakistan favourably than Democrats.

Monday, 17 March 2008

On Zardari

I was all fired up to write a long post on Zardari and his ascension to power, and what this means for Pakistan, but I have found that the 'old China hand' has done a pretty good job of doing this at China Matters.

Here's a taster: "Zardari, in his own way, epitomizes the rot at the heart of the PPP just as Musharraf symbolizes the rot at the heart of the Pakistani government."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Thoughts on the Other Musharraf

Some well-intentioned advice to my Bangladeshi friends:

Some years ago, you decided to part ways with Pakistan. As traumatic as that episode was, in hindsight, it was probably for the best. It seems though, that the military-bureaucratic elite can't quite break the mould in which it was originally cast and it is leading Bangladesh down the same, dusty, well-beaten path that Pakistan has trod so many times before. I would urge you very strongly to reconsider. This path will take you nowhere you want to go...

A Friend in Deed...

Interestingly enough, Major General Jay Hood, once head honcho of Guantanamo Bay has now been appointed chief of the Office of the Defense Representative in Islamabad. I wonder if our ISI generals are going to hold a special viewing of 'Khuda Key Liye' for him? Perhaps they can do dinner before the movie? There's a lovely little Italian Restaurant he might enjoy.

Interesting Blog on Afghanistan

On a slightly different note, here is an interesting new blog on Afghanistan. Some of the articles such as this one about local power structures in Afghanistan and the way in which NATO forces engage with them.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Dawn Blog

So the Dawn-wallahs now have a blog up and running. Dawn is, of course, probably the best English language daily in Pakistan. Though having said that, the News and the Daily Times have their charms as well.

Which War?

In the movie 'A Mighty Heart', based on the abduction and investigation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Perle (and incidentally, a surprisingly good movie, I thought) there is a scene where Daniel Perle's wife meets with the Pakistan's Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haider (a retired Lt. general appointed to this important position by Musharraf). In this scene, Haider states that he has conclusive evidence that the kidnapping of Daniel Perle has been orchestrated by the Indian Intelligence Agency, RAW for the purpose of making Pakistan look bad in the foreign press. The viewer is struck by the absurdity of the claim, but what makes the episode (based on Marianne Perle's account of the encounter) truly painful is the feeling that the Pakistani state and its most powerful representatives are not only not interested in helping to look for the missing gentleman, but are so completely deluded about what his fate may be that any help that may be forthcoming is bound to be worse than useless.

I recalled this episode while watching Moinuddin Haider on a talk show on TV recently, speaking after the recent suicide attacks in Lahore. As he and various other high-ups in officialdom and semi-officialdom have so often done before, Mr. Haider was dropping veiled hints about the involvement of a 'foreign hand' in the suicide attacks and in Taliban militancy in Pakistan in general. He was more circumspect than he has been in the past, not naming names, and not talking about 'conclusive proof', as others have done, but saying that it only stands to reason that the money, training and material for the bombings/militancy must be provided by someone outside the country. Other military and government officials have not been as circumspect and have explicitly blamed India, Afghanistan, and even Israel.

While India has not been above supporting various nationalist separatist movements in Pakistan in the past, the accusation that it has developed ties to and is funding and fueling the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan is so absurd that one is somewhat at a loss for words. But the accusation continues to make the rounds, with plenty of people who seem to be willing to credit it. No wonder then, that even while we have several suicide bombings a week throughout the country, and there is such a sense of insecurity pervading the country as has never before been the case, and both the army and civilian law enforcement seem all but helpless in making inroads against this so-called Jihad being waged upon Pakistani society, STILL the Pakistani armed forces' priorities seem to be focused on finding newer and more expensive toys whose purpose is to wage war against India.

For some reason these people are convinced that if only the Americans leave Afghanistan, then all will be well in Pakistan once more. Just as all was well in the pre-9/11 years where the militants were free to wage sectarian war upon Shiites and other religious minorities as an extracurricular sideshow while serving the Pakistani army by waging 'Jihad' in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Yup, the good ole days, when all was well with Pakistani foreign and security policy, and there were no pesky Americans stirring up trouble....

The reason I find this so terribly depressing is that it shows, not only that the capability to address "Islamist" terror does not exist in Pakistan, neither does the will. And it is this second fact which is the kicker. The lack of capability can be addressed to a certain extent through exerted effort. But without the will to make that effort, we will keep stumbling along as we are.

The fact of the matter is that even if the United States and all its armies were to suddenly sink beneath the waves tomorrow and disappear from the face of the Earth, Pakistan would still be at war the day after. And, its not going to be one waged from Delhi.

Edit: These two articles, one from the News and one from Dawn, by anti-establishment intellectuals show the kind of confusion that is prevalent amongst potential policy-makers. They are very ready to point fingers but simply aren't able to suggest lines of action.

McCain? No Thanks.

As if this was not a good enough reason to hope McCain doesn't make it to the White House, there is also this. And here I was, fooled into thinking he was a reasonably sensible 'un (for a U.S. Presidential Candidate, which, truth be told, is setting the bar rather low).

Shall We Dance?

The case of the dancing Sheikh...