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The Test Case for Development

Never Again

The Long Shadow of Famine

An Enduring Contract against Subsistence Crisis

[T]he occurrence of a famine so soon after independence caused a massive crisis of legitimacy for the then government whose violent overthrow a year later was seen as an expression of the loss of this legitimacy. The crisis of legitimacy due to a failure to contain the famine appears to have become for subsequent governments a crucial political concern. (Rahman 1995, 278)

: The Food Riots that Never Were

'Because of the famine', we were told, when colleagues and I set out to understand why Bangladesh has relatively robust protection against subsistence shocks—relative, that is, to other low-income countries and to the horrible history of the region. The moment of our investigation was the global food crisis of 2007-12. The country had been hit hard by the price spike of 2007-8, a time when India banned rice exports to demonstrate political commitment to preventing famine at home; on the heels of relatively serious floods, and sandwiched between Cyclones Sidr (in 2007) and Aila (in 2009), Bangladesh risked a major food crisis, at a tricky moment of political transition back to multiparty elections after a period of military-backed caretaker rule.[1] There were portentous echoes of the global commodity crisis of the early 1970s, but this time, domestic rice prices stayed below world prices (World Bank 2010). Low-waged urban workers protested rising living costs and the international media duly reported ‘food riots', but these scattered outbursts reflected expectations that the government should and could act more than a generalized sense of its failure to do so: the world expected poor, populous, import-dependent Bangladesh to have food riots, but they did not materialize (Hossain and Jahan 2014). And act the government did: the Awami League government elected in late 2008 took the credit for stabilizing the food situation in a turbulent period.[2] It shopped further afield for grain imports, expanded open market sales of cheap food, widened the social safety net, and built warehouses for expanded food reserves.[3] Tackling food prices took top billing on the election manifesto that won the party its largest mandate since the 1970s, signalling its intention to handle the crisis at all costs (BRAC University and Institute of Governance Studies 2010). When world food prices spiked again in 2010-11, Bangladeshis were better insulated than many of their neighbours—and than their grandparents would have been.

That famine—any episode of dearth or sudden price rise that might presage famine—is acutely politically sensitive is no secret (Islam 2012). A popular political theory heard around the 2008 crisis was that the government was responsible for protecting its people against food shocks; it would do so not out of great love for its people, but because of simple democratic pressures— exerted, if necessary, through direct action. The tenure of the caretaker government (January 2007-December 2008) coincided with the rising rice price, losing it popularity and confirming the idea that military governments were inherently less capable than 'political' governments of protecting against food crises (see Islam 2012). As it had (somewhat ineffectively) banned political protests, the sound of popular discontent was muffled.

As if to prove the unelected government had a tin ear, Army Chief General Moeen U Ahmed advised Bangladeshis to replace costly rice with the versatile potato, then enjoying a bumper crop. This was an attempt to subdue fears that the country was enduring a 'silent famine', as claimed by the government advisor, respected historian Akbar Ali Khan. In an episode dense with irony, the Daily Star newspaper reported the story from Rangpur, the epicentre of the 1974 calamity (also the home town of General Moeen) (Unb 2008). And so a 'let them eat potato' moment was due not to detachment from the masses but to the sensible fear of a military ruler who lacked the skill of a seasoned politician to reassure the population and cool the markets, demonstrating at least the intention to try their utmost. Food prices dropped sharply just after the Awami League government took power in early 2009, giving credence to the idea that political government responds faster than military

(even though the success reflected the global commodity slump and a bumper harvest more than action by the new government[4]). In general, the failures of the caretaker government were overstated in popular opinion, and the successes of the Awami League government in 2008 slightly lucky. But the popular theory was reaffirmed.

  • [1] On the context, see BRAC University and Institute of Governance Studies (2010) and WorldBank (2010).
  • [2] Marked, in addition, by a bloody uprising by sepoys in the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) battalion,located in heart of Dhaka, in which seventy-four people were killed, fifty-seven of whom wereofficers. See BBC (2013).
  • [3] Against the advice of the World Bank, which had encouraged reliance on international foodtrade rather than domestic stocks.
  • [4] The point was made in research discussed in Hossain and Jahan (2014). One poll found 78 percent of respondents were 'dissatisfied' with price rises in 2008 (BRAC University and Institute ofGovernance Studies 2009).
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