In 2000, the United Nations member states put the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger at the top of eight Millennium Development Goals to be achieved within fifteen years. As Kanayo F. Nwanze writes in our Special Report: A World of Food, 795 million people nonetheless remain chronically undernourished—and challenges like the global population explosion and climate change will continue to plague efforts to feed the planet. In his essay “Sustaining Our Farmers,” Nwanze, president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, warns: “The rhetoric around these issues is becoming so familiar that we are in danger of ignoring the messages.” To achieve more progress, he argues, international and national policymakers must focus on economic transformation of rural areas—and empowering the smallholders who grow most of the world’s food.
There is an urgent need to address the food security challenges here at home, as Perrihan Al-Riffai writes in “How to Feed Egypt.” Despite overall economic growth in the 2000s, she says, the country’s rate of childhood stunting has been increasing. Richard Dobbs and James Manyika also report on nutrition in “The Obesity Crisis;” nearly 2.1 billion people in the world are overweight or obese, they write, and the problem is only getting worse.
How often do we reflect on the varied ways in which food shapes our world? In “Dining with Darius,” Rachel Laudan looks at the politics of cuisine from Cyrus the Great to Barack Obama. Andrew Lam examines food culture in “The Marvel of Bánh Mì,” a story of how street food created by the Vietnamese during the French colonial era has evolved into an international sandwich sensation.
To gain the French perspective on food for our special report, I traveled to Paris for an encounter with Alain Passard, regarded as the leading French chef in the world today; our discussion of modern cuisine and globalization is presented in The Cairo Review Interview. Ever wonder how a chef earns three Michelin stars? Keep reading to learn the secrets of Passard’s remarkable kitchen.
Egyptian Reporters Reloaded
A few months ago, Mada Masr published an investigative story headlined “Sinai: States of Fear.” Reported from El-Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, the article slammed Islamist militants for bloody killings but also called out the Egyptian military’s violent repression in the area. It was a critical piece of journalism that is rare in Egypt these days. Most media outlets are extremely reluctant to take on President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi’s government.
Pushing the boundaries isn’t unusual for one of the article’s co-authors, Lina Attalah, 32, a 2004 journalism and mass communications graduate from the American University in Cairo (AUC). In 2013, she led a group of young journalists out of the troubled Egypt Independent. The new owners of flagship Al-Masry Al-Youm closed its English-language offshoot out of financial considerations, but apparently there were political considerations, too; the new owners, many felt, would not support the paper’s critical coverage of the government. Attalah and her former colleagues established Mada Masr (which roughly translates as “spanning Egypt”) as a progressive online news organization publishing in Arabic and English. Attalah has steered Mada Masr’s coverage through tumultuous times: the popular uprising against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the military’s overthrow of Morsi and subsequent violent crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters, and the spread of terrorist violence in the country. Attalah has also braved a climate of fear and repression that shows little sign of lifting—according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least eighteen journalists were imprisoned in Egypt as of June 2015.
Mada Masr’s coverage pushes against the shrinking space for political debate in the country. Examples of such reporting include Attalah’s recent interview with Gasser Abdel Razek, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who spoke out against the government’s efforts to restrict non-governmental organizations and civil society. A Mada Masr article in April entitled “Military and Police Clashes: More than Personal Conflicts” reported on the tensions between two branches of Egypt’s powerful security establishment. A lengthy profile of Mada Masr in the Guardianlast January declared that it was almost singlehandedly “keeping press freedom alive” in Egypt.
Speaking with me at Mada Masr’s office, located by the Nile in central Cairo, Attalah is focused on the publication’s future: she is looking to grow Mada Masr—born “out of crisis and inevitability,” according to its own website—into a sustainable media collective. “Mada is an experiment in doing a different kind of journalism, and definitely an experiment in institution building and collaborative work,” Attalah explains.
Mada Masr is owned by its founding twenty-three journalists. The team is still developing a governance model that balances practicality with power sharing, where everyone is involved in major decisions. Though Mada Masr has experimented with group editing, Attalah says that the editorial process is nonetheless “conventional, quite hierarchical.”
Attalah overcame her parents’ objections and left Egypt at the age of 14 to take up a scholarship at the United World College, near Trieste on Italy’s Adriatic coast, an international prep school known for its nonconformist and egalitarian ethos. But she says that it was only when she returned to Egypt to study at AUC that she began to think politically and pursue a profession in writing. AUC students led a demonstration against the Iraq War and occupied Tahrir Square for a day in March 2003. Attalah considers the protest and the ensuing clashes with police, when students broke through the university gates leading into the square, as a formative experience. Many within her tight circle of writers and activists look back on the antiwar movement of the time as heralding a new era of activism that culminated in the January 25 Revolution eight years later.
As Mada Masr’s chief, Attalah faces twin challenges—producing quality progressive journalism in a repressive security environment, and staying afloat financially. “Journalism is a form of activism in the context where we work,” she explains. Recognizing the pitfalls, however, she adds, “The problem can be when your activism is translated into a particular ideological position. This is where lines have to be drawn.” One of Mada Masr’s new editorial initiatives is to create networks of citizen journalists to bring in more local reporting—and readers—throughout Egypt’s governorates.
Attalah is protective of Mada Masr’s independence. She has appealed for funds from small investors rather than larger ones who might try to control the editorial direction. The business model has not been too successful thus far; Mada Masr has yet to attract any investors. Meanwhile, the start-up is trying some creative approaches to raise its profile, and cash. One of these is Mada Market, a pop-up marketplace launched in April featuring trendy designers and urban crafts. Attalah’s close attention to building a new business model may be a reflection of the lull in noisy political activism that began with the return to military rule in 2013 and El-Sisi’s election a year later. “There seems to be a lot of political disengagement right now,” says Attalah. “But what happened during the revolution—it’s still there, it hasn’t completely gone away.”
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, famous for his study of evil, is fascinated by what was good in the Arab Spring. The uprisings against dictatorship were an expression of profound moral courage, he says, a sign of the rise of the individual. He finds this particularly intriguing because of his latest focus, the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP), a non-profit organization based in San Francisco he founded in 2010 to “transform negative situations into positive change.”
In a lecture in March at the American University in Cairo, Zimbardo, 82, explained his career shift from examining the psychological drivers of evil to exploring the tenets of positive action. He is best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971, which recruited male college students to role-play guards and prisoners in a pseudo jailhouse. Even in the transparently simulated environment, Zimbardo found, participants in the experiment were willing to torture other participants psychologically—with “guards” sadistically humiliating “prisoners” through acts such as stripping them naked, depriving them of sleep, and forcing them to wear bags over their heads. He concluded that humans are not inherently evil, yet can be driven to evil acts when operating within certain systems under certain conditions. Zimbardo believes that his findings help explain the notorious abuse of Iraqi inmates by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. His research is the basis for the 2015 psychological thriller directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, The Stanford Prison Experiment.
Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford and past president of the American Psychological Association, deconstructed the Stanford Prison Experiment in his 2008 book, The Lucifer Effect. While traditional research studied the individual’s behavior to understand evil, Zimbardo argues that evil should be examined on three levels—the individual, the situational, and the systemic. Factors such as political tensions, he explains, can contribute to manifestations of evil as much as a person’s personality traits. If that is the case, he says, then people have the capacity to suppress evil impulses because they can recognize the situational or systemic factors contributing to them.
The process of writing Lucifer—“fifteen chapters of ugliness and evil,” he recalls—inspired Zimbardo to shift his research focus to investigate ways to resist evil. That in turn led to HIP, which trains educators, students and non-profit organizations to identify negative scenarios, such as bystander apathy, when an individual chooses to follow the crowd and not act in the face of injustice. He developed an educational program called Exploring Human Nature, which uses social psychology research to build lessons that concentrate on the dynamics of situations rather than the characteristics of individuals. It rests on the belief that ordinary people are capable of taking extraordinary action.
HIP currently holds workshops in the United States, China, and Europe. Zimbardo believes that HIP could be a positive influence in Egypt’s ongoing political and social transition. HIP’s operating principles, he explains, include the daily practice of heroism through deeds such as showing compassion to others, being kind, helping, smiling, and making others feel special and valued. Changing Egypt will require individuals to believe that even in the face of significant obstacles they can be effective agents of change. That, many would agree, will be another revolution.
Oriental Hall, Etc.
The United Nations was created in 1945 to maintain international peace and security; help solve economic, social, humanitarian, and other problems; and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms. Seventy years later, today’s world is reeling from armed conflicts, economic disparities, refugee crises, and environmental threats, yet the international body nonetheless remains relevant and effective, argues Michael Møller, acting head of the UN Office in Geneva. Journalists and social media report on only a fraction of what the UN does, said Møller, delivering AUC’s 10th Nadia Younes Memorial Lecture, established in honor of the Egyptian UN official killed in the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. Møller argued that the UN’s efforts to feed the displaced and provide clean water, medical treatments, and vaccinations help millions but go largely unnoticed when prolonged conflicts like the civil war in Syria dominate the headlines. Møller conceded the UN requires internal reform to tackle growing global security threats such as health epidemics, struggling economies, and food scarcity that affect everyone and not just corners of the globe. “If the [UN] were to be dismantled or fragmented so not everyone comes together around it, we will have solutions that only reflect the concerns of some,” Møller said.
After the ascension of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, a war in Yemen, and cabinet reshuffles, many are wondering, where is Saudi Arabia headed? Veteran Saudi journalist Khaled Al-Maeena argues that despite appearances of a sudden shift, significant sociopolitical changes had been underway for years during the reign of late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. It was during that period, Al-Maeena said in a lecture at AUC’s Middle East Studies Center recently, that women took seats in Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council for the first time, and were given the right to vote and run for office. Al-Maeena noted how Somayya Jabarti, his own successor as chief editor of the Saudi Gazette, became the first woman to hold the top rank at a daily Saudi newspaper. But, Al-Maeena said, change in the kingdom occurs slowly. Women are still banned from driving automobiles, largely due to hard-line religious figures who balk at modernizing reforms. “The government in many ways is progressing, the only problem is that they are too cautious,” Al-Maeena said.
Foreign Policy, Interrupted
When I moved to the Middle East five years ago, I joined the ranks of a predominantly female press corps. While covering some of the most important moments in the region’s modern history, I noticed a startling gender disparity. I found myself regularly quoting male experts, often because they were much more willing to offer analysis.
When I would call upon a woman analyst for her opinions on Bahrain’s sectarian conflict or Egypt’s political carousel, I’d frequently encounter insecurity masquerading as modesty or busyness. “I’m just not read in enough on the topic.” Or, “This isn’t exactly my area of expertise.” When I would call a man, he could be on the tarmac, five minutes from takeoff, but he would be ready to rattle off a book proposal on an event that transpired moments ago.
For decades, the Middle East has been one of the regions most heavily covered by Western journalists. Women like the New York Times’ Anne Barnard and the BBC’s Lyse Doucet often lead the coverage from the frontlines. Yet, when it comes to analyzing Middle East events, the media cite male experts much more often than female ones. Women today hold crucial roles in foreign policy, as secretaries of state, National Security Council advisors, and chief editors. Yet it’s still usually men who shape our worldviews.
Tired of asking “Where are the women?,” New York University lecturer Elmira Bayrasli and I started Foreign Policy Interrupted two years ago. FPI is a non-profit initiative (most of our services are free of charge) dedicated to getting more women in foreign affairs miked, quoted, and bylined.
The male talkfest isn’t just anecdotal. Last year, six leading Washington think tanks presented more than 150 events on Middle East topics that included not a single woman speaker. Women author only 10 to 20 percent of op-eds published in the United States. Last year, the Women’s Media Center found that on the front page of the New York Times in January and February 2013, men were quoted three times more often than women. In a study done by FPI and Media Matters for America, we found that women made up just 22 percent of foreign policy guests on major American news programs in 2014. A woman on cable news talking about foreign affairs or national security is more likely to be a reporter or news personality rather than a professional foreign policy analyst.
FPI runs a website (www.fpinterrupted.com) and publishes a weekly newsletter, sharing stories and analysis by women and providing lists pointing editors and producers to women with expertise on various foreign policy topics. We are in the planning stages of a fellowship program to provide women in fields like journalism, development, academia, and government with media training, networking opportunities, and a non-residential “externship” at a major news outlet. Fellows will publish their opinions and analyses, and quite literally change the antiquated ratio.
Gender disparity in media is not due to a supply problem. There is a wealth of female foreign policy experts. But there is also a rusty and leaking pipeline that must be replaced.
Two main forces drive the gender disparity. One is institutional. There’s of course deeply entrenched societal sexism, which has birthed a tendency to look toward “authoritative” male voices, as well as intellectual laziness. Plus, producers and editors have busy jobs. In a 140-character-driven news cycle, they are under pressure to push out news immediately and frequently. They don’t develop the bandwidth to cultivate new voices, falling back on whom they know: usually a long list of white men and a handful of go-to women. As FPI’s founding board member Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, jokes, “I’m called on to opine on everything from Syria to Siberia.”
There are also internal barriers that preclude women from owning their expertise. Studies show that women hold themselves to a higher threshold of certainty before they offer an opinion. While men overestimate their abilities and performance, women underestimate both. Most of the queries FPI receives are from women who are nervous to pitch an editor and seek guidance in doing so. At the core of their queries is actually a request for permission to opine. Most of the time, women have spent extensive time in the field and have the academic chops to back them up, but they still don’t feel comfortable claiming their expertise.
The confidence gap doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As columnist Jessica Valenti writes, women’s lack of confidence could be a keen reflection of just how little society, and the media conversation, values their opinions. Hillary Clinton, former First Lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state, who is currently a candidate for president, reportedly once said, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.”
The solution must include creating a space that values women’s voices. That means collaborating with men, who make up most of the leadership on editorial and executive boards, and implementing creative solutions. For instance, Foreign Policy magazine CEO and Editor David Rothkopf has not only sought more female writers but has also pledged not to appear on panels that don’t include women.
The disrupting shouldn’t be focused on just the gender divide. Why are so few expert voices from the “developing world” called upon to opine on the “developing world”? Why are foreign policy analysts typically white? When you incubate diverse voices, you incubate new ideas and approaches to foreign policy challenges—in the Middle East, China, Russia, the world.
Media representation is merely a broken mirror if it doesn’t reflect the societies it aims to represent. Currently, it’s a system that privileges white, male voices over those of others who are an important part of an interconnected and dynamic world. Overcoming the media gender gap requires a collective movement. It’s time for the foreign policy conversation to catch up with our diverse realities.
Lauren E. Bohn is Middle East correspondent for the Ground Truth Project and contributing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs
Letter from China
On a visit to Beijing last April, I watched Chinese tourists flocking to the Summer Palace, a heritage site reflecting China’s imperial history dating back to the twelfth-century Jin Dynasty. They were enjoying a three-day holiday to mark the festival of Qingming, when the Chinese pay respects to their ancestors. After coming to power in 1949 the Communists had allowed such traditions to fall into obscurity, seeing them as obstacles to socialism and modernization. But the Communist authorities revived Qingming as an official holiday in 2008.
The Qingming custom is for people to return to their towns and villages to sweep the graves of deceased relatives. The Chinese have turned the holiday into a long weekend to picnic in parks and visit national cultural sites. “With the development of the Internet and social media, young people have forgotten the meaning of traditional festivals,” Yang Muqing, a law student told me. “So the government took measures to revive them.”
The Communist government’s new fondness for Chinese traditions seems driven by a desire to mitigate the growing influence of globalization on the country. The Beijing regime is nervous that digital technology in the form of social media and other tools—despite rigorous censorship—is chipping away at the Communist Party’s authoritarian system of control. The party’s dilemma is desiring further integration into the global economy as a means of expanding its soft power abroad, yet wanting at the same time to maintain a tight grip through security measures and propaganda at home. It is a dilemma that is intensifying as the middle class continues to grow, and as a Chinese elite led by some two hundred billionaires becomes increasingly worried about its wealth in a country with a rule of the party rather than a rule of law. Some 400 million Chinese can now afford to take an annual holiday inside China, and 100 million are able to take a holiday abroad each year.
China is experiencing its greatest economic slowdown in three decades, due to a confluence of factors: a natural plateauing of catch-up growth, flattening domestic demand, leveling exports, declining labor migration, and, some argue, a crackdown on corruption by President Xi Jinping that has disrupted some commerce and cooled unrestrained spending. Growth has fallen from 12 percent in 2010 to 7.4 percent in 2014—the smallest expansion in a quarter century—and may fluctuate in the 5–6 percent range for the next few years. After so many years of robust foreign investment, massive government spending on construction and infrastructure, and double-digit economic expansion, the official term for a projected era of slower growth is the “new normal.”
Can anything be called normal in China? For one thing, let’s remember that China’s slowing economy is already twice as large as that of Asia’s second-ranking economic powerhouse, Japan. A country that is used to being governed from the top down is clearly discovering the inevitability of change due to factors outside any regime’s control—demographics, for example. The government has found it necessary to relax the rigid internal migration control system known as as well as the rule strictly limiting families to one child. With these steps, the government is responding to increasing demands for the skills needed to drive China’s economy, and also to the rising challenge of elderly care in a country whose strong family traditions—including children looking after their aging parents—have been eroded by the one-child policy.
Beneath this interplay of control and reform is the emergence of a Chinese civil society, sanctioned in principle by the ruling party yet increasingly forming an identity of its own. The establishment in the past five years of organizations such as the Chinese Philanthropy Research Institute (CPRI) signals a significant shift in governance that does not feature in Western stereotypes of the country.
CPRI founder and director Wang Zhenyao sees the elderly sector as a key test of China’s ability to develop a strong civil society. Groups like CPRI are not only creating impetus for domestic reform toward a more people-centered system, they are also forging platforms for direct links with international foundations and institutes outside government auspices. Wang, who explains how he deepened his own understanding of philanthropy through exchanges with the British group Save the Children, recently led a group of Chinese entrepreneurs on a visit to Britain to examine best practice for elderly care.
When I met Wang in his modest office in Beijing, I found a queue of influential people waiting to steal a few minutes of his time. A former minister of civil affairs in the Chinese government, he is a well-known public intellectual, the author of a best-selling book on building bridges between the government and the governed. “If China is to integrate fully in the global economy, we need to be able to form credible relationships with universities and foundations in the United States and Britain and other global players,” Wang told me. CPRI has already established partnerships with the likes of the Brookings Institution, British Council, and the United Kingdom’s Shaw healthcare.
