Cyclone politics in a warming world

Cyclone Mora: an untold good news story

Bangladesh momentarily made world news last week when force 1 hurricane Cyclone Mora peaked at 75 mph on May 31st, making landfall around the port city of Chittagong. Seven people died and 50 or more were injured, mostly by falling trees; dozens of fishermen are still missing. But these tragic casualties were far off the ‘1 million in nature’s crosshairs’ predicted in CNN headlines. In a matter of days 300,000 people had been evacuated from the area, many to some of the almost 500 public cyclone shelters. Without enough disaster-porn to attract interest, international news coverage soon dried up; after all, ‘Bangladesh Government does a creditable job of disaster prevention’ is hardly clickbait.


Tropical storms as political ‘tipping points’

Behind this non-story lies a dramatic tale of violence, betrayal, sacrifice, and heroism half a century old. Nestled in the low-lying Bengal Delta, Bangladesh was always exposed to tropical storms – 42% of all deaths from tropical storms in the last two centuries were in the Bay of Bengal – but the death toll from cyclones has declined rapidly since, and, I have argued recently, because, the country gained sovereignty in 1971. Nearly 50 years ago now, the Bhola cyclone, one of the most destructive tropical storms ever recorded, killed up to half a million people. The world was aghast and came out in full-force to help, but the government of then-united Pakistan was slow and lazy to respond, viewing such disasters as unavoidable and not their problem. The military regime’s indifference to the plight of their citizens in Pakistan’s far-flung eastern wing became such a hot political issue in the run-up to the first democratic elections that Bengali nationalists won what was ‘possibly the greatest victory of any party in a free and contested election anywhere’ in its impoverished eastern province. This triggered a genocidal attack and a bloody, but ultimately successful war, liberating Bangladesh from Pakistani rule in 1971.

The Bhola cyclone was a ‘critical juncture’ that changed South Asian history. Yet the intimate interrelation between ecology and politics in this context meant it crafted a social contract between citizens and ruling elites to defend against the disasters to which the geography of the delta leaves it uniquely prone. Since 1970, Bangladeshi governments have made it a political priority to prevent and manage disasters. How well a Bangladeshi government tackles a disaster is a litmus test of its legitimacy.

Hurricane political economy

That cyclones are properly political matters is not news in a week when the US withdrew from the Paris Accord on climate change. To the extent that such projections are possible, global warming is likely to increase the intensity, if not definitely the frequency, of such storms. This makes it worth thinking about what hurricane political economy might mean in the future. Some cyclone politics are obvious: who gets protected and who gets the resources needed to recover are clearly about political power, not rights nor needs. Hurricane Katrina brought the gross racial politics of the US into unforgettably sharp relief. Similarly, in 1970, the West Pakistani rulers knew little and cared less about the plight of the peasants and fisherfolk on the far side of the subcontinent. Apparently it never occurred to the ruling elites that their own legitimacy (and therefore their power base) depended on at least making an effort. It took mass mobilization into full-scale guerrilla warfare to persuade the Pakistanis that weak defence against disasters was a political deal-breaker for a population on the permanent frontline of the hurricane. National sovereignty, and later, democratic pressure, cemented the social contract that emerged with the Bhola cyclone, empowering citizens to hold governments to account when disasters struck.

‘Unwanted people’

How people come to be in the path of the storm in the first place involves a less obvious political economy, the result of longer processes through which economy, polity and ecology mutually shape each other. In 1970, the Bengalis subsisting on the fringes out in the delta had been pushing the agrarian frontier deeper into the Sundarbans forest over the past hundred years or more, growing jute and paddy for colonial and export markets. They were there largely because the British Empire needed them to be, and arranged its policies accordingly.


Fast forward to 2017, and a depressing political parallel soon becomes evident as news interest in the impact of Cyclone Mora shifts to the devastation of the Rohingya refugee camps. These people have been fleeing the genocide-tolerating regime of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. They have been reluctantly located by the Bangladeshi government in this beautiful harsh part of the world. These are people with nothing, not even citizenship, and their flimsy thatched roofs have now also been swept away. Hamida Begum, a 27 year old refugee from Burma told Al Jazeera:


We heard that a cyclone was coming. But there’s no place we can go … I hate being a Rohingya. We are being tortured in Myanmar. Now in Bangladesh we have no rights. Nothing. After this cyclone, we don’t have a roof. We are living under the sky. We have no future.


