A Review of Valeria Balza’s “Domestic Food Policy and Urban Unrest: Unpacking the link between global food prices and sociopolitical stability”
Reviewed by Associate Editor Astrid Wik Hallaraaker
Since the turn of the millennium, global food prices have steadily increased, at times hitting levels not seen since the 1970s. Lower-income countries, where staples make up a large percentage of people’s total expenditures, have particularly been made to feel the effect of this, whose citizens have frequently taken to the streets to protest against their increasing deprivation.
However, statistical data nonetheless tells us that there is no direct, unequivocal relationship between economical deprivation and recurrence of public protest. By attempting to explain this observation in “Domestic Food Policy and Urban Unrest: Unpacking the link between global food prices and sociopolitical stability,” Valeria Balza enters into conversation with a large tradition of scholars. Whilst political regime types have been given importance as part of the larger political opportunity structure for protesting, Balza’s main contribution lies in her reintroduction of the state as a key agent. National governments have the potential to moderate the effect of global price shocks on the local population, and she in fact confirms that the nature and degree of government response is statistically significant for the frequency of public protest. She also claims to find that all else equal, autocracies face lower incidences of urban unrest following government interventions.
These findings appear to have important repercussions for how governments ought to act following global price shock. It is therefore unfortunate that Balza’s methodology only partly manages to back up her hypothesis. After having proven through a quantitative analysis that pro-rural policies cause a higher incidence of urban unrest in the 55 African and Asian cities she studies, she proceeds to claim that “this paper finds the effect of government distortions to agricultural markets on urban unrest contingent on regime type.” However, rather than keeping pro-rural government intervention as a constant and thenlooking at the contingency of regime type, she takes democracies’ generally less rural-friendly policies as sufficient to prove her claim. She thus substitutes “type of government intervention” for “regime type” as her variable, which completely undermines her explanation that regime type matters regardless of the nature of their market intervention.
However, the author’s uncritical division of regime types into a simple binary might in any case have undermined the explanatory salience of her findings. Since she aims to explain her findings in reference to regimes’ relative fear of electoral sanctions, it is a serious flaw that we cannot know in any greater detail the extent to which these elections succeed in holding their politicians accountable. Balza ends her essay by recognising “the complexities of food policy systems and fluctuating global prices—especially when combined with local economic and political grievances.” Ideally, we would see this recognition of complexity reflected in her consideration of political institutions necessarily shaped by their own, contextual specificities.