Wang is among those who represent the unexpected face of change in China—change coming from within the Chinese system rather than from internal dissent or foreign pressure. Another I encountered is Hu Da Ping, a personal coach who advises corporate executives, thought leaders, and high-net-worth individuals looking for more than material gratification and the trappings of wealth. He told me that his coaching incorporates the tenets of Taoism, Buddhism, and even the lessons of Nelson Mandela’s life and leadership. Notably, Hu said his coaching also espouses Confucianism, which like other Chinese traditions was long vilified by Communists as a relic of the country’s feudal past. Confucius, too, is enjoying an official revival. In the ruling party’s quest to find a Chinese path to development—and sustain itself in power—the country now celebrates the birthday of the ancient sage whose ideas promoted humanism and social harmony.
John Battersby, a London-based journalist, is a former correspondent for the Christian ScienceMonitor and the New York Times, and editor of the Johannesburg Sunday Independent
The Artist of French Cooking
In salmon and gray striped trousers, a blue scarf tossed rakishly around the neck, Alain Passard arrives for an interview at his Left Bank atelier with the colorful exuberance of a rock star. And that is exactly what he is to legions of appreciative Parisian diners and to the food critics who consistently rank him among the world’s leading chefs. His restaurant L’Arpège has been awarded three Michelin stars every year since 1996. One of the many testaments to Passard’s talents is that three of his former sous chefs de cuisine, Pascal Barbot, Mauro Colagreco, and Bertrand Grébaut, currently boast three, two, and one Michelin stars, respectively, at their own restaurants in France.
At a time when other illustrious French chefs like Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon have leveraged their names to create global restaurant empires, Passard, 58, remains focused solely on delivering plates of exquisite (and expensive) fare to the loyal patrons of his restaurant across from the Musée Rodin. Among his claims to fame is his wizardry with vegetables, which he grows in his own natural gardens in Sarthe, Eure and Manche. In 2001, Passard demonstrated the depth of his creative integrity by focusing his menus on vegetables; for putting his Michelin stars at risk, Passard’s move stunned the culinary cognoscenti.
Recently ranking L’Arpège at No. 12—and Passard the No. 1 French chef—the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 pronounced: “In Passard’s world, grapefruit and almonds form the surprising but effective complement to the sweetest of peas. Rather than being an understudy, beetroot steals the limelight when it’s substituted for beef in a tartare replete with perfect, golden gaufrette potatoes, or in place of tuna in a take on nigiri, glistening with geranium oil. Passard is rightly considered a culinary genius.” Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod spoke with Passard in Paris on June 9, 2015.
CAIRO REVIEW: Growing up in Brittany, what influences led you to become a chef?
ALAIN PASSARD: I’ve had fantastic luck in my life, in that I grew up in a very artistic family. My father was a musician and my mother a seamstress. My grandmother was a cook, and I had a grandfather who was a sculptor who worked with rattan. And this was something that was fantastic when I was growing up. All around me, I was watching people work with their hands. I’d go to see my grandma, she was working with her hands. I’d go to see my grandpa, and he was working with his hands. I’d go to see my mother, and it was the same. Manual work was everywhere. And so very early on, I wanted to do something with my hands, because it was all around me. Oddly, nobody really talked to me about his or her work. My father spoke very little with me about music, my mother little about clothes making, my grandpa little about sculpting. But my grandmother took me under her wing. She made me understand that cooking wasn’t a job, but an adventure. It was the end of the 1960s, early 1970s, in the heart of Brittany, a tiny village. So for my parents, cooking was something that seemed more accessible as a livelihood for me. They were afraid that music wasn’t a way to really earn a living. Clothing, as a career, wasn’t seen as being very accessible. But cooking, given all the restaurants in Brittany, being an apprentice cook seemed much more reasonable.
CAIRO REVIEW: To become a French chef, must you read the writings of Escoffier, of Brillat-Severin, and the other great figures in French culinary history?
ALAIN PASSARD: No. I didn’t even know about that. I’ve never even opened a cookbook. I don’t have cookbooks in my home. Cookbooks aren’t really up to the task. I work from my ideas. I do understand that some chefs may find inspiration in books, but I find it in everyday life.
CAIRO REVIEW: How did your work evolve over the years? How did you start and get to here, to become the chef of one of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants?
ALAIN PASSARD: It’s simple. There’s nothing without hard work. You have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Seven to eight hours a day, even ten, in front of the stove, every day. Nothing else. Nothing without doing the work. If you look at the major painters or musicians, like Stan Getz, or John Coltrane, it was seven to eight hours a day playing the sax. It’s very simple.
CAIRO REVIEW: And how did your food and cuisine philosophy develop?
ALAIN PASSARD: It’s always been hard for me to speak about that. Because I’m into what I do, sometimes I take paths and wonder if they are the right ones. I have trouble trying to articulate it. I work according to emotion. That’s what I can say about it. I put a lot of emotion into what I do. And when I can add a little finesse to it, I’m the happiest person in the world. Talking about cooking requires simple words. Sometimes when I listen to other chefs, it bothers me a bit, how lofty it is. I think mine is a simple cuisine, a cuisine of movement and emotion, and any discussion of it needs to correspond to that. Meaning simple words about simple cooking.
CAIRO REVIEW: I read Pascal Barbot saying that your cooking is hard to classify. Is it Breton? French? Something else?
ALAIN PASSARD: Well above all, it’s a cooking with a kind of momentum, in perfect harmony with nature, with the gardens. I don’t write it down, outside of a few little books including my graphic novel. But on a daily basis it’s not something I write about, so that I don’t repeat myself. I force myself each spring to start afresh.
CAIRO REVIEW: But you would call it French cuisine?
ALAIN PASSARD: Yes. I don’t use foreign ingredients. There are some restaurants where you find Thai or Chinese or Japanese flavors. The basis for my work is the garden, my spices and herbs.
CAIRO REVIEW: The idea of farm-to-table is trendy now. But you’ve been famous for doing it for years. How did you derive this concept and what do you think of it?
ALAIN PASSARD: My passion for color. This desire to put my passions and hobbies into my work. My painting, sculpting, and making collages. This passion I have for colors is a strong inspiration, and fifteen years ago I realized that only vegetables, with their colors, could do that. In this vegetable-only cuisine, I reconnect with the other livelihoods of my family, like sewing. If I wasn’t a chef, I would have loved to be a major fashion designer. I’m passionate about material, colors, textures, and the transparency in it. When I arrive for work in the morning, I always look at what the women are wearing. I look right away because the clothing—their colors, fabric, textures, et cetera—attracts my attention.
CAIRO REVIEW: What about nutrition, sustainability? Do you think about this in your focus on vegetables?
ALAIN PASSARD: Yes, it’s part of each day for me. To respect the seasons, minimize my carbon footprint. We don’t waste anything. When you work with vegetables, you remove the top, and what we don’t use goes back to the garden for compost.
CAIRO REVIEW: How does your restaurant work? Walk us through a day at L’Arpège.
ALAIN PASSARD: Well, in general we have one or even two deliveries per day, from the Normandy garden for lunch and the Sarthe garden for dinner. Nothing is left over from the previous day. We only work with vegetables that were harvested that morning. I don’t want my vegetables to be refrigerated. The vegetables arrive and I inspect everything myself. And we’re off. We begin to play. I see things, I make connections visually, I get ideas, note them, add colors, arrange some things.
CAIRO REVIEW: So you make the recipe as you start cooking?
ALAIN PASSARD: I improvise all the time. I throw myself off-balance in order to anchor myself. This is what I teach to my chefs. Nothing is written down. Memory is a muscle that needs to be exercised. It’s gymnastics. And it’s very difficult to do that.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is this common? It seems unique, and most restaurants have menus. Some are the same for decades.
ALAIN PASSARD: Yes they do and it’s really boring. It’s the same colors and movements and flavors. The same hands. I don’t have the same hands in winter and spring. I work differently. So to bring this all together, for me, each day is the first day. Each morning I start naked, bringing nothing. I come just with my ideas.
CAIRO REVIEW: When does your day start?
ALAIN PASSARD: It could be 8 a.m., or 9 or 10 or noon. In general, I begin thinking around 7 a.m. I get to the kitchen at 12.
CAIRO REVIEW: Many celebrated chefs in France once worked for you. Is it a coincidence that so many of your protégés are stars now?
ALAIN PASSARD: I spent time with them, all these chefs. I held their hands for two or even five years. I’m in the kitchen with them all day.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is mentoring important for you?
ALAIN PASSARD: No, it just happens that way. They were with me for part of my life. It’s a thing that happens. My job isn’t to be a mentor. It’s just my daily life. Every day is the first day.
CAIRO REVIEW: What qualities do you look for in hiring your staff?
ALAIN PASSARD: There is no criteria. It’s difficult to know in a first quick meeting. It’s how he cooks when he’s in front of the stove that matters. And seeing a passion in his eyes. Otherwise, for the rest of it, we can work on that. If his hand is a little too present, we can fix that. We can work on his presentation, his sense of smell, how he listens.
CAIRO REVIEW: What is the secret to keeping your Michelin stars?
ALAIN PASSARD: It’s not a secret. It’s hard work. We care about constantly reinventing ourselves. We create all the time. There is nothing without that. And if we do those things, we will keep our stars. In my creative work, it has to be that way. To always be rising, not remaining stagnant.
CAIRO REVIEW: Was your chocolate chicken a success? Do you make mistakes?
ALAIN PASSARD: I continue experimenting. That idea came from mole poblano. That’s chicken in chocolate, basically. Yes, it was a successful dish.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you sometimes make mistakes in your improvisation?
ALAIN PASSARD: As I continue to know how to do it, I make fewer mistakes.
CAIRO REVIEW: Brillat-Severin said that “the destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed.” Is this a living concept for the French people and French chefs?
ALAIN PASSARD: Feeding ourselves allows us to be joyous, be healthy, good hair and skin.
CAIRO REVIEW: What do you think France has contributed to cuisine in the world?
ALAIN PASSARD: Obviously France is the world’s pantry. We have the great fortune in France to have a real terroir: the poultry is fantastic, beautiful fish, cheese, wine, and shellfish. When France is spoken of in other countries, it’s not our football teams that are talked about. That said, France inspires the rest of the world and always will. I see it at L’Arpège; the number of chefs who come both for lunch and dinner. Chefs from Australia or California or Japan, they all must come to France.
CAIRO REVIEW: Can French terroir survive? I’m thinking about the European Union standardization rules affecting some food production, like in traditional French cheeses.
ALAIN PASSARD: I think it’s a good thing to have this openness.
CAIRO REVIEW: It doesn’t affect you, your notion of French cuisine?
ALAIN PASSARD: No. I do like the openness, but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything. Use of pesticides and chemicals, of course I don’t at all agree. Nor vegetables that are at the markets out of season.
CAIRO REVIEW: Don’t we need that to feed the world, mass production?
ALAIN PASSARD: We can produce vegetables en masse, but all I ask is to do so while respecting the seasons. Producing tomatoes in January? No. We should produce parsnip or rutabaga instead. It will be better for our health than tomatoes or strawberries.
CAIRO REVIEW: What is the importance of cuisine for culture? What is a chef’s contribution to a nation’s culture?
ALAIN PASSARD: Cuisine is a story. It all depends on what we do with it. There is an artistic side to it, especially for me, working with vegetables. We can write beautiful stories with it. What I mean by that is that when we prepare a dish, we bring so much to it, including the entire human aspect involved: the farmer, the fisherman, and the market gardener [produce person at a farmer’s market]. So it’s something interesting because from all of these factors we are telling a story. Cooking has a grace to it, like dancing. It’s like going to a show. There is an audience, the dining room of the restaurant is like a concert hall, and we have a performance to do. It has to be like this. It’s important to put your heart into it, all that you do.
CAIRO REVIEW: Are you afraid of globalization? It seems like there is a hamburger on every menu at every French restaurant these days.
ALAIN PASSARD: No, I’m not afraid. And it’s really hard to do a good burger. The quality of the bread, its lightness and taste, the savory stuffing inside the burger itself. But of course it’s a veggie burger here!
CAIRO REVIEW: Will we ever see burgers on the menu at L’Arpège?
ALAIN PASSARD: We actually have done that before, a steak made of winter vegetables: rutabaga, celery, Jerusalem artichoke, horseradish, and salsify.
CAIRO REVIEW: Will the new generation of chefs and diners change the face of French cuisine, its formality?
ALAIN PASSARD: Yes, I think so. This is a generation that is very creative and talented. We can feel these young people and all these new restaurants.
CAIRO REVIEW: When we think of great French cuisine, are we really talking about an elite group of chefs? In the United States, there is an impression that French food is in decline. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman recently wrote: “The vast majority of restaurants disappoint. The people of France appear to have lost faith and even interest.”
ALAIN PASSARD: I don’t go out to other restaurants much anymore. But I think, au contraire,that there is much talent now, lots of talented chefs, and French cuisine is not in decline. I have never seen so many Americans in my restaurant as I do now. More and more.
CAIRO REVIEW: What do you think about Top Chef and other reality cooking shows?
ALAIN PASSARD: I think it’s good. I declined to do it myself but it’s part of French cuisine, showcasing talent, and shows lots of distinction of what people can do in their kitchens. I simply can’t take two months away from my restaurant, that’s why I didn’t take part in the TV show.
CAIRO REVIEW: Unlike some famous French chefs, you have stayed away from commercialization. You have not opened a branch of L’Arpège in Las Vegas.
ALAIN PASSARD: I wouldn’t know how to do that. I’m happy in my one restaurant here, which is my home. The following is a very important sentence for me: At 14, I chose to be a cook, and I never changed my mind.
Sustaining Our Farmers
Population growth and climate change are two of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. It’s no exaggeration to say that we are living in a time of population explosion: 2050 is just thirty-five years away and the global population is projected to rise to 9.6 billion by then—some 30 percent more than today’s figure of 7.3 billion, and a rise of more than 50 percent since the beginning of this century. Some projections for the year 2100 put the global population at sixteen billion.
With this increase in population comes the pressing need for more food. Estimates show that by 2050 food production must increase by as much as 60 percent over 2005 levels to meet the inevitably rising demand, while increasing prosperity and changing diets will generate further pressure to produce more. At the same time, climate change is radically altering crop-growing conditions in many parts of the world and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events that severely disrupt poor people’s lives and agricultural production. The rhetoric around these issues is becoming so familiar that we are in danger of ignoring the messages.
How will we feed the 9.6 billion? This is often the first question asked, but it should be rephrased: How can we sustainably produce enough food for the 9.6 billion while ensuring that people from all social groups can access the food they need and protecting the environment for our children?
Producing more food to feed a growing population is an easy answer to a complex question. It’s not incorrect—but it’s definitely insufficient. We know from the situation today that producing enough food is no guarantee that no one goes hungry. Although figures released in the annual United Nations hunger report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015, show a reduction in the proportion of people who are chronically undernourished, their numbers still stand at 795 million. Yet we are told that the world produces enough food today to feed every one of us.
The quantity of food produced is just one part of the equation. The quantity of food wasted is another—with some sources estimating that up to 50 percent of the food produced doesn’t reach our plates. Food waste occurs at every step of the supply chain: during harvest, storage, processing, marketing, and when consumers consign it to the bin. Then there’s accessibility—can people afford the food they need for a full and healthy life? And lastly, there’s the issue of sustainability—can we produce sufficient food using methods that do not deplete and despoil natural resources?
A critical part of the answer to these questions—a key to fighting hunger and feeding a growing world—involves empowering the smallholder farmers. The food system is highly complex, and interlinked with equally complex systems as diverse as the weather and international trade regimes. And it often seems as contradictory as it is complex. Consider the fact that the smallholder farmers who produce most of the world’s food—as much as 80 percent in some developing countries—are often also the very people who are both poor and hungry.
Although more than half of the global population is now urban, about three-quarters of poor and hungry people live in rural areas and the majority of them depend on the world’s 500 million smallholder farms for food and income. Yet these critical producers—many of whom are net buyers of food—are often unable to adequately feed their own families.
The concentration of hunger and poverty in the very areas where food is produced means that to tackle the big challenges at the roots, we must focus on rural women and men and on their communities. By investing in sustainable and inclusive economic transformation in rural areas, we can effectively respond to the need for more equitable access to food today, at the same time as we build a resilient food system that will be equal to the challenges of tomorrow.
The beneficial effects of agricultural growth in reducing hunger and poverty are well known—and go far beyond the production of greater quantities of food. In resource-poor low-income countries, gross domestic product (GDP) growth driven by agriculture is at least three times as effective in cutting poverty rates as growth in other sectors.
Significantly, agricultural growth that is underpinned by the development of smallholder family farming has been shown to be more inclusive. Smallholders with higher incomes spend more on rural food and non-food products, creating markets for local businesses to thrive and generating further employment and income gains. This creates a virtuous cycle that results in better market opportunities for everyone—and higher and more stable incomes for rural people, enabling them to have more secure access to nutritious food.
Prospering communities on reclaimed desert land in Egypt demonstrate how inclusive rural transformation can change people’s lives. The West Noubaria Rural Development Project, funded by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), has enabled young settler families to make a decent living and create vibrant communities on land that was once desert. Over 45,000 settler households—or about 250,000 people—benefited from the project’s interventions. The target population included unemployed graduates, smallholders, and displaced farmers. About 15 percent of the settler households were headed by women.
The project, located north of Cairo and west of the Nile Delta, aimed to strengthen community infrastructure and services and build capacity in agriculture and marketing. The project built or repaired nearly four thousand houses, nineteen schools, fifteen clinics, eighteen kindergartens, twenty event halls and youth centers, and ten mosques. It supported the establishment of more than twenty community development associations to give local residents a voice and enable them to manage the social infrastructure.
Extension services were provided to farmers where crop, livestock, and water management technologies were demonstrated. Irrigation canals were repaired and localized irrigation (drip and sprinkler) was introduced to adapt to the sandy soils of the desert. This allowed water saving of more than 30 percent. To boost producers’ access to market, six farmer marketing associations were established, with membership of nearly one hundred agricultural cooperatives. During the lifetime of the project, the marketing associations entered into 138 sales contracts with twenty-seven marketing companies for a wide range of crops, including tomatoes, potatoes, beans, artichokes, peppers, onions, oranges, grapes, and peaches.
An independent impact assessment carried out at the end of the project in 2014 shows improvement across most indicators in comparison to 2006 and 2009. Households in the villages where the project was active have higher literacy rates, enjoy better sanitary and housing conditions, own more assets, have higher incomes and savings, and are more food secure than those from villages outside the project area. The improvement of education, health, and other social services in the project area also attracted more settlers, contributing to the growth of thriving communities.
