By BRIAN CRAWFORD
Crisis held much of the working class by the throat before COVID-19, and now the war in Ukraine intensifies the hardships, especially in Africa and the Middle East, which are dependent on wheat imports from that region. Food crises existed before February 2022, but with the closing of the Black Sea ports and the fate of Ukraine’s current harvest in question, the conditions are even more dire. Ukraine, Turkey and Russia negotiated an agreement to allow shipments from the ports, and several grain ships sailed from Odesa in recent days, but shipping companies and insurers still need assurance of safe passage.
Environmental destruction compounds the travails of Africa and the Middle East; capitalism’s slow-motion suicide will claim all humanity, using the oil resources of the region as its weapon. Conversely, their relative poverty makes them dependent on the wealthy nations, and that is exacerbated in periods of crisis. Structural adjustment programs bind these nations to debt, and debt binds them to poverty.
Cost of war
Africa’s food insecurity predated the war. In the period from 2020-2021, the combination of the pandemic and climatic events were responsible for a 60% increase in food “insecurity.” February brought war, and the war brought a blockade of Black Sea ports. Ukraine and Russia together are the breadbasket of the world, exporting one-third of the world’s wheat.
Increased consumption of wheat products over the last dozen years put a strain on supply, and the war directly impacts the ability to fill demand. Between 2007 and 2019, Africa’s wheat imports increased by 68%. Countries in North Africa, the Maghreb, the Eastern Horn, and the country of South Africa accounted for 80% of wheat imports, according to the UN. Africa’s wheat consumption is projected to reach 76.5 million tons by the year 2025, with over 63% being imported. Remedies prescribed by the United Nations and other international bodies invariably consist of free-market solutions and increased oil and gas production. Greater oil and gas production, which is meant to avoid economic shocks, provides only for the greater catastrophe of environment destruction, of which Africa is already bearing the brunt, as is the Middle East.
Egypt is the largest importer of wheat, and 70% of the crop originates in the Black Sea ports. The country spends a total of over $6 billion for imports and for bread subsidies to feed its population of 60 million. In Yemen, 11 million people are served by the World Food Program. Half the population is experiencing hunger, a product of years of war. The cost of food assistance has increased, which will have an adverse effect on efforts to feed the population.
Lebanon, which has been in economic crisis for years, with skyrocketing inflation and an 80% poverty rate, now faces the loss of nearly 40% of its caloric consumption due to increased costs of grain. The “Lebanese government relies on domestic and foreign debt to subsidize up to 90% of the cost of wheat imports,” writes Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Program. The country does not have the means to satisfy the demand “since the explosion at the port of Beirut destroyed grain silos in 2020, Lebanon has relied on just in time wheat procurement.” Lebanon recently built new silos hoping to “insulate itself and perhaps other countries in the region, from supply and price shocks.”
Food crisis is not necessarily a food shortage but one of access. Purchasing food requires money and for the many unemployed this puts access out of reach. Public institutions that were responsible for food distribution are dismantled in favor of corporate systems, which are dependent on supply chains and global trade, which in turn are subject to economic crisis as well as climate change. Pandemic-related disruptions exposed the shortcomings of this reliance on capitalist food production. Speculation also creates uncertainty as food prices are influenced adversely, as was the case in 2008. Just as financialization fueled the mortgage crisis, it has also made its presence felt in agriculture. Food is a commodity that is now dominated by hedge funds and investment banks.
Michael Masters, an expert on speculation in commodities markets, told Lighthouse in an interview in 2008: “If speculative actors are most of the open interest, it follows that their incentives and their motivations are going to be dictating price formation. So, when they’re the majority of open interest, you get a lot of price formation that has to do with trend following or amplification of price trends.” Such strategies, he pointed out, are not necessarily linked to physical supply and demand. Demand exists but access to supply is restricted by individual financial constraints, or at present a blockade in time of war.
Relief may be hard to come by since India and over a dozen other countries banned food exports to serve their own internal consumption, which contributes further to shortages in grains and vegetable oils. Indian agriculture will lose one-fifth of its crop as a result of extreme heat.
The Ukraine war impacts countries dependent on imports of wheat but also other commodities essential to agriculture. There has been a rise in the cost of fertilizer tied to the price of natural gas. In addition, sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus are contributing to shortages of a variety of fertilizers. Russia ranks as number one in fertilizer exports overall and is a leader in phosphorus and potassium fertilizers. Many countries are reliant on these fertilizers and many farmers must make a decision on what and how much to plant.