It is not hard to believe that these people facing the storm, close to the site of the Bhola cyclone of 1970, and in a country so renowned for its disaster management, are the ‘most unwanted people in the world’.

It is no accident that these ‘unwanted people’ were in the path of the hurricane. Again, in 2017, the after-effects of imperial policies of centuries past mix with the political economy of the present to transform some groups into cyclone victims. In the case of the Rohingya, these descendants, probably, of labourers and traders despatched from the Chittagong area to enrich the Empire are the despised minority around which warring ethnic groups find it convenient to unite. That they are Muslims that nobody, not even their Muslim neighbours, see it as in their interests to protect, makes it easy to push them off the land to make space for lucrative mineral and other extractive industries. That is how they end up in refugee camps facing down the cyclone. It is not just that they are poor and powerless that they come off worst. It is that their poverty and powerlessness has been the construction of decades, regimes, centuries, and it has always served the interests of economic power.


Powering the Capitalocene

These are the cyclone politics of what Jason Moore has renamed the Capitalocene – a geological era in which the imperatives of capital, stretching back hundreds of years, and not the current behaviour of people in general, shape the ecological crisis of our time. We must make sense of these politics to explain the irony of the Government of Bangladesh, a country founded in order to protect its people from the effects of disasters, building a 1320 megawatt power plant only 14 km from the very Sundarbans forest that might defend against such disasters. It does so with the impeccable logic that development requires power, and Bangladesh must develop. It builds its fossil fuel burning machines even while leading the affected world in climate change negotiations, a paradox from which it cannot escape.

The Aid Lab at the University of Dhaka

In a couple of weeks, my book The Aid Lab will be published by Oxford University Press, and I am very pleased to have engineered an invitation from the University of Dhaka to talk there about it at a joint seminar of the Departments of Public Administration and Development Studies. This is on February 22nd, the day before publication. I plan to use a slideshow to talk through the book – in which I failed to include any pictures, baffled by the challenged of selecting suitable ones.

But this picture by Munir uz Zaman of AFP of women Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officers seems to me to summarize the paradox of Bangladesh’s progress on human development with bad governance very handily. Bangladesh has made great strides in human health, wellbeing and gender equity. It has done so mainly in periods of multiparty rule, but the country’s governance falls short of what the international community would consider ‘good’. I feel this image of RAB women reflects on that story in a single frame.

Obama’s Global Food Security Act – a new global politics of provisions?

This was first published by the Impact Initiative in August 2016

The Global Food Security Act of 2016

Terrorist attacks and a related rash of populist political uprisings in this hot and hungry El Nino season of mid-2016 pushed at least one event off the headlines it should rightly have occupied. This was the passage of the United States Government’s ‘Global Food Security Act of 2016’, signed by President Obama in July. The Bill, designed to bolster US-supported food security programmes worldwide, wrote the Feed the Future initiative into US law, authorized over USD 7bn to international food programmes, and directed the President to ‘develop and implement a Global Food Security Strategy to promote global food security, resilience, and nutrition’ with close attention to smallholder farmers, particularly women, and particularly in Africa. The Act is highly significant, although to date not so much analysed as it has been celebrated by hunger advocacy NGOs and praised by UN agencies with a food security mandate.

Food security as security against terror?

The political significance of the Act is that it treats hunger as a genuinely global problem – it matters to everyone if people are hungry, and so nothing short of the eradication of hunger is the goal. Much remains to be said about the substance of the Act, including that it further entrenches a role for Big Food in global nutrition programming (Coke has to date given USD150 million to Feed the Future for work on nutrition, a bit like the National Rifle Association paying gunshot victims’ medical costs). It also does little to reform food aid although it does make emergency aid easier to pass. But what is most striking, in a polity that can barely stomach state spending on public goods the rest of the rich world takes for granted is the powerful political consensus behind it: the Act was passed with uncharacteristically strong bipartisan support slap-bang in the middle of possibly the most divisive electoral season the US has ever seen. How did American politicians muster the political will to finance the hungry poor in places so far away and so electorally irrelevant? The Enrolled Bill version of the Act offers up the answers immediately and without preamble, citing the 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community:

(A) the “[l]ack of adequate food will be a destabilizing factor in countries important to US national security that do not have the financial or technical abilities to solve their internal food security problems”; and

(B) “[f]ood and nutrition insecurity in weakly governed countries might also provide opportunities for insurgent groups to capitalize on poor conditions, exploit international food aid, and discredit governments for their inability to address basic needs”.