When the project closed last year, the completion report noted that the project area had been transformed into a region that is recognized for its quality production of high-value fruit and vegetables. It supplies national fresh produce markets, the food processing industry, and export companies. Net annual farm household income for a typical settler family of four increased fourfold and was about $8,850—well above the poverty benchmark of $456 per person.
Poverty and Hunger
The centrality of agricultural and smallholder development to inclusive growth helps explain why economic growth alone does not necessarily lead to significant improvements in food security and poverty rates for all sectors of society. Despite GDP growth in many developing countries—including some of the poorest—hunger has often persisted. In many cases, smallholders and their families have been left behind as growth policies focus on a narrow range of extractive industries. In addition, lack of agricultural development leaves expanding urban populations reliant on food imports, with predictably disastrous consequences, as seen during recent global food crises.
Growth that has not been inclusive is one of the reasons why, according to a recent report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the global gap between rich and poor is at its highest level for thirty years. The report also underlines the fact that rising inequality is a drag on economic growth as well as a threat to social cohesion. Only inclusive growth underpinned by better livelihoods for smallholder family farmers can generate the income and employment gains that sustainably reduce hunger and poverty. Investing in smallholders and enabling these women and men to boost productivity levels and strengthen their access to markets is central to driving any inclusive growth agenda.
Inclusive growth also requires prioritizing social protection schemes. Many of the countries that have reached the first Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of hungry people in the world by 2015 have schemes that ensure income security and access to better nutrition, healthcare, and education. This enables the more vulnerable people to tap into the benefits of economic growth and take advantage of employment opportunities.
Inclusive development also means better two-way connectivity between rural and urban areas. Although popular discourse tends to portray urban and rural areas as separate and distinct, in reality, cities, towns, and villages are linked by flows of labor, goods, resources, services, finance, communications, and information, as well as human ties between families and across generations.
By 2030, about 60 percent of the global population will be living in cities. As the world becomes increasingly urban, rural areas and economies need to adapt and transform so that they can more efficiently and sustainably provide greater amounts of food, clean water, and environmental services to satisfy urban and rural demand. And as urban and rural economies become more interdependent, they also need to be better connected to each other to generate positive dynamics of inclusive and sustainable development. Responsible investments in the rural space to increase people’s access to communications, infrastructure, and services will be central to building resilient interconnections between rural and urban areas.
In some countries, urbanization is already being accompanied by stronger linkages between rural and urban areas, with more intense flows of people, money, and goods. The increasing integration of food supply chains is a good example of this. However, rural-urban connectivity is still inadequate in many regions—in terms of services, infrastructure, and institutions. For infrastructure in particular, the gaps are immense and can hamper investment in agricultural value chains. Such gaps can also result in rural people being forced to engage in urban economies or rural-urban supply chains on very unequal terms. This typically leaves them with unstable incomes that make it difficult for them to sustainably afford sufficient and nutritious food.
Improving rural-urban connectivity—together with rising demand for agricultural products—creates new opportunities for food companies to build mutually beneficial partnerships with smallholders. The potential benefits of these arrangements are multiple: profits, increased incomes, inclusive growth, and rural transformation.
The scope for agribusiness companies and commercial processors to work with smallholders is greater now than ever before. New technologies are enabling smallholders to increase their productivity at the same time as they are reducing the costs of doing business with these key producers. In addition, there is now strong support among the public sector, donors, and development agencies for inclusive agribusiness practices that prioritize integrating smallholders into value chains.
However, functioning partnerships between agribusiness operators and smallholders also require a broader inclusive business environment—infrastructure, institutions, training, and access to efficient, transparent markets. Unfortunately, in the rural areas of developing countries, these elements are still rarely all in place. Governments and development partners need to address this as a matter of urgency through suitable policies and investments.
Building the necessary trust between agribusinesses and smallholders is not always straightforward. IFAD plays a crucial role as an honest broker in facilitating public-private producer partnerships that explicitly address the needs of smallholder farmers.
For example, in the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, IFAD brokered a partnership in 2003 between the French chocolate company Kaoka and an export cooperative that brought together about three thousand cocoa smallholders. Kaoka provides the farmers with technical and commercial know-how, as well as access to European markets. The company buys dried cocoa beans at premium prices, based on negotiated contracts and according to ethical schemes. Because the farmers are providing Kaoka with high-quality products, they have been able to gain organic and fair trade certification.
Following the success of this first partnership, four more have been established—with CMC Malongo and Hom&Ter Développement in France, with Cafédirect in the United Kingdom, and with Slow Food International in Italy. These new collaborations have broadened the range of products bought from smallholders to include organic coffee and pepper. As a result, about 5,500 farmers now enjoy stable access to niche markets, exporting over 1,300 metric tons of quality produce annually and earning a fair return.
Challenge of Gender Disparities
Hunger and poverty are often mentioned in one breath, but they are not the same thing. Rather, they are interlinked and can create a vicious circle. Poverty is defined as a deprivation in well-being that leaves people without the ability to acquire the basic necessities required to live a dignified life. Poverty causes hunger simply because poor people cannot afford to buy the food they need. The resulting food insecurity and malnutrition damages their long-term health and that of their children, thus critically reducing people’s physical ability to work and fulfill their potential, and keeping generations truly trapped in poverty.
The causes of poverty and hunger include, but are not limited to: race, ethnicity, disability, location, age and gender. Indeed, although there is still a dearth of sex-disaggregated statistics, we have enough to know beyond doubt that hunger and poverty disproportionately affect women and girls. As a result, the significance of women’s empowerment for inclusive development is increasingly recognized.
Many interrelated factors contribute to gender disparities. These are often connected to entrenched norms regarding gender roles, work distribution, and rights. According to a recent report from UN Women, in terms of workload women spend almost two and a half times longer than men carrying out unpaid care work—principally with children and elderly people. This has a massive impact on their capacity to earn money, educate themselves, enjoy free time, and interact with others outside the home. As a result of this and other factors, fewer women than men have a cash income in the less developed regions, and a significant proportion of married women have no say in how their cash earnings are spent. In more developed regions, women are overrepresented among the older poor. And they are more likely than men to be poor when living on their own in rich and poor countries alike. In many countries, households headed by single mothers are more likely to be poor than those headed by single fathers. Work is ongoing in many sectors to gather the data that is necessary to create a more accurate picture of women’s lives.
The proportion of women receiving services from IFAD-supported projects has risen steadily over recent years, from 43 percent in 2007/2008 to 48 percent in 2013. In areas such as micro-entrepreneurship, business skills, and community management, women make up over 75 percent of participants. The organization has developed innovative ways to work with women and men in rural areas to address gender inequality, enabling households and communities to work together effectively to find solutions to poverty and food insecurity and malnutrition.
Women’s empowerment is a hugely complex undertaking and it is often difficult to assess where to start in order to make the most difference. Working with partners, IFAD is pioneering the household methodologies—innovative ways of working with women and men in rural areas, starting at the household level where gender inequality is often most tenaciously rooted. Household methodologies shift the focus of development work from things, such as assets, resources, and infrastructure, to people—their daily activities, workloads and interactions, and their hopes and ambitions. The methodologies are based on the increasing understanding that households are often not egalitarian units that share resources and benefits. Instead, women and men in the same family may pursue largely different livelihoods, have different responsibilities, and reap greater or lesser rewards.
Using these groundbreaking approaches, trained facilitators or mentors work either through groups or at the individual household level to support families in developing a household vision of where they would like to be in three to five years’ time. This provides the inspiration for household members to assess their current situation and to draw up step-by-step plans for a better future. People often discover that gender inequality at the household level is one reason that they remain trapped in poverty. Renegotiating domestic divisions of labor to share women’s workloads or to enable women to engage in activities that generate income can benefit all family members. Women and men are also encouraged to make changes outside the household by joining self-help groups and accessing financial services.
IFAD is currently using household methodologies in projects in Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Uganda and is reaching about 100,000 people. Participants report improved productivity, higher incomes, decreased domestic violence, greater familial harmony, greater resilience in the face of shocks, and increased happiness. Another important change that takes place is that women gain in confidence and their participation in decisions inside and outside the household increases. IFAD is leading the drive to take household methodologies to scale and they have been included in the design of new projects in Ghana, Laos, and Mozambique.
Empowering the Youth
Statistics show that farmers in many countries today are old and growing older. This is a trend that we urgently need to reverse. Harnessing the dynamism and innovative energy of young people is key to the development of sustainable food systems that will be needed to feed 9.6 billion people by 2050. Equally, the agriculture sector must play an important role in providing decent work for young women and men in rural areas, because even under the most optimistic projections, urban sectors will not be able to provide jobs for all the young people entering the labor market in the coming decades.
The potential returns of investing in young people are enormous—in terms of food security, poverty reduction, employment generation, as well as peace and political stability. In many countries where food security challenges are particularly stark, large proportions of the population are young. Children under the age of 15 account for around a quarter of the population in developing countries while youth (those aged 15 to 24) in many cases comprise up to a further one-fifth of the population. In Africa, more than 60 percent of the population is currently below the age of 25.
Projects cited in IFAD’s Annual Report 2014 fund a range of activities tailored to the needs of young women and men in rural areas, enabling them to gain useful job skills and to play a part in the development of their communities. In Senegal, where a huge 47 percent of the population is under the age of 15, IFAD has partnered with village sports and cultural groups to reach young people and help them develop business proposals. More than four thousand young women and men have received funding to become agroentrepreneurs in their own villages, stemming the tide of migration.
In the Caribbean, the global economic crisis has hit young people particularly hard. In 2014, IFAD approved a three-year program to improve the business skills of a thousand young women and men in Belize, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, and Haiti. By developing a strategy for rural youth employment shared by governments and partners, the project also aims to boost public resource allocation to the sector, which will indirectly benefit several thousand more young people. In Moldova, credit lines have been made available for young farmers and sixty-four small and medium-sized enterprises have taken financing for a total of $6 million.
Adapting to Global Warming
Climate change, and the increasingly frequent extreme weather events associated with it, hit the world’s poor farmers hardest. Temperatures are more extreme, rains are unpredictable, droughts are more common, and what once grew well in a certain area can no longer be relied on. These changes have significant impacts on food systems, as well as the ecosystems and water supplies they depend upon. In addition, violent storms and devastating floods wash away crops and destroy homes and infrastructure. While world leaders edge toward a binding agreement that might put the brakes on carbon emissions, poor rural people live their daily lives on the frontline of a warmer world.
IFAD runs the largest global financing source dedicated to helping smallholder farmers adapt to climate change. Since it was established in 2012, the Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP) has approved a total of $209 million in grants to strengthen poor producers’ resilience, help them manage risks, and enable them to adapt to changing conditions. ASAP funds a range of approaches in some of the world’s most climate-vulnerable contexts. For example, in Egypt and Sudan, climate financing is supporting the development of a dynamic agricultural information and response system. This will give early warning of events such as storms, pest outbreaks, heat waves and frosts, and advice on the timing of irrigation.
Bangladesh is another country that is extremely vulnerable to climate change and the risks are particularly high in the southern charlands, where some of the poorest people live. IFAD is constructing infrastructure to help protect people and their livelihoods. More than 1,200 kilometers of all-weather roads have been built, together with cyclone shelters for forty thousand people and twenty-two livestock refuges. About ten thousand hectares of land have been reclaimed with dykes, and trees have been planted to protect the shoreline. More than twenty thousand women and men have joined natural resource management groups to promote sustainable practices that protect natural resources.
A Precious Opportunity
Because inclusive rural transformation must be a keystone of our response to the challenge of sustainably feeding the world’s growing population, there is an urgent need to boost the financial resources that are invested in agricultural and rural development.
Global leaders, policymakers, donors, and private sector actors are holding two meetings on the challenge this year: the Third International Conference on Financing for Development will take place in Addis Ababa in July; and a UN summit in New York in September will adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a new, universal set of goals, targets, and indicators for development. A new global agreement on climate change is also on the agenda for later in the year.
Economic transformation of rural areas is central to the realization of the SDGs and this requires first and foremost strong commitment and action at the national level, together with continued support from the international community. Governments must direct a larger share of domestic public resources toward financing public goods in the rural sector, and back them up with enabling policies. It is also vital that domestic and international public financing are used to foster inclusive and responsible private investment in smallholder family farming. Public financing must be used to create an enabling environment to leverage additional private investment across food value chains. This encompasses public goods, services, and institutions.
In 2015, the world has a precious opportunity to refocus priorities, policies, and investments toward achieving development that is inclusive, sustainable, and people-centered—and that enables everyone, now and in the future, to access sufficient and nutritious food. By focusing efforts and finance on the rural areas and the family farmers that provide so much of our food, we can begin to answer the complex question of how to feed the 9.6 billion and leave no one behind.
Kanayo F. Nwanze is serving his second term as president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a United Nations agency focused on rural poverty reduction. From 1996 to 2006, he was director general of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research’s Africa Rice Center, which played an instrumental role in introducing and promoting New Rice for Africa known as NERICA, a rice variety developed specifically for the African landscape. From 1987 to 1996, he served as principal scientist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India. On Twitter: @knwanze.
How to Feed Egypt
The ancient Egyptians developed their great civilization with a strong agriculture. The Nile River and its fertile banks enabled Egyptians to be among the first in human history to practice farming on a large scale. In our modern time, however, Egypt faces crippling development challenges in feeding its people. Its rapidly growing population is squeezing the country’s traditional farmland along the Nile Valley and the Delta. For nearly a decade, Egypt has ranked as the world’s leading importer of wheat, an indigenous crop for thousands of years. Efforts to tackle food security are required on multiple fronts, such as fostering rural development, promoting job-creating growth, providing a healthy investment climate, and delivering sound health, education, and nutrition programs.
Egypt, with a population of more than 85 million people, is the largest Arab country. Despite having the fifth-biggest economy, its per capita income is among the lowest in the region. Signs of development challenges began to appear even before the January 25 Revolution and subsequent turmoil dealt a severe blow to Egyptian tourism and other sectors. To make a striking comparison, Egypt, India, and Brazil all enjoyed gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates in the mid-1990s between 3 and 5 percent; an upward trend ensued for India and Brazil through 2013, but in Egypt the overall trend remained relatively flat over the entire period. India and Brazil saw upward trends in exports and investments whereas Egypt’s export trend stagnated and investment trend declined. Egypt, meanwhile, is more dependent on food imports: since 2000, on average 17 percent of its import bill pays for food products, compared to only around 3 percent for India and 4 percent for Brazil.
Egypt’s food security challenges include both the availability of food at the national level and access to and utilization of that food at the household level. From a macroeconomic perspective, this means having the capacity to rely on domestic food production or having enough foreign exchange earnings to finance whatever food imports the nation may require. At the microeconomic level, households must be able either to grow their own food or have the resources to buy food from the market.
Farming Along the Nile
Egypt is largely self-sufficient in the production of most agricultural products except for wheat, oil, and sugar. The country’s agricultural yield for rice is among the highest in the world; throughout the past six years, Egypt’s rice yields have consistently surpassed those of the other leading producers, China, India, and Indonesia. This success is due to new crop varieties that produce more rice with less water and land. Although some production has been diverted to satisfy domestic demand, Egyptian rice exports have risen steadily since 1980. Similarly, Egyptian exports of citrus and potato have climbed over the past three decades. During the same period, cotton exports have declined due to falling global demand for Egypt’s long and extra-long staple cotton—shorter staple cotton is less expensive and, as a result of technological advances, can now be used in fine textile production.
Cereals represent Egypt’s most serious shortfall. Throughout the 1990s, Egypt imported a little more than one-third of its cereal products including wheat. From 2009 to 2011, however, imports reached an annual average of 44 percent. Since the mid-1990s, Egypt has been among the top three wheat-importing countries; it has been the biggest importer since 2007/2008, an upward trend that seems likely to continue in a country with one of the highest per capita wheat consumption rates in the world. This reliance on wheat and cereal imports to feed an ever-growing population makes Egypt especially vulnerable to international price volatility and supply shocks.
In discussing food production, it is also important to examine underlying factors affecting food availability. Climate change is becoming one of Egypt’s most significant challenges. Rising sea levels along the Mediterranean coastline are compacting soil areas and increasing salinity in the Nile Delta, which comprises a large area of Egypt’s high-value agricultural land. The Ministry of Environment expects climate change to have a negative impact on the agriculture and fishing sectors; studies indicate that wheat and corn production would be among the crops affected, thereby increasing Egypt’s dependence on food imports and its vulnerability to global price volatility. Changing Nile River flows related to the construction of upstream dams such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam represent another potential threat to Egyptian agriculture. Studies indicate that Egypt will be the country most adversely affected by the dam’s reservoir filling time.
Another challenge is the declining interest in farming among rural youth, who increasingly migrate to Cairo and other urban areas in search of job opportunities. The young generation looks down on farming livelihoods in favor of more technologically advanced professions. Furthermore, land fragmentation is reducing income potential in agriculture and is thus a threat to traditional farming.
Egypt’s bulging population, estimated to grow by an average of two million people a year, is fast eroding the country’s ability to rely on domestic production as the major source of its food. Population density in the past half century has risen from under twenty-nine to more than eighty-two people per square kilometer—an increase of around ten people per square kilometer per decade. The figure takes on more worrisome dimensions when factoring in that the population is concentrated along the Nile on less than 4 percent of Egypt’s total land area. Dwellings and infrastructure needed to accommodate the expanding populace are encroaching on agricultural land, placing constraints on the potential for increasing agricultural production.
If food self-sufficiency is thus not a realistic prospect in Egypt’s future, then the trade that is crucial for ensuring food availability faces its own challenge. An overvalued Egyptian exchange rate has been an obstacle to promoting the exports needed to generate foreign exchange in order to finance food imports. Egypt’s competitiveness is in decline because the goods it produces are overpriced. The Central Bank of Egypt protects Egyptian currency through the use of reserves for the purposes of macro stability and minimizing day-to-day volatility in the exchange rate. But Egypt’s foreign currency demand problem has been compounded by the faltering of the tourism sector, which accounts for almost a quarter of export earnings; government statistics showed a 50 percent decline in tourist receipts from 2010 to 2013. The Central Bank has been rationing foreign currency, but ultimately may wind up having to depreciate the Egyptian pound to avoid depleting reserves. That in turn would make food imports more expensive and trigger inflation.