Commercial fertilizers are responsible for up to 60% of food production. Reliance on fertilizers is a consequence of capitalist production, which imposes monoculture agricultural systems for higher yields; this is especially true of African and Middle Eastern countries. Dr. Vandana Shiva writes in Climate and Capitalism, “Chemical fertilizers, which are essentially poison, undermine food security by destroying the fertility of the soil by killing the biodiversity of the soil organisms, friendly insects that control pests and pollinators like bees and butterflies necessary for plant reproduction and food production.” Increased costs for a prolonged period will eventually affect other crops. Many farmers will raise their prices or quit. What is portrayed as a “Green Revolution” likewise leaves poor farmers mired in debt. Farmers who are “trapped in debt for buying costly chemicals and nonrenewable seeds, sell the food they grow to pay back debt,” explains Dr. Shiva.
Capitalism improves production quantitatively, but as Timothy Wise writes in his working paper, “Old Fertilizer in New Bottles,” featured in Monthly Review:“Global agriculture produces an overabundance of food but leaves nearly one billion people chronically hungry, another one billion food insecure, and another one billion overweight or obese.” Globally, hunger has increased from 760 million in 2020 to 860 million currently.
Compounding the food crisis is the cost of transporting goods. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine directly affects global energy prices. Energy is used for irrigation, machinery, food processing, transport, and distribution. A direct correlation between increased energy prices and the price of food is undeniable, and the war’s impact is being felt far and wide.
Ukraine’s seed bank may be one more casualty of the war. Russia’s attack on Kharkiv, while not destroying all the stock, inflicted significant damage when many stored seed samples were reduced to ash. Important for biodiversity, seed banks are essential for preservation of the genetic material of rare plants and they protect against the possible extinction due to rising temperatures, disease outbreaks, and other natural disasters. Unfortunately, agribusiness approaches food as just another commodity that is produced to maximize profits. The seed market is dominated by four firms that control 60% of the business globally. Michael Farkri and Sofia Monsalve wrote in The Guardian: “These corporations provide seeds through commodity seeds systems, which are dedicated to reproduction of homogeneous varieties dependent on chemical inputs and protected through intellectual property regimes.”
Slow moving train
Severe and unprecedented climatic events continue to inflict devastation on populations and food supplies. Frost in Brazil damaged coffee crops, flooding in China impacted the pork region, while drought in North America and flooding in Europe all are manifestations of how far that slow moving train of climate change has progressed. Humanity is in its path and the moment of escape is slipping away. Knowledge of the environmental crisis has been public for decades. Scientists, social scientists, and international institutions acknowledge that conditions resulting from environmental crises will not only cause disruption in agriculture and food production but also up end society and politics. Agriculture, more than any other industry, is at the mercy of the environment, with a turn from feast to famine in an instant. Climatic changes bring a variety of hazards to agriculture. Insect infestations are one of those threats.
Plagues of locusts set upon both the Middle East and East Africa. Billions of locusts spread throughout the East African nations of Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. “At times locust swarms have become so dense they’ve forced aircraft to divert,” reports vox.com. Locusts are usually solitary creatures, but once they gather in a swarm of 150,000 they can eat as much as 35,000 people can eat in day. Climatic changes brought this plague in 2020.
Muhammad Azhar Ehsah International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University’s Earth Institute explains that in 2019, “The western side of the Indian Ocean was unusually warm as compared to the eastern side. … So when the western side was warm, we had a lot of evaporation happening over there, and that evaporation turned into rainfall.” The torrential rains in East Africa brought floods that forced people to leave their homes; but the waters brought food for the insect invaders in the form of lush greenery. Yemen was not spared; beset by war and famine, the desperate population resorted to bagging, cooking, and eating the abundant insects.
Another economic impact is on state expenditures to mitigate the effects of climate change. African nations are spending an average of 4% of GDP on mitigation; in Ethiopia it’s approaching 6%. Rainfall has declined, and Africa has 12 of the most water stressed nations in the world. Meanwhile, countries in the Middle East may spend as much as 14% of GDP to mitigate climate related water scarcity by the year 2050. Warming of the planet will force many species of animals to migrate, increasing interactions with humans and potential for future pandemics, adding to the strains on national budgets.
Unprecedented heat waves are a foretaste of what is to come in the region. Iran suffered through its hottest day ever when the temperature rose to 129F. Oman, Kuwait, and Iraq all recorded temperatures well in excess of 120F. Excessive heat will likely become a permanent feature of Middle Eastern summers as the region warms at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute predict that some parts of the Middle East may become uninhabitable by the end of the century: “Greenhouse gas emissions have more than tripled in the region over the last three decades.”