If food insecurity destabilizes and ‘discredits’ regimes that cannot address their own food crises and so encourages insurgency, it is a short step to arguing that global hunger breeds global terrorism. This is plainly the sub-text of the Act. And such thinking is well-placed. As Naomi Klein argued in her recent London Review of Books lecture Let Them Drown, more and more evidence supports the argument that violent conflict is closely associated with drought and other ill-effects of climate change. The impacts on food security are presumably not far behind.[1]

Lifeboat ethics vs. Feed the Future

What seems new and noteworthy about the political rationale for the Global Food Security Act of 2016 is the short straight line drawn between national security in the rich world and food security in the poor. In other words, ‘their’ hunger matters for ‘our’ wellbeing. This is quite possibly an important political-ethical step in the global politics of provisions, even if it is not yet quite clear why or how.

What we do know is that the last time we had a major world food crisis, the so-called OPEC crisis of oil price inflation-fuelled commodity price spikes in 1973-4, there was little urgency about hunger in far-off places. Instead, the crisis was seized as an opportunity to push recalcitrant developing world governments to take on US-preferred economic, social (particularly population control) and agricultural and food policies – including importing subsidized US grains. In fact, far from urgency, the spectre of mass hunger was arguably welcomed in certain Washington DC circles as an opportunity for a gruesome kind of experiment with the Malthusian ideas of ‘triage theory’ and ‘lifeboat ethics’ that did the rounds in the 1970s. In their alarmist text Famine 1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive? (1967) the Paddocks predicted (accurately enough) a major world food crisis, arguing that poor hungry populations should receive US food aid if (and only if) they showed signs of being able to help themselves – largely by adopting Green Revolution-type industrial food production methods. Those with too large and helpless a hungry population and no disposition to follow US agrofood policy prescriptions should be left to twist in the wind.

As Emma Rothschild recorded in her seminal essay on the political uses of US Public Law 480 food aid at this time, these were not merely ideas, but ideological figleaves to cover the entwining of cold war politics with the politics of food aid: US public policy used hunger and starvation to meet its objectives. In the then-new nation of Bangladesh alone, around one and a half million people perished during the 1974 famine, a disaster usually credited to the US withholding food aid as punishment for trading with Communist Cuba. (Notably, having used PL 480 food aid to bring Bangladesh to heel over its economic, social and agrofood policies, the Feed the Future programme in contemporary Bangladesh emphasizes its strong potential with only a whiff of Malthusian concern about it being the ‘most densely populated country in the world’.) There is no longer any political justification for the neglect of the ‘basket cases’ – everyone must be fed, everyone must be developed. It is in everyone’s interests.

One difference between the food crisis of 1974 and that of 2008 is the absence of important political and agrofood policy misalignments: 2008 was the moment of peak globalization, a time when the globalized corporate food regime was arguably at its most integrated. And so unlike in 1974, a food crisis in one part of the world became a test of global public policy more generally: did the way the world economy was being run enable the most basic provisioning? The wave of food riots around the world in 2007-08, and a second wave when food prices spiked again in 2010-11 signaled that it did not.

Food riots and food rights: the popular politics of global food security

What did these food riots teach us? In the immediate aftermath of the recent period of acute global food price volatility (2007-12), a group of researchers in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Mozambique and at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex set out to make sense of whether and how popular mobilization around food crises had made a difference to how governments tackled the food crisis. Our particular concern was that in a globalized era, the capacities of developing country governments to protect their populations against sudden price rises or food shortages might be constrained due to trade rules or import-dependence, so even governments that wanted to protect their populations against crises of subsistence might have been unable to do so. There had been numerous subsistence-related protests around the world, including in the four countries of our study where people had struggled for fair prices for bread and maize flour, for wage rises to meet higher rice prices, and for eradicating corruption so that food assistance reached those in need. But to what effect?