Imperative of Nutrition
Egypt began experiencing a growth nutrition gap in 2003. The country succeeded in lowering the stunting rate from a little under 35 percent in 1991 to just over 20 percent in 2003. But despite Egypt’s high growth rates in subsequent years, child stunting began to rise again—a surprising paradox, given that nations typically see health improvements not reversals as they register economic growth. Some of the increase in stunting may be due to recent economic crises and underinvestment in nutrition-related infrastructure and public services. Another reason may be a lack of nutritional awareness and also access to safe and stable sources of nutritious food. An increase in child stunting figures reflects the serious health and economic challenge of malnutrition. More than one-third of Egyptian children are stunted. Egypt also registers one of the highest rates in the world of what is known as the double burden of malnutrition: besides the problem of stunted children, more than three-quarters of all women above the age of 20 are overweight. One in five stunted children has a mother who is overweight.
Childhood stunting is deemed one of the most significant obstacles to human development. The adverse effects of stunting include reduced cognitive development as well as an unhealthy physical development, both of which will ultimately impact not only the individual’s income and well-being but the nation’s economy as a whole. It has been estimated that a 1 percent loss in adult height as a result of childhood stunting translates into a 1.4 percent reduction in economic productivity; income earnings of these individuals tend to be a fifth of those of their healthier counterparts.
There appears to be a significant correlation between income poverty and inadequate access to food in Egypt. One way the government has addressed poverty and its manifestations is through food subsidies. Together, food and fuel subsidies make up close to 10 percent of GDP, or 30 percent of the national budget. The subsidies are a significant portion of the government’s massive social safety net to protect citizens against food price volatility. Subsidies have provided relief to millions of Egyptians, especially after the multiple crises affecting food security of the past ten years; for example, avian flu led to the extermination of thousands of poultry, restricting the access of poor households to an affordable and consistent source of protein. Subsidized food represents close to a fifth of the poor’s spending on food. More than 70 percent of Egyptian households use or rely on food subsidies for their dietary intake.
A longstanding problem with food subsidies, however, is that they have promoted the consumption of an unbalanced diet overly rich in calorie-dense and nutrition-poor foods. Subsidies have provided beneficiaries with allotted quantities of food choices including bread, cooking oil, sugar, and rice that may have exacerbated malnutrition. Weak targeting of food subsidies is another problem. Studies have estimated that a significant number of those covered by the ration card system are deemed non-poor, while nearly 20 percent of the vulnerable are not covered.
Most Egyptians see the bread subsidy as a social entitlement, which makes removing it a politically sensitive issue. As part of a wider food subsidy reform, President Anwar Sadat eliminated the bread subsidy in 1977; the move triggered riots, and was quickly reversed. Since taking office in 2014, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has initiated new reforms to the food subsidy system especially covering the baladi bread favored by the Egyptian masses. Though still priced at five piasters a loaf, it is now a part of a ration card system under which beneficiaries are entitled to up to 150 loaves a month. The new system eliminates quantity-based quotas for subsidized food items. Instead, beneficiaries receive a monthly cash allotment on a smart card, which can be redeemed for any of the subsidized commodities in any of the available packaged units. The change may have a positive effect on dietary habits, as it reduces—but does not fully remove—the considerable economic incentives that promoted the consumption of an unbalanced diet.
A Comprehensive Policy
Egypt’s current food security challenges can be traced back to policies that tried to improve rural poverty and inequality and to fuel growth and development through industrialization. Instead, they created a growing food import bill, poor public service delivery, inequality, and more poverty. In the 1950s, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attempt to abolish feudalism and tackle inequality led to cronyism throughout the agricultural sector. His agricultural price controls and urban bias in investment further crippled incentives for small farmers. In the Sadat era, the migration of workers to oil-boom Gulf countries disrupted the agricultural and other labor markets; greater urbanization increased food subsidies and food imports; and land fragmentation (due to inheritance customs) and worsening drainage sent agricultural sector growth rates into decline. President Hosni Mubarak eased or even removed price and quantity controls from strategic crops, and opened agriculture to the private sector; yet the growing population, urban bias, rampant cronyism, and worsening public service delivery continued to threaten Egypt’s food security.
Tackling Egypt’s food security challenges will require a commitment at the highest level—no less than a presidential initiative. The key drivers of food insecurity must be identified and addressed in their entirety. The national development strategy needs to be an integrative exercise that addresses food security at the macro and micro levels as a theme across all development sectors, bilateral initiatives, and programs. The strategy must include upgrading public health services, investing in water and sanitation, and engaging in large-scale nutritional interventions, among others.
Egypt requires better information for better lives. Economic and development strategy research in the Arab region has a history of lagging behind other regions. The Middle East and North Africa region ranks poorly in the number of research publications between 1985 and 2010. Key goals should include improving data quality, availability, analysis, and presentation across Egypt, and identifying knowledge gaps and synergies across all the global, regional, and national development partners. In Egypt, there are several initiatives that indicate a changing perspective on data transparency and accessibility. The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, supported by the Economic Research Forum, is enabling online availability of Egypt’s labor market surveys and portions of its Household Income, Expenditure and Consumption Surveys. Recently, the Arab Spatial Knowledge platform, a regional information tool that attempts to provide this missing data and information, also includes the first-ever food and nutrition security blog on the Arab World. A handful of ministries keep the public informed either through updated releases of policy changes or through frequent statistical and economic reports on development challenges and indicators of development. All are positive achievements that signal a movement toward open access to data.
Prospects for deriving higher productivity from Egypt’s traditional farmland along the Nile are limited due to the problems of rising soil salinity and increasing urban encroachment. The government has plans to reclaim one million acres of land to increase agricultural area and thus volume, which will require using non-renewable groundwater for 90 percent of the irrigation needs. But there are questions about the sustainability of drawing on non-renewable water sources. Egypt’s agricultural sector relies almost completely on irrigation from the Nile—rainfed agriculture in the county is nonexistent. The Nile accounts for more than 97 percent of both Nile and groundwater sources together, of which 85 percent is used in agriculture.
If the government develops new agricultural land, it will need to take certain considerations into account. Given that Egypt has a history of land reclamation, it is important to carefully study its experience and apply the lessons learned in the process of planning new projects. To make the most efficient use of scarce water resources, the focus should be on producing high-value, high-quality crops and livestock (such as poultry and large animals for dairy) rather than staple crops like wheat and corn. The government should also consider using reclaimed land for expanding Egypt’s services sector and establishing new industrial communities, which would contribute to economic growth and employment opportunities.
There may also be alternatives to relying solely on groundwater depletion for agriculture in reclaimed lands, such as increased water harvesting from rain occurrences and flashfloods, desalination, and improved treatment of wastewater for agricultural and industrial use. Currently around 50 percent of wastewater is treated, and less than 25 percent of that is reused in agriculture.
The right incentives and the management of those incentives will be important factors in the success of new land development. There needs to be a significant investment in a reliable road and transportation system that will connect the reclaimed areas with the nearest cities, towns and villages, as well as functional markets. If the government wants farmers to settle on the new lands, it must carefully study how to create well-integrated and self-sufficient new communities—research is needed on the infrastructure to entice these settlers to reside there with their families, and on the upstream and downstream economic activities best suited to complement the new agricultural production. Preferably infrastructure including road networks and public services like water and electricity should be in place before the settlers arrive. Planners must find meaningful incentives for private investors and effective public-private partnerships, or PPPs. They must also provide land ownership opportunities that will entice Egyptians to pass up a potential city job for work in remote marginal areas. The scheme must be devoid of political pressures and corruption that could contribute to failure.
Rural development must become a broad national priority, going beyond agricultural development to increasing and expanding rural livelihoods in general. Employment opportunities are scarce in rural areas, driving young graduates to migrate to metropolitan cities and other urban areas in search of employment. More often than not they wind up in the informal sector working in menial jobs not commensurate with their educational background. The random migration, which began when President Nasser launched major industrialization initiatives in the 1950s, places unbearable economic and social stresses on urban areas that are unable to absorb the expanding number of arrivals.
The private sector, both Egyptian and foreign, can be an important partner in rural development and in the promotion of inclusive growth. However, this will require rules and regulations that are not stifling for investors, and arrangements that reconcile the private sector’s goal of maximizing profits with the government’s goal of maximizing social welfare. Economic structural reforms are needed to enhance competitiveness for exports and attract foreign direct investment—building a more conducive business environment, promoting the transparency of rules, and ensuring fair and speedy settlement of disputes.
The government must address various issues related to monetary policy. It will be necessary to allow a flexible exchange rate to fight the loss of competitiveness and rising speculative currency demand all the while managing domestic inflationary pressures. The government’s strategy must include more long-term solutions for increasing and diversifying Egypt’s sources of foreign currency; the new project to expand the Suez Canal is a step in the right direction.
Improvements along the value chain across all activities are necessary to improve producer and consumer access to domestic and international markets. This will mean more diverse and higher quality products for consumers and larger markets for producers. To drive greater exports, especially of perishable goods, the government must ensure reliable road transport networks, proper storage facilities, and efficient export clearance procedures at the ports.
At the household level, a significant public awareness campaign must be launched to promote a more nutritious Egyptian diet. The fact that the stunting prevalence also includes some children in higher income brackets points to the dire need for nutritional education. Programs targeting mothers will be crucial in preventing nutrition deficiencies during the important first thousand days of a child’s physical development. Focusing on better public service delivery can go a long way toward reversing food insecurity at the household and individual levels. More spending on improved water and wastewater infrastructure is necessary in order to reduce chronic occurrences of diseases such as diarrhea that exacerbate micro nutrient deficiency in children.
Perrihan Al-Riffai is a senior research analyst in the development strategy and governance division at the International Food Policy Research Institute. She served as a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme in Damascus during 2008-2009. She is co-author of How to Build Resilience to Conflict: The Role of Food Security, and other publications.
The Obesity Crisis
Obesity has become one of our major global economic problems. Many people may be surprised to learn that obesity is jostling with armed conflict and smoking as a human activity with the greatest negative impact on the global economy. It imposes significant costs on healthcare systems; around the world, 2 to 7 percent of all healthcare spending relates to measures to prevent and treat this condition, with up to 20 percent of all healthcare spending attributable to obesity, through related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. These healthcare costs place a burden on government finances. Furthermore, overall economic gains and employers are affected by impaired productivity.
The global economic impact of obesity is increasing. The prevalence of obesity is still rising in developed economies, and now, as emerging markets become richer, they, too, are experiencing rising prevalence. The evidence suggests that the economic and societal impact of obesity is deep and lasting. It may entrench social inequalities between generations; obesity in parents appears to increase the risk of obesity in their children through both physiological and behavioral mechanisms.
It is no exaggeration to say that across the globe, obesity and its associated medical conditions have reached crisis proportions. More than 2.1 billion people—nearly 30 percent of the global population—are overweight or obese. That’s nearly two and a half times the number of people who are undernourished. Obesity, which should be preventable, is now responsible for about 5 percent of all deaths worldwide. If its prevalence continues on its current trajectory, almost half of the world’s adult population will be overweight or obese by 2030.
Left unchecked, rising prevalence is very likely to have an even more significant economic impact than it does today—putting pressure on employers and the productivity of their companies and on healthcare systems, and on the public purse. The urgent question is how best to combat it. Tackling obesity requires a comprehensive intervention strategy rolled out at scale.
The root causes of rising obesity are highly complex, spanning evolutionary, biological, psychological, sociological, economic, and institutional factors. A Foresight project of Britain’s Research Councils UK has identified more than a hundred variables that directly or indirectly affect obesity outcomes.
Because of centuries of food insecurity, human beings have evolved with a biological ability to cope with food scarcity rather than abundance. The human body seeks out energy-dense foods and tries to conserve energy as fat. Hormones that regulate hunger and satiety encourage people to seek extra food when food is scarce but do not seem to have the ability to prevent overconsumption or encourage extra calorie burning when food is abundant.
Modern life makes fewer physical demands on many people, who lead less active lifestyles as technology replaces the need for physical labor. With many jobs now sedentary, exercise is a conscious and optional choice. As an illustration of the change, in 1969 about 40 percent of schoolchildren in the United States walked or rode their bicycles to school; by 2001, only 13 percent did so. Over the past fifty years, it has been estimated that a reduction in occupation-related physical activity in the United States has reduced the daily net energy balance by one hundred calories per person, a significant share of the overall change in the energy balance during this period.
Mass urbanization in many regions—the global urban population is growing by sixty-five million a year, the equivalent of adding seven new cities the size of Chicago every twelve months—is boosting incomes but reinforcing a less physical lifestyle. One Chinese study found that urbanization reduces daily energy expenditure by 300 to 400 calories, and traveling to work by car or bus reduces it by a further 200 calories.
Human beings also have a psychological relationship with food that goes beyond a need for basic sustenance. Many of us use food as a reward or to relieve stress, or have a compulsive relationship with certain types of food. There is a correlation between obesity and high rates of some mental health conditions, including depression.
People are highly influenced by social norms and subtle social cues in their eating habits and their attitude toward weight. For instance, if they dine with other people who eat more, they eat more themselves; likewise, those who dine with people who eat less, eat less themselves. One study has shown that 35 percent more calories are consumed when having dinner with a friend than when eating alone, and 96 percent more if dining in a group of seven people. Another study has shown that a person is 57 percent more likely to become obese if a friend has also become obese—evidence of social normalization of the condition.
Food has become much more affordable over the past sixty years. In the United States, the share of average household income spent on food fell from 42 percent in 1900 to 30 percent in 1950 and to 13.5 percent in 2003. This is beneficial in welfare terms, reducing rates of undernutrition and freeing up disposable income.
Many of these factors underline the importance of the environmental context as a driver of obesity prevalence. A helpful lens for examining how the environment affects prevalence is looking at expatriate populations, transplanted from one context to another. For example, British expats who have settled in Abu Dhabi have diabetes prevalence rates of 18 percent, compared with a baseline prevalence of 8 percent in the United Kingdom. Physical environment is one factor, but it is likely that sociocultural variables are also relevant. Various studies suggest a correlation between Hispanic immigrants’ obesity rate and the length of their stay in the United States and the depth of their cultural assimilation; the longer they are in the United States, the more prone they are to obesity as their eating habits change.
The Global Prosperity Factor
No country reduced its obesity prevalence between 2000 and 2013. During this period, prevalence grew by 0.5 percentage points or more a year in 130 of the 196 countries for which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) documents obesity prevalence data. Prevalence growth has momentum; countries with high prevalence in 2000 have continued to see the highest prevalence growth rates since then. There does not seem to be convergence to a stable obesity prevalence rate internationally. Recent data suggest a plateauing of prevalence in some developed markets, such as Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, while Australia, France, Switzerland, and other advanced economies experience continued growth.
Overall obesity prevalence does appear to be correlated with a country’s wealth. It is striking how few countries escape the pattern. Among G-20 nations with per capita GDP exceeding $8,000, only Japan and South Korea have prevalence rates lower than 16 percent. The majority of G-20 countries have rates of more than 20 percent. Looking at children specifically, the prevalence of obesity ranges between 5 and 20 percent.
China, Indonesia, and India currently have lower obesity prevalence rates than advanced economies. However, as rapid industrialization and urbanization boost incomes, the prevalence rates in these fast-growing emerging economies are rising quickly. In India and China, the prevalence of obesity in cities is three to four times the rate in rural areas, reflecting higher incomes in urban areas and therefore higher levels of nutrition and food consumption and often less active labor. The prevalence of obese and overweight people rose at 1.2 percent a year in Chinese adult males between 1985 and 2004 and 1 percent a year in adult females.
This is a pattern we observe across emerging markets. Many of these countries experienced a rise in prevalence of one percentage point a year between 2000 and 2008. Today, many countries have prevalence rates of 20 percent or even 30 percent and now have well-entrenched rising trends. A report from the Overseas Development Institute found that obesity and overweight rates in North Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East were on a par with Europe at 10 to 30 percent obesity in adults and at 30 to 70 percent overweight. Other regions, including South Asia and East Asia, are catching up with advanced economies in obesity prevalence.
All G-20 countries are experiencing year-on-year growth in prevalence of 0.5 to 1.5 percentage points. In the United Kingdom, for instance, more than 80 percent of the population aged 21 to 60 could be obese or overweight by 2030, according to the government’s 2007 Foresight report. Breaking this down by gender, the report estimated that more than 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women would be obese. By 2050, the report estimated, one-quarter of children in the United Kingdom could be obese.
Developed economies have a clear inverse correlation between income levels and the prevalence of obesity, particularly in the case of women and children. Put simply, lower-income groups tend to have higher obesity prevalence. And it seems likely that causation works both ways. Across a range of developed markets, this inverse relationship is most acute for women.
A study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that obesity prevalence is generally similar at all income levels for men in the United States (around 30 percent), while for women it was 42 percent at low-income levels versus 29 percent at high-income levels. In Australia the relationship holds across genders, with obesity prevalence ten percentile points higher for adults in the most disadvantaged quintile versus the least disadvantaged one. In several other countries, it has been observed that obesity prevalence for women ranges from 1.6 (United States) to 18.4 (South Korea) times as high at the lower end of the education spectrum as it is for those at the upper end. This relative index of inequality is lower on average for men.
Given that obesity has a higher incidence among disadvantaged households, it also imposes a disproportionate burden on these already disadvantaged households in terms of higher healthcare costs and reduced welfare. This entrenchment of inequalities operates both within countries and at the international level. In emerging economies where public health provision is nascent, these healthcare costs fall directly on households. In addition, there is some evidence that epigenetic factors may disproportionately increase the burden of obesity in emerging markets.
Moreover, it seems that obesity can be passed from generation to generation. There is evidence that obesity risk is tied to parental body mass index (BMI) through both physiological and behavioral mechanisms. Studies find that a mother with a high BMI is a significant predictor of obesity in her children when they grow to adulthood because fetuses develop a compromised metabolism and a resistance to insulin. However, other sociocultural factors and genetic predisposition drive the onset of obesity, too. For instance, eating habits that confound adult eating patterns are typically passed along by parents in early life.
The global economic impact of obesity is roughly $2 trillion, or 2.8 percent of global GDP, according to our analysis, which reflects the fact that obesity places a burden on developed and developing economies alike. This is equivalent to the GDP of Italy or Russia. Obesity today has the same impact on the global economy as armed violence, war, and terrorism, and only a shade less than smoking. These three are far and away the largest global economic impact areas driven by human behavior.
