Economically Fueled Upheaval
Recipe for Instability
While most such incidents are triggered by an immediate event--a tariff, the closure of local factory, the announcement of government austerity measures--there are systemic factors at work as well. While economists now agree that we are in the midst of a recession deeper than any since the Great Depression of the 1930s, they generally assume that this downturn--like all others since World War II--will be followed in a year, or two, or three, by the beginning of a typical recovery.
There are good reasons to suspect that this might not be the case-- that poorer countries (along with many people in the richer countries) will have to wait far longer for such a recovery, or may see none at all. Even in the United States, 54 percent of Americans now believe that "the worst" is "yet to come" and only 7 percent that the economy has "turned the corner," according to a recent Ipsos/McClatchy poll; fully a quarter think the crisis will last more than four years. Whether in the US, Russia, China or Bangladesh, it is this underlying anxiety--this suspicion that things are far worse than just about anyone is saying -- that is helping to fuel the global epidemic of violence.
The World Bank's most recent status report, Global Economic Prospects 2009, fulfills those anxieties in two ways. It refuses to state the worst, even while managing to hint, in terms too clear to be ignored, at the prospect of a long-term, or even permanent, decline in economic conditions for many in the world. Nominally upbeat--as are so many media pundits--regarding the likelihood of an economic recovery in the not-too-distant future, the report remains full of warnings about the potential for lasting damage in the developing world if things don't go exactly right.
Two worries, in particular, dominate Global Economic Prospects 2009: that banks and corporations in the wealthier countries will cease making investments in the developing world, choking off whatever growth possibilities remain; and that food costs will rise uncomfortably, while the use of farmlands for increased biofuels production will result in diminished food availability to hundreds of millions.
Despite its Pollyanna-ish passages on an economic rebound, the report does not mince words when discussing what the almost certain coming decline in First World investment in Third World countries would mean:
"Should credit markets fail to respond to the robust policy interventions taken so far, the consequences for developing countries could be very serious. Such a scenario would be characterized by... substantial disruption and turmoil, including bank failures and currency crises, in a wide range of developing countries. Sharply negative growth in a number of developing countries and all of the attendant repercussions, including increased poverty and unemployment, would be inevitable."
In the fall of 2008, when the report was written, this was considered a "worst-case scenario." Since then, the situation has obviously worsened radically, with financial analysts reporting a virtual freeze in worldwide investment. Equally troubling, newly industrialized countries that rely on exporting manufactured goods to richer countries for much of their national income have reported stomach-wrenching plunges in sales, producing massive plant closings and layoffs.
The World Bank's 2008 survey also contains troubling data about the future availability of food. Although insisting that the planet is capable of producing enough foodstuffs to meet the needs of a growing world population, its analysts were far less confident that sufficient food would be available at prices people could afford, especially once hydrocarbon prices begin to rise again. With ever more farmland being set aside for biofuels production and efforts to increase crop yields through the use of "miracle seeds" losing steam, the Bank's analysts balanced their generally hopeful outlook with a caveat: "If biofuels-related demand for crops is much stronger or productivity performance disappoints, future food supplies may be much more expensive than in the past."
Combine these two World Bank findings--zero economic growth in the developing world and rising food prices--and you have a perfect recipe for unrelenting civil unrest and violence. The eruptions seen in 2008 and early 2009 will then be mere harbingers of a grim future in which, in a given week, any number of cities reel from riots and civil disturbances which could spread like multiple brushfires in a drought.