Having looked closely at events in those four food-insecure countries we concluded that food riots still work in the 21st century: popular protests had effectively shamed and pushed public authorities to intervene to stabilize prices, subsidize food stuffs and protect the hungry throughout world history, and similar subsistence protests (or ‘food rebellions’) play a similar role in the present day. But there is an important difference with E. P. Thompson’s 18th century English crowd: in the 21st century, even people who have to fight for their right to food have a sense of that right as among the rights of nationhood, and (under ideal conditions) the spoils of democracy. Our conclusions:

Democratic transitions offer repeated, fairly regular moments in which to reassert food rights and responsibilities. They also offer opportunities to demonstrate the withdrawal of legitimacy, of assent to rule … electoral power is experienced as a corrective on bad food policies.[2]

In other words, when people face market failures or shortages in their most basic provisions, they turn to their governments for action. The ‘politics of provisions’ as the historian John Bohstedt terms the forceful popular negotiations over policies of subsistence – remain matters of national democratic competition. And this remains true even though the sources of those market failures are now firmly located in the global food system. It is with national politics that people feel they have traction, and so we are left with what Nancy Fraser defines as a problem of scale. If we take seriously the global nature of food systems we need to take seriously the need for a properly global politics of food. This means a world moral economy; an international right to-food movement; a global social protection response to food crises.

Resilience vs. precarity

After 2008, the shiny new watchword in global food security became resilience. Nobody is pretending any more that making the world food secure is going to be easy, so people will need to equipped to cope when prices spike or shortages loom. The Global Food Security Act of 2016 takes resilience very seriously, connecting it to small farmer efficiency and higher incomes, and to integration into value chains and agribusinesses. It is, as was the case in the 1974 World Food Conference, again a policy response concentrated on boosting production, not on protecting against the inevitable downsides of markets.

The problem now is that resilience in the face of food insecurity may not come from integration into food and agricultural markets; in fact, marketization on adverse terms produces precarity, the very opposite of resilience. We know this because some of us from the Food Riots project continued to look closely at how people adjusted to higher and more volatile prices after the food crisis period. Our findings show that the process of adjustment to the changing food system has been one of increased integration into markets as people respond to the squeeze of higher prices. But that integration has been on poor terms. People have a) ramped up their efforts to earn cash incomes by whatever means necessary and b) squeezed ever more value out of the food they consume, including by eating more processed and industrialized food than in the past. The relationship between the work people do and the nourishment this affords them has been pulled out of kilter by higher food prices, and people are working harder and longer just to stay fed. And so in the post-food crisis period we find more precarity than resilience, as people on low incomes find they work harder and in riskier, difficult or demeaning occupations, amid growing competition for cash incomes.

Obama’s answer to the threat of food crisis is mainly more markets. But it is increasingly clear that market integration needs to come with greater protections for when those markets (inevitably) fail. This latest wave of the Great Transformation has still not been met by the social protection response it needs, in large part because the emancipation necessary for people to organize to claim such protection against the global economy has not happened. This may be one reason for the sharp rise in populist politics in the rich world, where entire working classes feel they are the long-term losers of globalization, unprotected against the financial and commodity price shocks as well as the long-term wage declines and rising inequality. Now even the organizations at the frontline of neoliberalism are beginning to challenge its wisdom, pointing out that austerity and curbing state spending has been counter-productive and increased inequality.

It is in this light that we need to view the political rationalization of Obama’s Global Food Security Act. People may use riot to hold their national governments to account over subsistence crises, but what can they do when the sources of insecurity in their most basic provisions are globalized? The Global Food Security Act treats the threat of terror as a species of dispersed global food riot, but it is in everyone’s interests that people are protected against food crisis without such acts. What is needed now are the political means to enable people at risk of hunger to lay claim to the kinds of social protection that will protect their right to food from the uncertainties of a globalized food system. What will that global politics of provisions look like?

[1] Peter Gleick makes the point for Syria, specifically. See

[2] Pp. 52.