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The return of food riots

Yesterday, the Food and Agriculture Organization announced that global food prices hit a record high last month, surpassing levels seen during the 2007-2008 food crisis. Prices of the commodities in the FAO's price index jumped 4.2 percent between November and December. But the Financial Times sounded a hopeful note:

The Rome-based organisation said the increase did not constitute a crisis. But Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the FAO, acknowledged that the situation was “alarming”. He added: “It will be foolish to assume this is the peak.”

The jump will increase fears about the repetition of the crisis of 2007-2008. However, poor countries have not so far seen the wave of food riots that rocked countries such as Haiti and Bangladesh two years ago, when prices of agricultural commodities jumped.

But sure enough, today brought news of food rioting in Algeria: 

Riots over rising food prices and chronic unemployment spiraled out from Algeria's capital on Thursday, with youths torching government buildings and shouting "Bring us Sugar!"

Police helicopters circled over Algiers, and stores closed early. Security officers blocked off streets in the tense working-class neighborhood of Bab el-Oued, near the capital's ancient Casbah, and areas outside the city were swept up in the rampages.[...]

Wednesday's violence started after evening Muslim prayers. It came after price hikes for milk, sugar and flour in recent days, and amid simmering frustration that Algeria's abundant gas-and-oil resources have not translated into broader prosperity.

This is a very troubling development, and one to keep an eye on in the months ahead.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

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Belgium lumbers on

Belgium has reached another milestone of political dysfunction as the mediator assigned to resolve the crisis that has left the world's cushiest failed state without a government for the last seven months, resigned in failure:

Johan Vande Lanotte, appointed by King Albert II, said he could make no further headway a day after two out of seven parties rejected his plan.

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink," he said.

The king has yet to accept his resignation and is due to see him again on Monday. A caretaker government has been running Belgium since the election. Belgium has been under pressure to reach a deal because sovereign debt is close to 100% of gross domestic product.

The plan proposed by Mr Vande Lanotte would see a further decentralisation of power to Belgium's regions, split between the Dutch-speaking Flemish population and French-speaking Walloons.

Belgium has actually been in a state of political paralysis with a few short reprieves since at least Summer 2007.

For a good overview of the Belgium situation, check out Ian Buruma's (paywalled) dispatch in this week's New Yorker:

The problem with Belgium is that its citiznes have so little left in common. Of its 10.8 million inhabitants, about sixty per cent speak Dutch and live mostly in Flanders, while forty per cent speak French and live mostly in Wallonia. The Flemings and the Walloons have their own political parties, newspapers, TV stations, novelists, and pop stars. But the issues dividing them are not just cultural or linguistic. Wallonia is controlled by the Francophone Socialist Party (Flanders has its own socialist party), which runs the region of Rust Belt industries like a baronial fiefdom, and resists any notion of secession, in part because it depends for its survival on large transfers of federal funds.Like the conservatives in northern Italy, who resent having to spend their taxes on the poorer south, De Wever's Flemish voters, who have recently grown prosporous on multinational business and trade, would prefer to keep their money for themselves. Most of them may not actually want a divorce from Wallonia, just yet, but they would like a separation, with Brussels as the contested offspring. 

Brussels is what complicates the secessionist dream. A Flemish journalist likened the two main regions of Belgium to Siamese twins with only one heart: divide them, and one of them would die. 

Ironically, the city that seems to be the only thing keeping Belgium together these days is increasinly un-Belgian. About one-third of Brussels residents were born abroad.