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Luc Soete

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Director's column
Archived columns by former UNU-MERIT director Luc Soete.

Not all revolutions are equal

Suddenly we have woken up to a new decade, and a time of revolution. Not on our shores but on the other side of Europe, what the Romans called Mare Nostrum, our Mediterranean sea. It was all so predictable. The growing frustration of huge numbers of unemployed youth in the Middle East and North Africa was a ticking time bomb. And it was not surprising that the revolution would start in countries dependent on food imports.

For an explanation we can look to Thomas Malthus, the British political economist, who about 200 years ago made a simple, now famous, demographic argument: populations tend to grow in geometric series (1,2,4,8,16) while agricultural production only rises as an arithmetic progression (1,2,3,4,5). According to this schema, the world is doomed to famine after famine.

But Thomas Malthus was, if anything, proven wrong. In the post-war years of the last century, the world's agricultural production grew much faster thanks to better production techniques, and improved varieties of crops, fertilizer and herbicides. Most of the world’s famines over the last 60 years have had more to do with political conflicts than food shortages. And thanks to contraceptive technology, global population growth over the last 30 years has not seen a ‘geometric increase’.
The only region where Malthus still seemed relevant was the MENA region: Middle East and North Africa. Although population growth lacks geometric tendencies, it remains very high, and instead of images of famine you will find widespread poverty and hopelessness, dramatic youth unemployment and low incomes. Meanwhile young people’s aspirations in these countries are converging with those of their contemporaries in Europe and the US, as shown through Facebook and many other social networks.

In this sense the events that occurred early in 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt could light the powder keg of economic and political frustrations in the Middle East. These frustrations are aimed first and foremost at local leaders who have ruled – and enriched themselves – for decades with the knowledge and support of the West. And now they have no idea how to deal with rising food prices, and a backlash not only among the poorest in society but also the middle class.

For Tunisia, the greed was more or less limited to Ben Ali and his family, but in the case of Egypt and Hosni Mubarak the situation extended to much larger parts of Egyptian society, even the army. Revenues from natural gas and the Suez Canal are also much higher. Therefore Mubarak, unlike Ben Ali, was able to cling on longer. But in both cases, local mismanagement of food supplies lie at the source of the revolution.

In the early 1980's, Indian Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen wrote a masterpiece entitled ‘Poverty and Famine’. His thesis seems to be proved in Tunisia and Egypt, in that “famine has more to do with lack of a free press and democratic elected government than with a shortage of food”. Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak really should have listened to the insights of economists.

But the anger and frustration is not only about the local rulers. The revolution also affects the foundation of the ‘cold war/peace’ with Israel. From this perspective we can expect that after Tunisia and Egypt the democratic fuse will spread to Jordan or Bahrain and not just to countries like Syria and Iran, where political leaders have for years shored up their popularity with anti-Israel rhetoric. It is perhaps the political paradox at the top: instead of welcoming democratic revolutions in the Middle East most Western politicians seem more concerned with the security of Israel.

Luc Soete

Originally published in Dutch in the 'Dagblad de Limburger’ newspaper,
12 February 2011


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