This is a joint posting with Rebecca Schutte.
Last week’s deadly unrest in Mozambique became a global news story, as clashes between security forces and people protesting rising food prices in the capital, Maputo, left at least ten people dead and more than 400 people injured. CGD Non-Resident Fellow Chris Blattman explained his skepticism about such riots, questioning why many were blaming climate change and higher international grain prices for domestic unrest. Rather, he pointed to poor domestic policies and alarmist journalism and “yearned for real information” about the root causes of the riots this weeks. Having recently returned from Mozambique, here are some additional insights on the food riots.
It probably isn’t Russia’s fault. Even if you don’t agree with the Russian export ban on wheat, the rise in international grain prices is probably not the proximate cause for the 30 percent rise in bread prices in Mozambique. Rather, the cause is probably a bit closer to home: There has been a strong depreciation of the Mozambican currency (the Metical) against the South African Rand since early August (see figure). As Mozambique is strongly dependent upon South Africa for imports, such a marked depreciation (which hits a dip right around the time of the food riots) makes South Africa’s products more expensive in Mozambique, lowers imports and increases prices.
Alarmist and shallow reporting? Citizen reporting? Or both? While Blattman partially blames “shallow and alarmist reporting about poor, violent…nations”, it seems unlikely that media coverage of the recent riots is so different from coverage of the 2008 food riots in various countries. But what has changed on the continent -- and in Mozambique -- is access to and use of information technology, which has made citizen monitoring and reporting possible on a scale never seen before. Mobile phone and web-based tools such as text messaging and Ushahidi (a crowdsourcing platform) have been useful in reporting incidents of violence during the Kenyan elections and as a crisis mapping tool after the Haitian earthquake. But in the absence of proper monitoring and incident verification, such tools can also be a double-edged sword, used to misreport or spread messages of hate (anonymously) – as was the case in Kenya. As one Global Voices blogger reported in Madagascar in 2009, “accuracy and context are often missing from citizen reporting in times of crises.” Citizens were able to report outbreaks of violence via Jornal @Verdade’s website during the most recent riots. Were such incident reports verified? And what were their impacts about the riots? It’s hard to tell. What is certain is that technology will be play an important role in future crises, riots and conflicts – for better or for worse.