We assessed the current impact to society of fourteen major problems that are caused by humans—that is, those that are the result of human decisions, are amplified by human or societal behavior, or depend on societal, legal, or infrastructural environments created by humans. These ranged from obesity, smoking, and alcoholism to armed violence, climate change, and unsafe sex. This analysis therefore excludes diseases such as malaria but includes the impact of diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes whose prevalence lifestyle choices or other human decisions can drive. Our estimate of the global economic toll of obesity includes the cost of lost economic productivity through a reduction in productive life years, direct costs to healthcare systems, and the investment required to mitigate the impact of obesity.
Of the three sources of cost that we assessed, lost productivity is the most significant in our analysis, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the total global cost of obesity. Some critics may argue that lost productivity should not be included, as it does not generate a direct cost. However, we believe that, while not a direct cost to society, it should be included because it has a negative economic impact. In addition, it should be noted that our estimates are based on the current cost of these burdens. This means that burdens such as climate change and obesity, which result in a higher future cost, are ranked lower than if we had conducted these analyses on a net present value basis.
In most developed economies, obesity ranks among the top three human-generated economic burdens. In the United Kingdom, for instance, obesity has the second-largest impact after smoking, generating an economic loss of more than $70 billion a year in 2012, or 3 percent of GDP. In the United States, armed conflict (and especially spending on the military) has the highest social and economic impact, and obesity is second; obesity generated an impact in the United States of $663 billion a year in 2012, or 4.1 percent of GDP. In both countries, the prevalence and associated cost of obesity are growing, albeit less steeply than in recent decades and in comparison with many emerging markets.
The economic toll of obesity varies more widely in emerging markets. In Mexico, obesity is the largest social impact at 2.5 percent of GDP. We observe comparable burdens in Morocco at 2.8 percent of GDP, in South Africa at 3 percent of GDP, and in Brazil at 2.4 percent of GDP. But in other emerging markets obesity is—as of now—a much less significant economic burden. In Nigeria, for instance, obesity’s impact on the economy is 0.7 percent of GDP, ranking as the thirteenth-largest economic burden; in Indonesia, it has a 1 percent impact, ranking eighth; and in China, the figure is 1.1 percent, ranking ninth.
We assessed the productivity lost due to obesity using the standard measurement of disability-adjusted life years, or DALYs, which measure the number of years that are lost or rendered economically unproductive due to disease. Of the DALYs lost to obesity across the world, around 71 percent are due to premature mortality and 29 percent to disability that has prevented individuals from making their full economic contribution. The number of DALYs lost to obesity today is three times as high in developed economies as it is in emerging markets. However, that gap is narrowing. The rise in the number of DALYs per 100,000 people lost because of obesity slowed in developed economies between 1990 and 2010 but soared by 90 percent in emerging economies.
In Indonesia, for instance, the number of DALYs lost per 100,000 people due to obesity has risen from 184 in 1990 to 885 in 2010, a jump of nearly 400 percent. In South Africa, DALYs lost to obesity totaled 1,577 in 1990 and 2,659 in 2010, an increase of 69 percent. The 29 percent “disability” burden affects employers through lost employee productivity and healthcare costs. Employees with particularly high BMI can be less productive in the workplace due to the range of health problems that obesity can cause, including, for example, arthritis, fatigue, breathlessness, lack of concentration, and depression.
There is also a relationship between obesity and absenteeism from work for health reasons, including frequent medical checkups. In the United Kingdom, for instance, we estimate that the total impact on employers is $7 billion. Of this, $5 billion, or more than two-thirds, comes from decreased productivity in the workplace rather than outright absenteeism. In the United Kingdom, higher health insurance premiums are not a major issue for employers because of the central role of public health through the National Health Service (NHS). By contrast, in the United States higher insurance premiums could contribute as much as $7.7 billion of our $18.9 billion to $21.9 billion overall estimate of the cost of obesity to employers.
McKinsey analysis on healthcare spending in the OECD group of countries has found that, without reform, healthcare spending could grow by 50 to 100 percent between 2007 and 2040. In the United Kingdom alone, the research found that healthcare spending could account for 11 to 14 percent of GDP by 2040. Separately, the World Health Organization estimates that high BMI drives between 2 and 7 percent of global healthcare spending. We observe this correlation clearly in the United Kingdom.
The research found four major drivers of increased spending: an aging population, an explosion of so-called lifestyle diseases, a rise in public expectations, and a lack of value consciousness among healthcare consumers. We cannot address aging populations or rising public expectations of healthcare provision. However, we can tackle a lack of consciousness about value among citizens and a lack of efficiency within healthcare systems, as well as the burden of lifestyle diseases of which obesity is a major driver. Obesity contributes to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers such as kidney, bowel, and breast. Mitigating or reversing the obesity crisis is a critical element of any strategy for achieving sustainable provision of healthcare and managing public budgets.
Today, one in twelve of the global adult population has type 2 diabetes, which is at least partly driven by obesity. In addition, a large number of people suffer from “impaired glucose intolerance,” a pre-diabetes condition that usually leads to the disease unless significant lifestyle changes are made. Type 2 diabetes is both preventable and reversible with lifestyle changes. A U.S. study found that a 7 percent weight loss accompanied by moderate physical activity decreased the number of new diabetes cases by 58 percent among the high-risk population. In the United States, the direct cost of obesity to the healthcare system is estimated to be between $147 billion and $190 billion a year—or about 7 percent of total annual healthcare spending. Per capita medical spending is 24 percent higher for obese individuals than for those who are not obese. Some estimates put the future cost to U.S. healthcare from obesity as high as $344 billion by 2018, or approximately 20 percent of total healthcare spending that year. To put the figure into context, this cost would be greater than the GDP of South Africa today.
In the United Kingdom, the government currently spends about £6 billion ($9.6 billion) a year on the direct medical costs of conditions related to being overweight or obese. That is 5 percent of the entire budget of the NHS. It spends a further £10 billion on diabetes. The cost of obesity and diabetes to the healthcare system is equivalent to the United Kingdom’s combined “protection” budget for the police and fire services, law courts, and prisons; 40 percent of total spending on education; and about 35 percent of the country’s defense budget. The £6 billion cost has increased since 2007, when it was £4 billion to £5 billion. On current projections of rising prevalence of obesity and overweight conditions, the cost to the NHS could increase from between £6 billion and £8 billion in 2015 to between £10 billion and £12 billion in 2030.
Only a small share of the overall cost of obesity comes from investment to mitigate or prevent it, compared with other health- or non-health-related burdens. We estimate that the global investment to prevent obesity is about $5 billion, or only 0.25 percent of the total economic impact of obesity. In comparison, investment in prevention of traffic accidents accounts for about 1.2 percent of the overall cost of such accidents. Instead, obesity spending is weighted toward treatment. For example, the United Kingdom’s largest prevention outlay is £11 million a year through the Change4Life campaign. This is equivalent to only 0.18 percent of what the NHS spends on obesity- and overweight-related conditions. Part of the reason for this is that the effectiveness of preventive approaches is difficult to assess.
Grasping the Nettle
Obesity is the result of a multitude of factors, and therefore no single solution is likely to be effective in tackling it. A range of interventions that encourage and empower individuals to make the required behavioral changes will be necessary. These interventions need to be systematic, not only aiming for an immediate impact on the net energy balance but also making sure that change is sustained. A comprehensive portfolio of interventions is also required to target the different needs and responsiveness of various population segments. Governments, healthcare systems, employers, retailers, consumer-goods companies, and consumers themselves all need to play their part.
We set out to develop a comprehensive catalog of interventions that could be used to reduce obesity. Working in conjunction with policy advisors, population-health academics, and individuals from companies, and drawing on an extensive review of research, we have identified seventy-four intervention levers that are being discussed or piloted around the world. The levers fall broadly into eighteen groups, including:
Facilitating and encouraging walking, cycling, and public transport, which engender more physical activity.
Providing incentives or support to encourage healthy behavior. These can include general financial incentives, such as premium rebates or reward points, or more targeted facilitating incentives such as free gym membership. Payors can also deliver other interventions such as parental and weight-management programs.
Improving the health quality of meals in controlled settings such as schools and workplaces.
High-Calorie Food and Drink Availability
Reducing the ready availability of high-calorie foods to help control impulse consumption, including removing vending machines from schools and workplaces, high-calorie foods from supermarket checkouts, and fast-food retailers from locations outside schools.
Providing calorie and other nutritional labeling so that consumers can understand the content of their food. Labels can be plain text or “engaging”—an easy-to-interpret assessment of the health of the product (for example, traffic lights).
Restricting high-calorie food advertising to reduce exposure to marketing that is proven to promote consumption.
Empowering and educating parents to promote a healthier lifestyle for their children through regular parental guidance sessions.
Intervening with drugs to reverse obesity rapidly in cases where it is creating immediate health risks.
Encouraging appropriate consumption through incremental (for example, 1 to 5 percent) reductions in portion sizes and designing packaging to better delineate portion size to help consumers moderate their consumption.
Restricting promotional activity in high-calorie impulse foods to decrease consumption.
Public Health Campaigns
Delivering a public health campaign through multiple media outlets to promote healthy eating and physical activity habits.
Incrementally reducing calories in food products to drive subconscious reduction in consumption; introducing new product ranges with improved nutritional profiles.
Introducing additional hours of physical education and healthy nutrition in school curricula to encourage healthier habits.
Subsidies, Taxes, and Prices
Changing agricultural policy or regulatory policy to adjust consumer prices and the supply of select food and/or beverage categories.
Scaling up delivery of bariatric surgery to reduce stomach capacity and deliver immediate change in food consumption.
Making changes to physical spaces and food access to facilitate and encourage healthy habits, such as increasing the walkability of cities and green space, furthering access to community sports facilities, and improving access to grocery stores.
Educating and empowering individuals to change key weight behavior through counseling, physical activity programs, and education.
Offering programs and engaging employees to encourage healthy behavior, for example through financial and non-financial incentives, team competitions, and the provision of education and self-management tools such as personal tracking devices.
Based on existing evidence, any single intervention is likely to have only a small overall impact on its own. A systemic, sustained portfolio of initiatives, delivered at scale, is needed to address the health burden. Almost all the identified interventions are cost-effective for society—savings on healthcare costs and higher productivity could outweigh the direct investment required to deliver the intervention when assessed over the full lifetime of target population. In the United Kingdom, such a program could reverse rising obesity, saving about $1.2 billion a year for the NHS.
Education and personal responsibility are critical elements of any program to reduce obesity, but not sufficient on their own. Additional interventions are needed that rely less on conscious choices by individuals and more on changes to the environment and societal norms. Such interventions “reset the defaults” to make healthy behaviors easier. They include reducing default portion sizes, changing marketing practices, and restructuring urban and education environments to facilitate physical activity.
No individual sectors in society—whether they are governments, retailers, consumer-goods companies, restaurants, employers, media organizations, educators, healthcare providers, or individuals—can address obesity on their own. Capturing the full potential impact requires engagement from as many sectors as possible. Successful precedents suggest that a combination of top-down corporate and government interventions with bottom-up community-led ones is required to change public health outcomes. Moreover, some kind of coordination is likely to be required to capture potentially high-impact industry interventions, given that there are market share risks facing any first mover.
Implementing an obesity abatement program at the required scale will not be easy. We see three important elements to consider: 1) deploy as many interventions as possible at scale and delivered effectively by the full range of sectors in society; 2) understand how to align incentives and build cooperation; and 3) do not focus unduly on prioritizing interventions because this can hamper constructive action.
The evidence base on the clinical and behavioral interventions to reduce obesity is far from complete, and ongoing investment in research is imperative. However, in many cases this is proving a barrier to action. It need not be so. We should experiment with solutions and try them out rather than waiting for perfect proof of what works, especially in the many areas where interventions are low risk. We have enough knowledge to be taking more action than we currently are.
A challenge of this magnitude requires an ambitious set of solutions—and the diffuse range of the many sectors of society relevant to this issue makes it even harder to achieve progress. We need to improve our ability to motivate action across such a diverse set of sectors. We believe that research and trial and error in how to deliver a cross-societal response are as important as research in specific intervention areas.
Some experts are questioning whether the net energy balance—that people are eating too much and exercising too little—is the appropriate lens to examine root causes. There is growing interest in the role that different nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats play in our metabolism and in hormones that regulate satiety and hunger. Many leading scientists support the view that refined carbohydrates promote weight gain and inhibit weight loss. The science to date on this is inconclusive, and we do not include it in the assessment here without further evidence. However, it is an important area for further research and could refocus the design of obesity interventions. Similarly, there is increasing interest in the role of the microbiome—our intestinal bacteria ecosystem. Scientific evidence from controlled trials suggests that individuals whose bodies contain a greater diversity of bacterial species are less prone to high body BMI and less likely to gain weight. This also is too inconclusive for us to include at this stage. Some commentators take the causal complexity of the problem as a predetermined defeat. They say, “If the causes are so complex, where do we begin?”
We do have a good understanding of the proximate causes, even if the background causes are complex. We know that over the past fifty years, individuals’ daily energy balance equation has changed; physical activity has declined, and energy consumption has increased. Even though there are important outstanding questions about diet composition, gut microbiome, and epigenetics, we are not walking blind with no sense of what to address. However, interventions to increase physical activity, reduce energy consumption, and address diet composition cannot just seek to reverse the historical trends that have left the population where it is today. For example, we cannot, nor would we wish to, reverse the invention of the Internet or the industrialization of agriculture. We need to assess what interventions make sense and are feasible today.
Four Imperatives for Progress
As many interventions as possible must be delivered to have significant impact. A holistic approach by the public, private, and third sectors is the best way forward. A program that succeeds in reversing obesity prevalence is likely to require as many interventions as possible to be deployed at scale and with high-quality delivery, our research finds. Deploying a comprehensive set of interventions would need the full set of societal sectors we have identified—local and national government, healthcare payors and providers, schools, employers, food and beverage manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, and food-service providers—to play a role. Coordination will be crucial. Today, government efforts to tackle the obesity issue seem too fragmented to be effective. In the United Kingdom, fifteen central government departments; all local authorities with responsibility for health, education, and local planning; sixteen European Union directorates general; and a wide range of non-governmental organizations all have a significant impact on the major intervention areas that we have identified.
Understanding how to align incentives and build cooperation is critical to success. Some attempts to overcome obesity failed because they did not align with the incentives of the required participants. An example of this was the attempt by Michael Bloomberg to ban supersize beverages when he was mayor of New York. This change was blocked in the courts after extensive lobbying and legal action by the soft drink and retail industries. Other initiatives such as EPODE, which originated in France, and the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation in the United States are leading the way in delivering integrated responses to the issue. If society is to succeed in tackling obesity, it will be necessary to find ways to build on such initiatives, to overcome misaligned incentives, and to coordinate action across a diverse set of societal sectors. The same is true of many of the public health and environmental challenges facing us in the twenty-first century. In the case of regulation to reduce the incidence of smoking, it was not possible to align incentives; in the case of obesity, we believe that it might be possible.
Government, healthcare systems, and private and social-sector organizations and entities should not focus overly on prioritizing interventions because this could hamper constructive action. Only a holistic, broad, and multipronged approach can be successful in reversing the obesity crisis. Interventions in the hands of all relevant societal sectors need to be deployed. Prioritization based on potential impact, cost-effectiveness, and feasibility is always important when making investment decisions. However, in the case of obesity, focusing unduly on priority interventions could be unhelpful given the need for a holistic response. A search for the “best” interventions or a single solution could delay action and displace responsibility. Given the seriousness of the obesity issue, the aim should be to do as much as possible as soon as possible.
While investment in research should continue, society should also engage in trial and error. Given the scale of the obesity crisis and its economic impact, investment in research, innovation, and experimentation is relatively low. For instance, in total the United Kingdom invests less than $1 billion a year in prevention activities such as weight-management programs and public health campaigns. To put that in perspective, that is only about 1 percent of the social cost of obesity in the United Kingdom. More investment is required, especially in understanding the effectiveness of intervention measures when they are applied as part of a comprehensive program. But society should also be prepared to experiment with possible interventions. In many intervention areas, impact data from high-quality, randomized control trials are not possible to gather. So, rather than waiting for such data, the relevant sectors of society should be pragmatic with a bias toward action, especially where the risks of intervening are low, using trial and error to flesh out their understanding of potential solutions.
This essay is adapted from “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis,” a November 2014 discussion paper by the McKinsey Global Institute
Richard Dobbs is senior partner at McKinsey & Company’s London office and a director of the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and economics research arm of the international consulting firm. He is an Associate Fellow of the Said Business School at Oxford University. He is co-author ofValue: The Four Cornerstones of Corporate Finance and, most recently, No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends. On Twitter: @richard_dobbs.
James Manyika is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company’s San Francisco office and a director of the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and economics research arm of the international consulting firm. He serves as vice chairman on President Obama’s Global Development Council and is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, as well as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bretton Woods Committee. He is the co-author of No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends.
Dining with Darius
In April prior to the Expo Milano 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry gathered the chefs who would represent America at the world fair. “You can make connections around the dinner table you can’t around the conference table,” he told them. In 2012, the State Department had formed a Diplomatic Culinary Partnership with the James Beard Foundation, proclaiming that chefs would “elevate the role of culinary engagement in America’s formal and public diplomacy efforts.”
Such nods to the kitchen seem quaint in light of history’s deep association between cuisine and politics. From the earliest empires, a ruler had to eat and drink to maintain his personal prowess, gather his strength for battle, ensure his virility in bed, and outperform those who aspired to his throne, all the while making sure his enemies did not poison him. Cuisine, like monumental buildings and fine dress, demonstrated and reinforced a sovereign’s power. During ages when transport was slow and expensive, dining on exotic luxuries showed off a leader’s command of the resources of his domains. When cuisine was shared it bought loyalty from followers, and when withheld it humiliated and punished his enemies. Farm products were central to generating revenues, and once processed were used to pay bureaucrats, bodyguards, and warriors. When annual food shortages before the harvest were a regular reminder of the ever-present threat of famine and riot, it was the ruler’s responsibility to make sure that the poor, particularly the urban poor, did not go short.
For more than two thousand years, from circa 550 BC to 1700 AD, Persian high cuisine was as important to the politics of Eurasian states as French gastronomy would become to international diplomacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its long reign began when Cyrus the Great led his charioteers down off the high plateau to the plains of Mesopotamia, conquered the rich lowlands, named himself King of Kings, and established the largest empire yet seen, stretching from Turkey in the west to the borders of India in the east. Not the least of his prizes was the world’s most sophisticated culinary tradition, the Babylonian, which stretched back another thousand years to the first written recipes recorded in 1750 BC. Cyrus adopted its cooks, its dishes, and the organization of its kitchens.