Water’s relationship to food production creates conditions of greater hunger and even famine during extended periods of drought. These conditions are created by human activity and the relationship between wealthy and poor nations. The dominant imperial powers control the extraction, production, and distribution of raw materials and manufactured goods. Africa and the Middle East are sources of raw materials, but their mineral wealth is not their own; the masses are suppressed by their comprador class in the interests of the metropole. Imperialism has cemented their role in the world economy. “Africa has no control over production or logistics chains and is totally at the mercy of the situation,” said Macky Sall, president of Senegal and chair of the African Union.
The role of global financial institutions, especially the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, must be understood. They are the architects of the current crisis and the conditions within poor countries and their permanent state of impoverishment.
The Centrality of neoliberalism
The current crisis in Africa and the Middle East can only be understood with an analysis of neoliberalism, which has been imposed on the developing world for over four decades. Developing countries remain in a sort of economic straitjacket as a result of mandates stipulated in the conditions of debt relief.
African countries increased exports and took out loans in Western banks during the 1970s. High oil prices produced a glut of petrodollars deposited in banks in Europe and the U.S. “Lethargic Western economies could not absorb the petrodollars, so banks encouraged developing countries to borrow.” A decade later, commodity prices fell while interest rates and the value of the dollar increased. When debt became too much of a burden, they turned to the IMF and World Bank. Conditions of loans included: devaluation of local currency, unilateral trade liberalization, and reduced funding of the public sector.
Export of raw materials was supposed to pave the way to prosperity. But on the contrary, it tied these countries to the metropole in relations similar to colonialism. Frantz Fanon warned of this over 60 years ago: “The national economy of the period of independence is not set on a new footing. It is still concerned with the ground-nut harvest, with cocoa and the olive yield. In the same way there is no change in the marketing of basic products, and not a single industry is set up in the country. We go on sending out raw materials; we go on being Europe’s small farmer who specializes in unfinished products”(“The Wretched of the Earth”).
The fall of commodity prices was a root cause of the debt crisis of the 1980s. “Commodities are indispensable as the sole means of providing the foreign currency required for external debt payments. Yet since 2014-2015 they have been exported at prices far lower than those previously reached. The reversal causes serious hardship for a number of countries dependent on revenues from oil, agriculture or minerals.”
Emphasis on exports on raw materials rather than manufactured goods has not benefited African countries. Liberalization of economies further liberalized the looting of the continent. “Marginalization of Africa occurred, hence, not because of insufficient integration, but because other areas of the world- especially Asia- moved to the export of manufactured goods, while Africa’s industrial potential declined thanks to excessive deregulation associated with structural adjustment” (Patrick Bond, “The Looting of Africa”). In Africa the International Monetary Fund and World Bank became known as agencies of misery. In essence, indebted nations relinquished control to imperialists and international bodies in service of global capital. Joe L.P. Lagalla writes: “The World Bank and the World Trade Organization are enforcing the same neo-liberal policies of structural adjustment in the Third World countries and shock therapy policies in countries in transition (former communist countries) as if all countries shared common history, held the same destiny, experienced similar problems, and had the same development agenda and priorities. These policies assume that all countries are endowed with the same resources, social capital, and the same cultural background.”
Under these mandates, health and other services were to be provided for by increasing revenue. Critics of structural adjustment argue rigid fiscal constraints have negative impacts on child and maternal health and limit access to services, according to a study performed by UNICEF. Under mandates of structural adjustment debt payment takes precedence over health care and other social spending.
Marx, in examining what Adam Smith called “prior accumulation,” challenges the fatalistic narratives that place thrift and virtue on the one hand and the lazy and irresponsible on the other in determining the separation of the classes. Individual conditions are based on the initiative of the individual. The narrative is applied to nations as well. On a global scale “in actual history,” Marx writes, “it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short force, play the greatest part. … So-called primitive accumulation is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producers from the means of production” (Karl Marx, “Capital,” vol. I). Conquest of the Americas and the enslavement and later colonization of Africa for 400 years brought great wealth at the expense of the native populations. Trade between the Europeans and North America and these nations is perpetually uneven. Compounding this was indebtedness in the neo-colonialist period of looting, and more neo-liberal poison offered as an antidote. Patrick Bond argues that so-called primitive accumulation did not end; but “it became a process of super-exploitation at the world scale” (Bond, p. 12).
Imperialists engaged in dividing and re-dividing the world amongst themselves. The “warring band of brothers” seek to co-exist for a period by demarcating areas of influence. Africa was carved up like a feast with portions served to the European powers. Extraction of resources and forced labor of the native population was standard for the colonial period. Belgium’s brutal domination of the Congo under King Leopold is one of the most barbaric cases of note. Likewise, subduing the Middle East (Arab masses) was significant in getting a stranglehold on the world economy.
