Perverse Cycles: Agricultural Development and Unrest in the Middle East
My summer employer is engaged in a rural agricultural development program in southern Morocco. This involved me schlepping to Aoufous this morning - a beautiful oasis in a valley nested amid the vast and desolate desert. Aoufous is rural and, compared to Moroccan cities like Casablanca and Rabat, relatively undeveloped.
Young people in these rural areas - particularly men - are migrating to bigger cities like Rabat and Casablanca to find work. The urban economies here, however, cannot support this migration and these people often find themselves selling tissue on the side of the road for lack of better opportunities. Meanwhile, emigration from rural areas leads to a depletion of the kinds of services that make cities livable - movie theaters, restaurants, etc. As more people leave, Aoufous becomes a less attractive place to live, and so on - a perverse sort of economic cycle perpetuates itself. Moreover, the bigger cities that these people move to lack infrastructure to absorb them, leading to urban slums, crime, and a high percentage of disenfranchised youth. It is these restive segments of the population that are the harbingers of political unrest spreading across the Middle East and North Africa.
Economies like those in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia are also highly dependent on imports. In Morocco, agricultural practices are leading to the mass erosion of soil, which results in the permanent loss of farmland. The project I am working on is promoting more sustainable agricultural practices with higher value crops, like olives and dates on farmland that had been traditionally used for wheat. It is also focused on training young people to farm and build farming cooperatives.
The problem is, many young people don’t want to farm - they want to move to cities. This is an international issue, as well; the average age of farmers in the United States is around 60. Countries like Egypt and Morocco also subsidize the price of bread and other basic commodities for the poor, keeping them artificially low. However, these low prices keep investors from moving into the farming sector, ultimately discouraging growth and innovation. Stagnant agricultural sectors result in economies that are more susceptible to negative price shocks. Protests in Egypt actually began when I was living there in in 2007 because of the climbing price of bread.
All of these issues - social, economic, and agronomic - are thus linked. And as Lester Brown writes for Foreign Policy, the political turmoil that will result from increasingly volatile food prices is becoming increasingly unavoidable. Governments must redefine security by shifting expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization or we will be facing a world with increasingly volatile markets and violent uprisings.