The organization of the imperial kitchen, one of the most important government departments, was to remain remarkably stable over the centuries. Into it was checked and recorded much of the ruler’s revenue, whether as tribute, taxes, or the products of his own farms, orchards, game parks, and fisheries. Tribute bearers from around the empire, depicted on the ceremonial staircase that Cyrus’s successor Darius I had constructed at the palace of Persepolis, brought grains, oil seeds, fruits and vegetables, and domesticated animals along with showier gold, silver, wild animals, and beautiful slaves. In the elaborate series of kitchens in the palace, and in satellite operations such as bakeries, fisheries, and game reserves, perhaps thousands of workers labored to process and cook these foodstuffs. The head cook, or executive chef, as he would now be called, was responsible for logging the offerings into storage and then out to the kitchens, for organizing the staff, and for getting the multiple meals of the palace served to the appropriate groups. He worked with the steward, one of the ruler’s right-hand men, who was responsible for protocol and administration of the palace. Somewhat less senior but also crucial was the royal physician, who with his staff prepared strengthening foods before battle or if the king seemed ill, and monitored the ruler’s health, checking his digestion, urine, and excrement to see that foods passed properly. Finally, royal gardeners, huntsmen, and others delivered delicacies such as dates, pomegranates, and game.
The imperial kitchens added value to grains and carcasses, turning them from useless, bulky objects to fine white bread, delicious oils, or aromatic roasted meats, by slaughtering and butchering, threshing and grinding, boiling and crushing, and multiple other difficult, laborious operations. Processed foods were handed out as rations, payment in kind, to the ruler’s bodyguards and bureaucrats, and to all artisans, women, soothsayers, entertainers, and of course the cooks, who kept the imperial machine humming. A bronze pillar was inscribed with the rations for Cyrus’s meals, reported the Macedonian writer Polyaenus. These included different grades of wheat and barley flour; carcasses of oxen, horses, rams, geese, and birds; milk both fresh and fermented; seasonings and condiments such as garlic and onions, apple and pomegranate juice, cumin, dill, turnip pickles and capers; cooking fats including ghee, sesame, and almond oils; wine of both dates and grapes; “cakes” of dried fruits and nuts bound with a resin; and firewood for preparing meals. Far too much food for any single person, even a King of Kings, these lists bear witness to the way palace provisions were distributed.
Nothing established the ruler’s position within his own court and with foreign dignitaries more than the great feast. Whole carcasses were roasted, an extravagance in a land where fuel was scarce. Sauces, time consuming to prepare, accompanied the meat. Confections were created from sesame oil, honey, barley meal, and fresh mild cheese. Guests went home with leftovers and the elaborate silver and gold drinking horns from which they had quaffed their wine. A fine gift induced loyalty in humans, “just as it does in dogs,” sniffed Xenophon, the Greek historian who served in the Persian army. The Greeks might sniff, but a hierarchy of benevolence was the working assumption of most of the ancient world.
Power to Feed
With food and cooking so important, it’s not surprising that the universe was thought to be a giant kitchen in which fire and water were the chief agents of change just as they were in the sculleries and bakeries of the palace. The sun beamed down fire (thought to be a real living thing that danced and died if it were not fed), the moon water. Fire and water were the driving agents of a world made up of a hierarchy of living things, each with their own way of dining. Minerals, then believed to be alive, needed little more than water. Plants thrived on water and earth, cooked by the sun until they flowered and seeded. Animals ate raw meat or vegetables, alone and standing. Nomads who (at least by reputation) ate raw meat but no grains, were considered little better than animals; civilized humans ate meat and grains only if they had been further cooked in the fire, and they ate them reclining, sitting, or kneeling with their fellows. The poor among them ate the less prestigious grains, the darkest bread, and rarely saw meat. The privileged, perhaps 10 percent of the population, enjoyed high cuisines that included fine white bread, meat, sauces, and sweets. At the pinnacle of the hierarchy was the monarch, who ate the most refined foods, dining alone since he had no equal. He was the pivot of the cosmos, poised between the natural and the supernatural, the gods who supped on ethereal aromas and smoke. The more cooked the food, the more refined, the more concentrated, and the more powerful it was.
A chain of culinary benevolence (or bribery) bound together gods and humans, rulers and subjects. The gods had given food to humans, especially the grains and the domesticated animals, it was believed. In return, the king offered sacrifices of grains and animals to the gods to guarantee fertile women, good crops, and success in war. The king thus ensured the peoples’ well-being, receiving in return grains and animals in tribute from his subjects. As historian Amy Singer puts it, it was the power to feed that fed power.
And so Persian cuisine, a cuisine that satisfied these multiple political needs, was refined during a thousand years and more of successive Persian empires, the Seleucid, the Parthian, and the Sassanid. Other empires that bordered on the sequence of Persian empires copied what they could. The Greeks, for example—although suspicious of imperial extravagance—adopted Persian sauces, Persian wine cups, and Persian dining benches, while Alexander the Great took cooks as part of the spoils of war. Drawing on these intermediaries, the cuisine of imperial Persia found echoes in the cuisine of imperial Rome.
In 762, the second caliph of the Abbasid Dynasty founded Baghdad. He modified the Persian culinary tradition to fit the gradually emerging Islamic culinary strictures, as Cyrus had co-opted the cuisine of Babylon a thousand years earlier. By the end of the century, Harun Al-Rashid, best known today from the Thousand and One Nights (although the stories about him are probably fictitious), took it to new heights. For the caliph and his court, the cooks prepared chicken, tender young goat, and lamb in sauces rich with almonds and pistachios, spices, vinegar, and green herbs. They seized on newly available sugar to create pastries and confectionary that went beyond the halvas and brittles prepared with honey. For the people, agricultural reforms and new ways of food processing improved the diet.
Once again, surrounding states emulated this powerful cuisine. It was recreated in Indian sultanates and central Asian states and across northern Africa. Elements crept into the newly prosperous princedoms and kingdoms of Europe. A version was found in Al-Andalus; because Christian conquistadors set their sights on the Americas, traces are found across Latin America.
In 1330, the court physician Hu Szu-Hui presented the Mongol emperor of China with a cookbook-cum-dietary manual and food inventory called the Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink. As he explained in the introduction, “There is none, near or far, who does not come to court and offer tribute. Rare dainties and exotic things are all collected in the imperial treasury.” That meant that the Mongols, although best known in the public imagination as fierce warriors who pierced their horses’ necks and sucked on the blood for sustenance, followed centuries of precedent and co-opted Persian cuisine for the court. They had begun their conquests in the 1220s and by mid-century controlled northern China, Persia, Russia, Baghdad, and by 1280 southern China as well.
In the Chinese capital Khanbalik, near present-day Beijing, Kublai Khan asked Chinese advisors to devise a cuisine that would display the Mongol court as powerful and cosmopolitan as befitted emperors who portrayed themselves as heirs to the world’s great empires, calling themselves King of Kings like the Persians, Son of Heaven like the Chinese, Caesar like the Romans, and Great King like the Indians. Captives from Persian lands were instructed to set up flourmills and oil presses, grow grapes and make wine. In the kitchens, traditional Mongol meat soups were prepared with Persian (or with Chinese) thickeners, vegetables, and spices as part of imperial culinary policy.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a trio of Islamic empires, the Safavid, the Ottoman, and the Mughal, which stretched from the Mediterranean to much of India, continued the Persian tradition, with delicate rice pilaus now added to the cuisine. In Isfahan, Shah Abbas I served envoys such as Vali Muhammad Khan of Bukhara. In Istanbul, the Topkapi kitchens of Suleiman the Magnificent had earlier prepared meals for the ruler and his janissaries, as well as elaborate festivities in which sugar sculptures were paraded to the delight of his subjects. And to the east, on the terrace of the fort of Agra, Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal and ruled one-seventh of the world’s population, gave white banquets by the light of the moon, his retinue dressed in white kneeling on white carpets. Prepared by cooks brought from different parts of the Islamic World to work in the kitchens in Delhi or in the sixteen large kitchen tents that were part of the emperor’s train, they featured chicken breasts in a sauce of almonds and creamy yogurt and pilau rice rich with butter and white raisins. They were served on dishes of gold, silver, and Ming porcelain, while the shah drank wine from an auspicious milky white Chinese jade cup, perfectly sized to fit in his palm, and believed to turn color if the drink were poisoned. The Savafid, Ottoman, and Mughal courts received European envoys who reported on the magnificence of the cuisine.
European diplomacy, though, was headed in a different direction. High French cuisine had been created in response to the scientific, political, and religious changes of the mid-seventeenth century as part of the court ceremonial of Versailles. Adopted by the aristocratic diplomatic class, it became first the cuisine of European diplomacy, then over the course of the nineteenth century, the cuisine of world diplomacy. To participate, Asian courts added second, French kitchens. Those of republican persuasion—first the Dutch, then the young American republic, drawing on traditions that went back to republican Rome and democratic Greece—were opposed to such monarchical displays. They embarked on a reform of culinary politics, maintaining the commitment to provide decent diets for their citizens, but distancing diplomacy from the deeply entrenched model of extravagant dining. Although American state dinners have most frequently been French, they have always been modest by historical standards. And the Barack Obama administration’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership continues the move from historical precedent by choosing, for diplomacy, the culinary traditions of the United States.
Rachel Laudan is a visiting scholar in the Institute for Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History; The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage; and co-editor of the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. On Twitter: @rachellaudan.
The Marvel of Bánh Mi
Adjacent to Nhà Thờ Đức Bà, Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral, there was a kiosk that sold a favorite sandwich of my Vietnamese childhood. Customers would travel far and wide for this delicious item, the bánh mì, which seemed stuffed with treasures like an old lady’s bulging purse. It was an airy French baguette with a thin crunchy crust that could contain a cornucopia of roast chicken or pork, homemade pâté, cured ham, headcheese, a mélange of pickled daikon radish and carrot, slices of cucumber and chili pepper, a generous sprinkling of cilantro leaves, a few dashes of Maggi sauce, and a spread of mayonnaise (which, for some reason, Vietnamese call bơ, which means butter). At once spicy, salty, sour, savory, sweet, and aromatic: a bite into a bánh mì on a Saigon street was a moment of rapture.
How could I have imagined then, in wartime Vietnam, that bánh mì would one day become an international sandwich sensation, a culinary wonder of our globalized age? It has spread from Saigon to California and from there to the rest of the planet. Every city in North America now has its own bánh mì shop or chain: Bánh Mì Saigon in New York, Bun Mee in San Francisco, BONMi in Washington, DC, Bánh Mì Bá Get in Chicago, Bánh Mì Boys in Toronto. Bánh mì is standard food truck fare from San Diego to Boston. Yum! Brands, owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has opened Bánh Shop fast-food outlets in Dallas. South of the border in Mexico City is a bright red and yellow bánh mì food truck called Ñham Ñham. Shops and chains have sprung up everywhere else; in London there is Kêu!, Bánhmì11, and, next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Banh Mi Bay. Among the options in Shanghai is Mr. V, whose menu includes the Obscene Double Triple—bánh mì with headcheese, Vietnamese sausage, and peppercorn terrine; in Singapore, you can try Bánh Mì 888; one of the busiest in Tokyo is a place simply called Bánh Mì Sandwich.
The sandwich is sprouting in the fancier restaurants run by top chefs, who are having fun taking bánh mì to more serious culinary heights. Richard Landau, chef-owner of Vedge in Philadelphia, has brainstormed the Quinoa Burger Bánh Mì. Denver’s No. 1 chef, Lon Symensma of Cho Lon, came up with the idea of a deconstructed bánh mì spread across a charcuterie board: duck terrine, foie gras, pickled daikon, and carrot, and Chinese mustard-mayonnaise with cilantro. Top chef Michael Voltaggio of ink. on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles offers two varieties, a veggie bánh mì with barbecued tofu and mushroom spread, and a bánh mì with pork shoulder, bacon, chicharrónes, and onion spread.
Non-Vietnamese chefs regularly reinterpret bánh mì on the Food Network, the queen of American taste Martha Stewart teaches her viewers how to make it, upscale Whole Foods supermarkets line it into their deli counters, and celebrity chefs reveal their bánh mì secrets in Food & Wine and other culinary periodicals. Anthony Bourdain featured bánh mì on his No Reservations program—typically, the clip showed the chef, author, and television personality munching on a sandwich from a Hanoi street stall. The craze has inspired countless blog sites, including one called Battle of the Bánh Mì: Finding, Feasting, & Making Vietnamese Sandwiches. Foodies post dueling bánh mì recipes on websites like Blue Apron and Epicurious. “You know your food is great when Americans sell it back to you,” a friend of mine once quipped.
Bánh mì’s origins, as its architectural foundation indicates, are in France. The French arrived in Vietnam initially as missionaries in the seventeenth century and established colonial control of Vietnam in 1887 with the formation of La Fédération Indochinoise. The French brought their language and their food, including eventually the baguette, the long thin loaf of bread that became popular in France in the early twentieth century. Growing up in Hanoi my grandmother called it bánh tây, literally Western-style bread. By the 1950s the Vietnamese started to tinker with it and, signaling Vietnamese appropriation of the baguette, started calling it bánh mì—simply, wheat bread. Some recipes called for a mix of rice flour with the wheat flour. The aim was to make it fluffier than the French baguette, allowing it to be easily stuffed with Vietnamese delights.
Bánh mì has long been a food staple of the working poor. Bánh mì stalls and carts are everywhere in the streets of Vietnam, providing simple and delicious sustenance, typically for breakfast or the midday meal, to the masses. It was street food long before street food became an obsession with foodies—in those days, some well-to-do Vietnamese shunned street vendors out of concern about typhoid fever and other illnesses. Ingredients like the sweet, crunchy fresh vegetables and pungent herbs and spices are what make the bánh mì Vietnamese. An essential component of the Vietnamese way is Maggi sauce, a Swiss-made savory seasoning introduced by the French.
Bánh mì could be found in the communities of Vietnamese students and émigrés in France from the 1950s onwards. The traiteur Hoa Nam in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris has been selling bánh mì wrapped in wax paper for years, although the foodie trend in bánh mì is now evident in bobo (bourgeois and bohemian) spots on the Right Bank like Saigon Sandwich and Bulma. But it was the mass exodus of Vietnamese with the Fall of Saigon in 1975 that propelled the Vietnamese sandwich on its way to global stardom. In no time, refugees in the United States were opening Vietnamese restaurants, bakeries, and delicatessens, offering up all the dishes from the homeland—including bánh mì—for fellow refugees and curious American diners alike.
Some trace bánh mì’s cultural migration to the sandwich’s burst of popularity in California’s Silicon Valley. Vietnamese refugees eager to build new lives in America had flocked to the area to work in the booming high-tech industry’s assembly lines. In 1980, a man called Lê Văn Bá and his sons parked a food truck outside a computer manufacturing plant, targeting Vietnamese who couldn’t go far or spend much for lunch. Lê, a wealthy sugar merchant who had lost everything in the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, sold the cheapest fare around, including Vietnamese baguette sandwiches. It didn’t take long before bánh mì caught on with non-Vietnamese workers as well as local college students.
By 1983, Lê’s sons, Chieu and Henry, turned the success of the sandwich into Lee Bros. Foodservices, Inc.—the family Americanized their name to Lee—which today serves more than five hundred independently owned food trucks throughout northern California. The business also evolved into Lee’s Sandwiches, a fast food chain of dozens of shops selling bánh mì from San Francisco to Houston. Cathy Chaplin, author of the Food Lover’s Guide to Los Angeles, once blogged, “If there was a Lee’s Sandwiches for every McDonald’s, the world would be a better place.” Indeed, when Lê died, his obituary in the San Jose Mercury News called him the Ray Kroc of Vietnamese sandwiches.
Bánh mì’s meteoric rise in the past few years is probably best explained by a convergence of pop-culture food trends in the United States—the popularity of food trucks dishing up tasty and inventive street food, the explosion in food blogging, the phenomenal success of television cooking shows, and the advent of the celebrity chef. The bánh mì craze has produced an authority on the subject, Andrea Nguyen, a northern California writer whose blog, Viet World Kitchen, explores the culinary traditions of Vietnam as well as of Asia more broadly. She published The Bánh Mì Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches, which made National Public Radio’s list of best cookbooks of 2014.
“Vietnamese bánh mì offers a wealth of textures,” Nguyen told me. “Crispy bread! Fatty mayo and meats! Crunchy pickles! Hot chilies! Refreshing cucumber and herbs!” Nguyen attributes bánh mì’s crossover appeal to its familiarity and adaptability. “It’s pretty, not overly mysterious for people interested in exploring new cuisines,” she says. “It’s varied in fresh vegetables, light flavors, and people can more or less identify what they’re eating. Vietnamese cuisine blends East Asia with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the West. Bánh mì is the perfect hybrid.” One of her recent blog posts: “Laughing Cow Cheese Omelet Bánh Mì Recipe.”
Pauline Nguyen, owner of the Red Lantern, Sidney’s top Vietnamese restaurant, sees the bánh mì’s attraction in its exquisite taste. “Let’s face it, the traditional French baguette with jambon, a bit of fromage, and possibly some cornichon, doesn’t quite compare,” she says. “You have a beautiful balance of the sweet and piquant of pickled vegetable, the heat of chilies, and richness of the pâté and mayonnaise, along with the unctuousness of the pork terrine, the aromas of the coriander and spring onion, and of course the texture of crisp baguette.”
Just as the cheap price drew Vietnamese to bánh mì, says Minh Tsai, CEO of the Hodo Soy tofu business in Oakland, it is one of the reasons for its spreading interest among non-Vietnamese. He explains that bánh mì was quickly recognized as a bargain because Americans always perceived Vietnamese food as tasty yet inexpensive. For the same reason, he adds, phở, the Vietnamese noodle soup, likewise has become a ubiquitous dish across America.
In the United States in the 1990s, bánh mì was still sold mostly within the Little Saigon enclaves in California and a few southern states. Competition among the small Vietnamese establishments made us wonder how they managed to survive. I remember the “Mua Hai Tặng Một”—Buy Two Get One Free—promotions in the fast food shops of San Jose, which became home to the second-largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam. Here bánh mì became a favorite of young Americans, including the local college students, looking for a snack or throwing a small party.
“It was all about volume and cheap labor,” says Steve Do, among the boat people who fled Vietnam for the United States in the 1980s, who found financial success in real estate and Internet technology stocks. “I lived with bánh mì while going to high school and college, and I knew several families who worked in the business,” he told me. “Families working together making sandwiches eliminate labor cost—even underage kids make sandwiches after school to help the family out. Often the stores don’t hire anyone but Vietnamese newcomers who work under the table while still on government subsidies. It’s the refugee way, but it works.”