The current crisis is but an intensification of structural characteristics of capitalist production and imperialist domination. Exploitation defines the relationship between the wealthy nations and these regions. Global financial institutions impose fiscal discipline and the debtor nation’s national wealth in resources becomes the wealth of other nations. Countries do not flourish under these regimes. Agriculture suffered significantly as did other industries and devaluation of currency meant greater expense in acquiring imports and equipment. Contrary to the promises that were made, the economies contracted. Misery invariably followed yet at this moment the same neo-liberalism is yet again promoted as an antidote to the misery it created.
Oil discovery in the Middle East is “a prime example of the ‘resource curse’: the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources, specifically non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes.” In the case of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later known as British Petroleum, and now BP), it was British and American oil interests. Their interests were contrary to that of the Iranian masses. Such is the case for other African and Middle Eastern oil-producing nations.
Extraction of resources and the super-exploitation of the population both operate under the constant compulsions of imperialism. Trapped in a loan-shark’s web, Africa remains perpetually in debt and dependent on the “mercy” of wealthy nations. Capitalist production is always seeking reduced production costs and achieving it through pliant regimes in poor nations who act contrary to the necessities of local populations and their democratic aspirations. The crises that are inherent in capitalism inevitably crush the poorest, and when crisis comes there is little but dust that remains. Every effort to “assist Africa” leads to greater calamity because it seeks to drain the continent of more resources through free markets and the pounding of the working class with increased exploitation.
Class struggle the Middle East and Africa
Spontaneity is a manifestation of class anger as it applies to recent protests, whether the Arab Spring or the masses pouring into the streets after the 2016 general elections in the U.S. Absent is the political anchor. Politics is a road map that averts wandering blindly into the trap of the ruling class. A renewal of what became known as the “Arab Spring” would not be welcomed by the ruling class now any more than in the uprisings of a decade ago. Without working-class-based organizations, it will be difficult to withstand the offensive of a neocolonial state that is sustained by U.S. imperialism. The authoritative regimes pacify the masses, leaving little opposition to the plunder, while a thin layer at the top of society enriches themselves at the expense of the masses.
Moments of opposition emerge time and again. Beginning more than a decade ago, South Africans have organized to oppose water privatization. Once the apartheid regime came tumbling down, the new government faced mandates or “advice” from the financial oligarchs. Privatization and reduced subsidies contributed to increased prices for water and other services. The state no longer provided services and went into partnership with multinationals. Water rates increased 600% after privatization; the obvious result is that the impoverished went thirsty. On the advice of the World Bank water service was discontinued for those who could not pay the bill. In this period over 10 million lost water service. In other parts of Africa, privatization invariably resulted in increased prices and inconsistent service. Opposition to privatization of water services has been a focus of movements in the region.
Trade unions in Africa have played a central role in anti-colonial and other struggles while continuing to lead opposition to neoliberalism. This has brought them into conflict with their own states resulting in repression. These unions have attempted to draw on international support to compensate for their size. Recently, African trade unions have begun to take steps toward organizing informal and unemployed workers. In Sudan the masses attempted to take down the second dictator in three years.
In the Middle East, countries faced economic domination through debt strangulation and a political void filled by political Islam. As Mike Davis states: “Over the last half-century Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia—the first two invading, the third proselytizing—have virtually destroyed secular politics in the Arab world.” During the Cold War, U.S. strategy was to use political Islam against left forces in the Middle East. The consequences are still being felt.
Egypt, beginning with Sadat and increasing with Mubarak, administered the neoliberal medicine to cure the ills of the masses. The Muslim Brotherhood (which briefly held power after the 2011 Revolution) is not a progressive force; it is not only a reactionary party but is likewise committed to neoliberalism. Exposure to the chaos of the free market increased poverty, debt, corruption, and greater class conflict. Mass protests against Sadat’s implementation of these policies and the Revolution of 2011, which brought down Mubarak, are evidence that the Egyptian masses are engaged in the social and political struggle. Over 10 years later, it still exemplifies what is possible in the region.
The division of the world between the imperialists is never complete, there is always redivision and shifting alliances. Once again, the oppressed are caught in the middle of another of these conflicts. The working class in imperialist countries must fulfill their role in the class struggle. The class struggle is an international struggle.
There must be an end to the onerous debt obligations that bind nations to poverty, and with it, the neoliberal mandates. In this period of inter-imperialist conflict, not only must there be a demand for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, but a relentless struggle against our own country’s imperialism. Capitalism produces crisis after crisis; they are inherent to the system. The world is imperiled, not just Africa and the Middle East.
Photo: A woman and her baby line up for food distribution at a shelter for people displaced by conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, March 2021. (Baz Ratner / Reuters)