Grandma’s Cá Kho Tộ
Nations take pride in and gain identity from their cuisines. What would France be sans pot-au-feu, England without roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or Italy deprived of spaghetti? Yet, a mark of all things culinary is an ability to adapt and transform. Various historians and writers put the origins of pasta in Greece, Arabia, and if the legend of Marco Polo’s role in bringing it to Europe is to be believed, China. The tomato prized in Italian sauces today appears to have arrived from South America with returning conquistadors.
Appropriation and adaptation are survival instincts for Vietnamese, a land coveted by others and repeatedly colonized and dominated throughout the last thousand years. The Vietnamese language is an amalgamation of French, Chinese, local dialects of Khmer, Hmong, and Cham, and an array of other local tribal tongues. Atop a traditional Vietnamese altar you’ll find various Buddhas, faded images of grandpa and grandma, and statues of Taoist saints. This combination of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism known as tam giao is the result of efforts to integrate religious ideas that arrived in the country over the millennia. Ancestor worship is mixed with yearnings for Buddhist nirvana while the temporal world is measured through the Taoist flow of life force known as the qi.
Then there is the story of Vietnam’s indigenous religion, Cao Dai, established in the mid-1920s, which goes so far as to integrate and reconcile the world’s major religions. In its cosmos it perceives Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam all as human efforts to worship and communicate with the one Supreme Being. It numbers Moses, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, Victor Hugo, Sun Yat-Sen, Jesus Christ, and the Vietnamese poet Trạng Trình among its many prophets and saints. Graham Greene, in his Vietnam novel The Quiet American, called Cao Dai the “prophecy of planchette,” as its spiritualists receive messages of wisdom from the various saints in séances.
Little wonder that we would see a mixture in Vietnamese cuisine as well. In bò kho, or beef stew, to cite but one example, there’s beef, carrot, and tomato brought by the French, curry powder from India, cinnamon from Ceylon, star anise from China, and chilies, lemongrass, and fish sauce from Vietnam itself. If you feel like it, pour in a little red wine from Bordeaux, it will still work beautifully. Vietnamese cooking thrives on integrating new ingredients to achieve new balances. What is invention, after all, if not one part theft and two parts reinterpretation?
The adaptive tradition lives on in the Vietnamese diaspora. Take this dish my paternal grandmother used to make: cá kho tộ: clay pot catfish, simmered in pork fat, caramelized fish sauce, and lots of black pepper, something originating in the Mekong Delta ages ago. Grandma once made this dish in Daly City, a working-class suburb of San Francisco where we first came to live as refugees. It caused such a stink to our neighbors’ noses they called the fire department about a toxic smell. Mortified, we apologized and kept our windows closed whenever Grandma prepared her favorite recipes. Today, however, patrons wait up to three weeks for a table at San Francisco’s most celebrated Vietnamese restaurant, The Slanted Door, owned by chef Charles Phan, where the same dish that Grandma liked to make is served to appreciative diners, albeit now paired with a light-bodied and smoky pinot noir.
What once seemed quixotic, or even toxic, has thus become an American classic. Private culture, perhaps especially in California, has a knack of spilling into the public domain. A few decades ago, who would have imagined that sushi—raw fish—would join the burger as an indelible part of American cuisine? Or that curry powder and soy sauce would be found down Aisle 3 at every Safeway? Or that an entirely new taste—umami, Japanese for savory—would become part of American culinary idiom?
The San Francisco Bay Area is a global table, where tastes and experiments go hand in hand. I still have an article published a decade ago in the San Francisco Chronicle that declared, “America’s mean cuisine: More like it hot—from junk food to ethnic dishes, spicy flavors are the rage.” It’s a reminder of the adulterous nature of the Californian palate. Californians were among the first in the United States to give up blandness and savor pungent lemongrass in their soup, to develop a penchant for that tangy, burnt taste of spicy chili. “There are 15.1 million more Hispanics living in the United States than there were 10 years ago, and 3.2 million more Asians and Pacific Islanders,” noted San Francisco’s newspaper of record. “And the foods of those countries—longtime favorites with Californians—are now the nation’s most popular.”
Sriracha, the king of chili sauce, is threatening to usurp ketchup as the American condiment of choice. It was invented by David Tran, another Vietnamese refugee among the boat people, who became a multimillionaire on his blend of garlic powder, distilled vinegar, and fresh red jalapeño. The green-capped bottle graces the kitchens of the world cuisines from Chinese to Japanese, Mexican to French, Moroccan to Indonesian. Tran and his Sriracha sauce are quite a testament to the adaptability of people, cuisine, and culture in our global age.
If bánh mì survives as common street food in Vietnam today, I imagine that some vendors are unaware of how Việt Kiều—Vietnamese overseas—took the sandwich on to international fame and glory. I remember the Vinh Chan boulangerie in Dalat, the windblown and foggy hill station lined with French villas and pine trees where I grew up. A Frenchman opened the bakery in the 1930s. Every afternoon around 4 p.m. there was always a line of customers, enticed by the sweet aroma of freshly baked bread permeating the air. The warm and crunchy baguettes came out of the oven to a chorus of oohs and aahs. Vinh Chan was known for its divine French sandwich—a baguette served with thin slices of cured ham, cucumber, a dab of butter, and a little salt and pepper. In my child’s mind, this was a sandwich superior to the bánh mì I tasted in Saigon. Such was the colonial hangover that what was French was intrinsically better than what was reinvented by us, the Vietnamese. Now I can take comfort in knowing that millions of food lovers around the world enjoy their baguette sandwiches—fixed in the Vietnamese way.
Andrew Lam is editor and co-founder of New America Media, an association of more than three thousand ethnic media outlets in the United States. He is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and most recently, a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost. On Twitter: @andrewqlam.
What Goes Unsaid
On July 18 last year, the latest Gaza war entered its eleventh day. Israel was stepping up its ground incursion into the coastal strip to battle Hamas militants. In nearly two weeks of Israeli bombardment from the air and Hamas rocket fire, the death toll had topped 280 Palestinians and two Israelis.
The same day, some six thousand miles and seven time zones to the west, fallout from the conflict had spread to midtown Manhattan. Across the street from the headquarters of the New York Times, the pro-Israel media watchdog group CAMERA—the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America—unveiled its latest three-story billboard castigating the newspaper’s coverage of Israel. Over an image of a rocket, the billboard proclaimed: “Hamas attacks Israel: Not surprising.” Over an image of a pen, it continued: “The New York Times attacks Israel: Also not surprising.” CAMERA concluded its admonishment: “Stop skewing facts. Stop the key omissions. Stop the Anti-Israeli Bias.”
Accusations by pro-Israel as well as pro-Palestine partisans about American mainstream media bias have long been a feature of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But overlooked amid the vitriol over contested narratives—in which journalists are caught in the metaphorical crossfire—is a serious and long-running failure of the coverage: U.S. media reporting on the conflict has become an echo chamber where key contextual factors are left unreported or underreported. One of the most important omissions is the impact of U.S. Middle East policy on the trajectory of the long conflict.
The echo chamber reflects, amplifies, and reinforces the pattern of failed negotiations and large-scale bloodletting and destruction. It routinely chronicles ongoing eruptions of communal violence and the consistent trend of Israeli settlement expansion. But it rarely analyzes or questions these patterns or the critical part the United States has played in the failed negotiations and perpetuation of the violence. The coverage thus reinforces a limited if not deeply compromised public discourse and a stagnant policy.
Fighting the Media War
The struggle over narratives was again evident during the fifty-day Gaza war of 2014—and one in which journalists themselves participated. As seven hundred reporters from forty-two countries arrived to join the 750 already stationed in Israel, media commentators watching from a distance engaged in debate over war coverage on air, in print, and online.
On July 21, for example, MSNBC commentator Rula Jebreal expressed disdain over the network’s coverage, having criticized CNN earlier. “We are disgustingly biased when it comes to this issue,” Jebreal said. “Look at how [much] airtime [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his folks have on air on a daily basis. . . . I never see one Palestinian being interviewed on these same issues.”
The next day, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes countered Jebreal, asserting that U.S. coverage was being defined by images of destruction in Gaza. In fact, Hayes said, there was much chatter “about how the Israelis are losing the media war for the first time.” Two days after that Jeremy Scahill, an investigative reporter for the Intercept, weighed in on HuffPost Live. Calling the Gaza war “a massive massacre and one epic series of war crime after war crime,” Scahill argued that “Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli propagandists are largely given carte blanche to say what they want on American television with very little pushback.”
Later that week Fox News aired a MediaBuzz segment in which commentators debated the topic: “Is Hamas Winning Propaganda War Versus Israel?” Fred Francis observed that “Benjamin Netanyahu has been on television so much you would think he was an anchor or co-anchor on some of these shows.” Lauren Ashburn asserted that Israel was losing the media war. “They only have the face of Benjamin Netanyahu,” she said. “You can’t compete with dead bodies.” Indeed, by the next day the lopsided body count had risen to more than one thousand Palestinians and fifty Israelis.
In November, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan addressed complaints about the newspaper’s Gaza war coverage: “I have received hundreds of emails from readers on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, complaining about Times coverage. And though email is a cold medium, their furor has practically burned through the screen.” Sullivan concluded that while not infallible, the paper’s coverage is fair, and its point of view “seems to reflect baseline beliefs that Israel has a right to exist and that Palestinians deserve a state of their own.” She quoted her colleague, Foreign Editor Joseph Kahn: “We’re being asked to be partisans. And we’re not partisans.”
Nonetheless, accusations of partisanship persist. In January CAMERA, still claiming that the Timesdistorts facts, downplays Palestinian violence, and holds Israel to a double standard, launched another billboard with a jab at the paper’s motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” CAMERA’s version read: “The New York Times Against Israel: All Rant. All Slant. All the Time.”
Allegations of slanted narratives have come from within journalistic ranks as well. Matti Friedman, a former reporter and editor at the Associated Press Jerusalem bureau, leveled a broadside attack on media coverage of Israel in the Atlantic in November. Friedman lamented editorial decisions among media outlets that he claimed “appeared to be driven by ideological considerations rather than journalistic ones,” resulting in an anti-Israel bias. He further alleged that correspondents have been co-opted and intimidated by Hamas. AP sharply dismissed Friedman’s charges of editorial slant; correspondents including New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren and CNN’s Karl Penhaul have rejected claims of Hamas intimidation.
“We’re Not Suckers”
If bias is at work in U.S. media coverage, it does not appear to be a deliberate, premeditated, or systematic tilt toward Israelis or Palestinians. Mainstream U.S. reporting on the Gaza war in fact reflected overall balance and a range of Israeli and Palestinian points of view. A notable exception continued to be Fox News, which routinely tilts toward Israel in sourcing and structuring its reports. Otherwise, mainstream coverage across the board focused on impact, scope, and drama in a war that ultimately claimed the lives of approximately 2,205 Gazans (1,483 of them civilians, including 521 children) and seventy-one Israelis (sixty-six soldiers and five civilians, including one child), according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Headlines on reports about Israel and its supporters pointed to anxieties of Israelis living near the border with Gaza, American Jews supporting wartime Israel, and the overall mood in the country, including the strain that the war imposed on relations between Jews and Arabs.
In Israel’s South, Families Worry About the Future of Life Near Gaza New York Times
Tunnels Lead Right to the Heart of Israeli Fear New York Times
An Israeli App Tracking the Gaza Conflict Has Followers Near and Far New York Times
Playing It Safe Indoors—and Close to Bomb Shelters USA TODAY
The Immigrant Soldiers Dying for Israel in Gaza TIME
Birthright Trips to Israel Continue Despite Mideast Conflict New York Times
Dissent Quieted with Most Israelis Behind Gaza War Associated Press
Jews and Arabs in Israel More Estranged After War Washington Post
As Gaza War Ebbs, Israeli Arabs Feel Under Threat Christian Science Monitor
Mideast Tensions Force Arab-Israeli Writer to Leave Jerusalem National Public Radio
Headlines over stories reported from Gaza, which absorbed the majority of the war’s material impacts, reflected Palestinians’ immediate physical and emotional traumas as well as opinions on what, if anything, had been gained.
In Crowded Gaza, Civilians Have Few Places to Flee National Public Radio
Conflict in Gaza Takes Toll on the Young Wall Street Journal
Loss of Shelter and Electricity Worsens a Crisis for Fleeing Gazans New York Times
In Fatal Flash, Gaza Psychologist Switches Roles, Turning Into a Trauma Victim New York Times
As Israel and Hamas Claim Victory, Gaza Residents Ask What Was Gained Los Angeles Times
A Boy at Play in Gaza, a Renewal of Warfare, a Family in Mourning New York Times
Month-Long War in Gaza Has Left a Humanitarian and Environmental Crisis Washington Post
In Gaza, Grief, Anger—and No Small Measure of Pride New York Times
About 80 Gaza Clan Members Squeeze Into One Household Los Angeles Times
Subtle Voices of Dissent Surface in War-Torn Gaza Associated Press
As War with Israel Shatters Lives, More Gazans Question Hamas Decisions Washington Post
In Gaza, Emotional Wounds of War Remain Unhealed Associated Press
For a Gaza Athlete, There Is Nowhere to Run New York Times
The same even-handed approach was evident in U.S. mainstream media editorials about the conflict. Between July 18 and August 6, the Washington Post and New York Times each ran three editorials on the Gaza war, all six duly noting Israeli and Palestinian suffering. While the editorials focused on the conduct of the war as it was unfolding, they also made references to longer-term political strategies—how the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority (PA) should deal with each other, and each with Hamas. Nevertheless, not one of the six editorials suggested even indirectly that U.S. policy on the conflict should be reassessed, much less changed.
Israeli media strategy, however, does have a notable effect on how the narrative is driven, especially by official sources—but not to the hyperbolic extent claimed by Jebreal. Israel’s upper hand in the power dynamic of the conflict extends beyond sovereignty, military prowess, and economic strength to its well-oiled communications apparatus, charged with disseminating hasbara—the approximate Hebrew equivalent of “explanation.” Israel is simply unmatched in its well-organized and well-prepared contingent of representatives who speak to American media audiences from a number of vantage points: the prime minister’s office, the foreign ministry, and the military; as well as its ambassadors to the U.S. and UN.
The tenacity with which Israeli communications officials deal with journalists was expressed by Nitzan Chen, director of the Government Press Office, at a November conference in Israel on media management of the Gaza war. “If they spit on us, we don’t say that it’s rain,” Chen was quoted by theJerusalem Post. “If a correspondent lies … we don’t give up. We pick up the phone, we reprimand, and if need be we threaten, because we’re not suckers.”
The Post further reported that military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said his office had 2,500 encounters with journalists in the course of the fifty-day conflict—embedding them with Israeli military units and guiding fifty media outlets to Hamas tunnel entrances from which journalists broadcast live—and that the Israel Defense Forces reached 570 million people on Facebook in six languages.
A notable exception in reaching beyond the easily accessible preponderance of Israeli official sources was scored by PBS interviewer Charlie Rose, whose fifty-five-minute interview in Qatar with Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal was broadcast in late July.
Ways of Seeing
News, analysis, and opinion about the Israel-Palestine conflict are easily accessible online from scores of American and international mainstream media outlets, as is a range of related content from multitudes of bloggers and partisan sources. But coverage by U.S. mainstream outlets that have reporters on the ground in Israel and Palestine is particularly relevant. These organizations—numbering approximately two dozen—have distinct potential to inform American public opinion and influence U.S. policy precisely because they gather and disseminate information according to professional standards and are not partisan by design.
However, these outlets also generally speak in an American idiom that reflects and too rarely challenges official U.S. government consensus on the conflict. The media coverage internalizes the official Washington narrative that the conflict will be resolved through bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians aided by the good offices of the United States.
The problem is one of framing rather than of intentional bias. The media’s channeling of the Washington consensus not only implies a false symmetry between Israel and Palestine but also erroneously positions the United States as a dispassionate mediator. The truth is that Israel is the overwhelmingly stronger party in the conflict, and U.S. policy has contributed and continues to contribute to that strength.
U.S. media coverage fails to articulate and investigate the role that American interests play in perpetuating the conflict. In the decades since the Oslo Accords of 1993, which failed to result in the envisioned secure Israel and independent Palestine, media coverage has continued to refer to U.S. policy in a manner that is cursory and reactive rather than probing, with little explication of its scope or consequences.
Such framing skirts detailed reporting on the asymmetry of the conflict and the obstacles this presents to a negotiated settlement. According to the World Bank, the gross domestic product (GDP) of Israel, with a population of 8.3 million, is approximately $290 billion, and its GDP per capita is around $36,000. The West Bank and Gaza Strip—with a combined population of 4.5 million living in non-contiguous territories under significantly different economic and political conditions—have a combined GDP of approximately $11 billion and a GDP per capita of about $2,700.
U.S. policy accentuates this lopsided power dynamic. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), American aid to Israel has totaled approximately $124.5 billion in routine U.S. bilateral assistance (not including special military and economic supplements) since 1949—making Israel the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II. Sixty percent of the aid has been in the form of military grants. Economic grants of approximately $32.5 billion, combined with the stimulus that military aid provides the Israeli economy through its defense industry, have widened the power gap between Israel and Palestine in economic as well as security terms.
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the United States has granted approximately $65 billion in bilateral aid to Israel and committed (but not allocated in full) more than $5 billion in aid to the PA, based in the West Bank under the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The latter aid includes $769 million allocated mainly for nonlethal assistance for PA security forces, trained under U.S. supervision to counter the proliferation of Hamas and like groups in the West Bank.
However, aid to the Palestinians can have political strings attached. In response to the PA’s application for membership in the International Criminal Court late last year (which became effective April 1, and enabled the PA to submit its first war crimes allegations against Israel in late June), Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced legislation to block U.S. funding until the PA withdrew its request; and seventy-five of a hundred senators signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry backing this demand. The Wall Street Journal editorialized: “The Palestinians Repay America/Obama has no choice but to cut off the $400 million in U.S. aid.” The cutoff has not yet happened, but the message was clear all the same.
From 2007 to 2014, the PA received a total of approximately $8.4 billion in support from the United States, the European Union and its member states, the Arab League, and other donors, according to the State Department. U.S. aid to Israel during this same period—virtually all of it in military assistance—totaled $22.5 billion.
Qualitative Military Edge
American media coverage broadly downplays the strategic relationship between the United States and Israel and the impact it has on the conflict. The contextualizing factor of the symbiotic nature of the U.S.-Israeli military relationship—unshakable even amid escalating squabbles between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government—goes largely unreported.
For decades, a guiding precept of U.S. policy toward Israel—rooted in regional geostrategic interests and bolstered by cultural affinity and support by domestic lobby groups that the Palestinians lack—has been to preserve Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge in the Middle East. Since 2008, virtually all American aid to Israel has taken the form of military grants of approximately $3 billion a year. While maintaining this Cold War-era strategy in the present day assures the United States of continued regional power by proxy, it also has the contradictory if unintended consequence of compromising the oft-stated American objective of brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace.
According to the CRS, military aid to Israel accounts for approximately half of all U.S. foreign military assistance and 20 percent of Israel’s defense budget. Israel is required to use approximately 75 percent of this aid to buy weapons from U.S. arms manufacturers and may use the remainder to patronize its own arms industry, which ranks among the top ten arms exporters worldwide.
In December 2014, it was reported that Israel signed a deal with the United States to buy fourteen F-35 fighter jets at $110 million each from Lockheed Martin, with another seventeen to be acquired in 2017. These thirty-one aircraft and nineteen previously purchased will form two stealth fighter squadrons of twenty-five planes each. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, if the deal is completed, Lockheed Martin has agreed to buy $6 billion worth of security equipment from Israel.
Israel’s enormous military advantage vis-à-vis the Palestinians (and other adversaries) is not routinely referred to in U.S. mainstream media coverage of the conflict. When it does come up, it is usually in reference to Israel’s defensive needs and capabilities. A week into the Gaza war, theWashington Post published an infographic on the Iron Dome defense system stating that “most rocket attacks on Israel are low-tech assaults met by a high-tech defense. … Iron Dome’s 90-plus-percent success rate suggests that fewer than 10 rockets hit protected zones. No casualties were reported.” To date, according to the CRS, the U.S. has invested $1.28 billion to develop Iron Dome jointly with Israel—accounting for 38 percent of the $3.35 billion in supplementary U.S. funds allocated for U.S.-Israeli missile-defense programs since 2006.
However, U.S. mainstream media coverage does routinely echo the consistent emphasis that U.S. officials place on Israel’s right to defend itself—a resounding theme during the 2014 Gaza war. On July 29, the Senate unanimously passed a widely reported resolution supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks. “I condemn Hamas terrorism,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. “We stand with Israel and its right to defend itself.”
On August 2, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters: “We respect the right for Israel to defend itself. … It is made more difficult when Hamas hides behind civilian targets, deliberately puts civilians in harm’s way, and indiscriminately fires rockets into Israel.” Rosemary DiCarlo, deputy U.S. permanent representative to the UN, told the General Assembly on August 6: “Let us remember how this conflict started. Hamas launched repeated rocket attacks at Israel. Hamas deliberately, willfully targets civilians. No nation can accept such attacks, and Israel has the same right to self-defense as every other nation.”
Spread of Settlements
U.S. media framing also downplays how Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—and de facto U.S. acceptance of them for decades—constitute a driver of violence and an obstacle to peace. While presenting itself as an “honest broker” in the conflict, in fact the United States—despite official policy and some largely rhetorical objections—has effectively enabled the building of settlements in contravention of international law and consensus in territories Israel has occupied since 1967.
The Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits occupying powers from settling civilians on occupied territory. In 1979 and 1980, the UN Security Council affirmed three resolutions conferring applicability of the convention on “the Arab territories occupied by Israel in 1967, including Jerusalem” and declaring the settlements built by Israel in those territories to have “no legal validity.”
The Israeli settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, meanwhile, has reached some 650,000—about 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish citizens. All but ignored by the mainstream media in reports about faltering or failed peace negotiations is the fact that the number of West Bank settlers has more than tripled since the signing of the Oslo Accords.
U.S. mainstream media outlets occasionally refer to the importance of the settlement issue and routinely cover the Israeli government’s serial announcements about ongoing settlement expansion. However, the coverage often relies heavily on balancing Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, without much original in-depth reporting in the field on how settlement activity in the aggregate affects chances for peace. References to international law and consensus are cursory except when the United Nations weighs in with substantial assessments from time to time.
In January 2013, the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN were among American outlets that covered a UN Human Rights Council report on Israel’s settlement policy since 1967. It concluded the settlements are “a mesh of construction and infrastructure leading to a creeping annexation that prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Downplaying this critical factor in the conflict, aWashington Post editorial headlined “Overheated Rhetoric on Israeli Settlements” instead stressed the realpolitik of settlement expansion—which, the Post argued, has taken place “almost entirely [in] areas that both sides expect Israel to annex through territorial swaps in an eventual settlement.”
The question is: How eventual? The substitution of conflict management for conflict resolution is another significant flaw in U.S. policy, and it permeates media framing. The media echo chamber seldom highlights the glaring gap between U.S. aspirations to broker a peace agreement and effective American actions that would enable this.
In his landmark speech to the Islamic World from Cairo in 2009, President Barack Obama stated: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” On a visit to Ramallah in 2013, however, Obama urged Palestinian President Abbas not to precondition restarting negotiations on an Israeli settlement freeze. In February 2011, the Obama administration cast its first veto in the UN Security Council, opposing a resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal. The 14-1 vote had the support of U.S. allies including Britain and France, but the Obama administration blocked the resolution for being “unbalanced and one-sided.” The rejection fit a familiar pattern: The United States has used its veto seventy-nine times since 1970; forty-two of those vetoes—more than half—have been cast to shield Israel from international censure, much of it related to Israeli settlement in occupied territory.
U.S. mainstream media reported the veto but not how it squares with U.S. policy that supposedly opposes settlements and supports the establishment of a Palestinian state. Similarly, the media report on individual Israeli announcements of settlement activity but not on the overarching issue: how the spatial-demographic realities of the West Bank—where settlers account for 12.5 percent of the population, but Israel controls 60 percent of the territory—undermine the prospects for successful negotiation of a two-state solution.
Indeed, the issue of the settlements became a key factor in the eventual collapse of the Obama administration’s most serious effort to negotiate a peace deal, led by Secretary Kerry from July 2013 to April 2014. While Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were discussing the future of disputed territory, its complexion was being changed underfoot, with Israeli settlement activity continuing throughout the negotiations.
Three weeks before the talks collapsed, a commentary published in Politico urging Kerry to “stand firm” focused attention on the obstacle of settlements. Though signed by various former senior American policymakers including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, Lee Hamilton, Thomas Pickering, and Carla Hills, their bipartisan argument achieved no apparent traction elsewhere in the media. The authors wrote in part:
U.S. disapproval of continued settlement enlargement in the Occupied Territories by Israel’s government as “illegitimate” and “unhelpful” does not begin to define the destructiveness of this activity. Nor does it dispel the impression that we have come to accept it despite our rhetorical objections. Halting the diplomatic process on a date certain until Israel complies with international law and previous agreements would help to stop this activity and clearly place the onus for the interruption where it belongs.
The Kerry-led negotiations broke down on April 29, 2014, a month after the Israeli government reneged on the fourth stage of an agreement to release Palestinian prisoners. On that day, the Israeli outlet Ynetnews reported that according to the Israeli NGO Peace Now, during the talks 4,868 housing units had been built for settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—three-quarters of them in isolated settlements not likely to be annexed to Israel in a peace deal—and that the Israeli government had approved another nine thousand units to be built in the near future.
Senior American diplomats, in anonymous interviews with the New York Times, immediately made it clear that Israel’s aggressive pursuit of new settlements had “sabotaged” Kerry’s mediation efforts. Two weeks after the collapse, the Times published a post-mortem that was notable for its pointed emphasis on high-level U.S. disapproval of Israeli settlement policy. “At every juncture, there was a settlement announcement,” the Times quoted one official on condition of anonymity. “It was the thing that kept throwing a wrench in the gears.”
However, the report did not address the inherent contradiction between American rhetoric and practice, or the effect of that contradiction on the peace process.
Reframing the Coverage
And so, negotiations having failed once again, the conflict spiraled into the third Gaza war since 2008. The end of negotiations was followed by an uptick in communal violence resulting in grisly murders of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, with calls for vengeance rippling through both societies. Israeli raids on suspected Hamas targets in the West Bank were met by a flurry of Hamas rockets from Gaza, shredding the thin connective tissue of the conflict anew. By the end of the 2014 Gaza war, nearly 2,300 people were dead, the vast majority of them Palestinians; ruin and devastation continue to permeate much of the Gaza Strip, where damages have been estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion, and human suffering will continue for years to come.
Given the way U.S. geopolitical interests are defined in the region, there is unlikely to be a paradigm shift anytime soon in U.S. policy on the conflict. Nonetheless, replacing the media echo chamber with a determined effort to reframe the coverage so it reflects the impact of U.S. policy on the conflict could increase public understanding of this important contextual factor. Over time, perhaps, a more informed public opinion could influence policymakers to reconsider a policy that has resulted in repeated failure over many decades. Recent manifestations of this failure include Netanyahu’s election rhetoric that he will not allow a Palestinian state to be established on his watch, and the Palestinians’ strategic shift from faith in U.S. mediation to campaigning for the UN to set a deadline to end the Israeli occupation.
The challenge for the media, in essence, is to see what can’t be readily seen and to say what can’t be easily said. Coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict should be domestic as well as foreign, reporting on the Washington axis. The United States has invested enormous financial and political capital in maintaining Israel’s strength and mediating the conflict overall—and the negative impacts of that investment reverberate throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. The Israel-Palestine conflict is a bona fide U.S. national security issue and should be reported as such.
Meanwhile, coverage of the conflict relies heavily on Israeli and Palestinian sources as well as their partisan supporters. Virtually absent in the mix are nonpartisan experts such as active and retired U.S. intelligence, military, and diplomatic officials, as well as academic Middle East specialists. Such sources could analyze and provide context on developing events, international law and consensus, and the critically important impact of U.S. policy—if only they were asked. Coverage coming out of Washington should be transparent, analytical, balanced, and hard hitting.
A recent example of the general failure to cultivate and use expert, nonpartisan sources could be seen in the media buzz Netanyahu created during the Gaza war with a tweet that compared Israel’s fight against Hamas with the West’s battles against Islamist extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “Hamas is like ISIS. ISIS is like Hamas,” went the Israeli prime minister’s tweet. “They’re branches of the same tree.”
Repeated and left unchallenged, such statements become part of media discourse. Journalists covering the conflict should investigate how the motivations and goals of Hamas differ from those of ISIS and other Islamist groups, as well as how the literal text of the Hamas charter correlates to the movement’s actual political and military practices.
In the field, reporting from Israel and the Palestinian territories should tell the largely untold story of the aggregate effects of Israeli settlement expansion on the peace process—in particular its physical and material impacts on prospects for the two-state solution that remains the ultimate goal of U.S. policy. Comprehensive, balanced coverage requires more than piecemeal stenography and dramatic narrative arcs. It requires thoroughgoing, fact-based investigation on the ground, illustrated with maps and video.
The New York Times made a substantial contribution to telling this story in March, when it published a detailed and graphically rich report headlined “Netanyahu and the Settlements.” Appearing days before the recent Israeli election that Netanyahu would win, the report was replete with references to settlement expansion threatening prospects for a two-state resolution of the conflict. Describing decades of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and the rapid rate of expansion under Netanyahu, the report included maps and still and interactive aerial photos of settlements in various stages of growth. Palestinians were not quoted directly in the report, however; nor did it depict the physical obstacles and barriers to Palestinian movement and territorial contiguity that the settlements impose.
Media organizations have become increasingly adept at fighting charges of bias, and ensuring the kind of accurate and balanced coverage needed for doing so. But the task of reframing media discourse will be equally if not more difficult, because sensitivities about what is legitimate and allowable in mainstream discourse about the conflict run high and deep. At a White House ceremony during the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Adha in October 2014, Kerry was—uncharacteristically for an American politician—forthright in linking the dynamics of the conflict to other instability in the region, and ultimately to American interests.
As I went around and met with people in the course of our discussions about the [ISIS] coalition … there wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt—and I see a lot of heads nodding—they had to respond to. And people need to understand the connection of that.
The Israel-Palestine conflict revolves around the aspirations and suffering of two peoples in the Middle East. But it is also about U.S. policy. Weaving the details of this critical contextual factor into the fabric of coverage is perhaps the greatest challenge of reporting the Israel-Palestine conflict. But the potential payoff is great—because if things can be said, then they can be known. And if they can be known, then other things can change.
Marda Dunsky is the author of Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. She is a lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. Previously she served as a national/foreign desk editor at the Chicago Tribune and Arab affairs reporter for the Jerusalem Post.
Dark Geopolitics of the Middle East
A third wave of geopolitics has been making its way into Middle East political geography since the end of the Cold War. The first wave began with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The second wave followed World War II, when the European colonial order crumbled. The third wave will reach its apex with the demise of the American order in the region and the spread of political disarray. The contemporary Middle East is the product of these three geopolitical waves. Among the consequences is the rise of the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Geopolitics is the intersection of geography, power, and foreign policy, and it often focuses on the states, peoples, borders, resources, environments, trade routes, and human traffic. In the transition to a new geopolitics, these factors become gradually reconfigured and they assume floating realities, differing directions, and varying significance. The key features of the emergent third wave of Middle East geopolitics are failed states, humiliated peoples, crippled economies, extreme inequality and poverty, devastated environments, plundered resources, conflicted geographies, foreign intrusions, and violent radicalism.
The Middle East is where ancient civilizations and three major religions developed, making it a crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia for many centuries. The region has been an intersection of people, trade, and ideas. It has been the locale of numerous progressive developments such as scientific discoveries, giving rise to the Persian, Arab, and Ottoman empires. During Islam’s Golden Age, scholars from around the world would gather in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, to exchange knowledge and translate the known sciences into Arabic.
The resource-rich Middle East proved an attractive prize for outside powers, including Europeans, Russians, and Americans, particularly since the discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf at the beginning of the twentieth century. Colonial Europe, imperial Russia, and capitalist America have at various times and with varying degrees of success dominated the region. Their rivalries, an iteration of the Great Game, left a lasting and, more often than not, devastating impact on Middle East states and politics, peoples, environments, resources, and economies. The region’s authoritarian rulers, often the stooges of foreign powers, share responsibility for the plight of the Middle Eastern peoples.
Ottomans and Colonialists
The first wave of Middle East geopolitics was triggered a century ago with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the last Islamic global power, in World War I by European powers including Britain, France and Italy. A new dispensation arrived for Arabs, who had been a marginal population within the empire. While accepting the Ottoman Turks as fellow Muslims, Arabs had little interaction with them and intermarriage was rare. The empire was a multiethnic state based on loyalty to the ruling dynasty, not on a shared national identity. Even before the Ottoman collapse, Arabs had started identifying themselves as a distinct national group rather than as subjects of the empire. In Egypt, Arabic displaced Turkish as the language of the local government and the governing elite. When the nationalistic ideas of the Turks arose in the final years of the empire, Arabs likewise developed their thinking about national identity and independence.
Embracing Arab nationalism, and with the support of Britain, Arabs thus revolted against the Ottomans in the midst of World War I. They did not care to defend the Ottomans against the “infidel” European forces, who meanwhile claimed to support Arab independence and bring justice to their homelands. In 1914, the Ottomans declared jihad, or holy war, against Britain and France, yet the Arab Muslims, eager for independence, were not swayed.
However, the Europeans did not keep their promises. They redrew the Middle East map based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which did not fulfill the plan for Arab independence. Instead, Britain and France colonized the Arabs as well as the Kurds, and mistreated them worse than their Ottoman overlords had ever done. Arab Muslims were left humiliated by non-Muslims. They became the subjects of domineering European powers. The region was chopped up into small states with unnatural borders and heterogeneous geographies and cultures. These new states would isolate families, divide ethnic groups and religious sects, and redraw the map of natural resources such as important waterways. Local orders were dismantled, traditional economies destroyed, cultures demonized, resources plundered, and politics corrupted.
In time, World War II led to the collapse of the European colonial order in the Middle East. Europeans had transformed their colonies into artificial and conflicting nation states to be ruled by local dictators whom the Europeans had nurtured. The invented border configurations, largely straight lines, had no historical basis or even geographical logic. The only logic was political: plant the seeds of future conflicts and thereby divide and rule. The nation-state concept was a European one hardly applicable to the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire. The groups or tribal leaders who won control from the Europeans made sure that they would hold on to power as long as they could.
This transition from colonialism to neocolonialism and dictatorship would serve both local rulers and foreign powers. The European approach to forming new nations all but guaranteed that the Middle East and North Africa region would become and remain a conflict-ridden territory. The inter-state, inter-ethnic, and inter-sectarian fights today are direct products of the European policy of divide and rule as well as a top-down nation‑building strategy that crippled citizenship and civil society development.
However, in the years following World War II the region became increasingly unmanageable for the weakened colonial powers. Liberation movements sprung up in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran. Pan-Arabism became a major political force, culminating in the union of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961. This anti-colonialist Arabism, along with the revolutionary populism of Nasserism and Baathism, contributed to the Suez Crisis, which would come to symbolize the end of Britain’s role as a world power.
The second wave of geopolitics, in the context of the Cold War, then emerged. As Europeans gradually withdrew from the region, the United States and the Soviet Union filled the vacuum. The struggle between the two emergent superpowers of the capitalist and socialist blocs took form in Iran immediately after the end of World War II. In 1945, while British troops withdrew from the country, there were signs that Moscow would not comply with a March 1946 deadline to also withdraw its troops from Iran. The Soviets finally complied after an American ultimatum and lengthy negotiations with the Iranian government. In a dramatic manifestation of Cold War maneuvering, in 1953 the United States and Britain organized a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in response to his government’s nationalization of the Iranian oil sector.
The Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s divided the Arab World between pro-Western Arab monarchies including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, pre-1958 Iraq, and non-Arab Iran, and the pan-Arab and Islamic socialist states such as Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Libya, North Yemen, and post‑1958 Iraq. As the Cold War split the Middle East along an East-West line, oil was emerging as the most significant global energy resource, and the local economies gradually became dependent on oil rent. The most significant regional development was the formation of the State of Israel and the resulting first major Arab-Israeli war. The United States then assumed the custody of oil, Israel, and the moderate Arab states, as the Soviet Union buttressed the populist and nationalist forces in the region. This was the beginning of ideology‑centered geopolitics in the Middle East.
In this bipolar world, oil rent became a curse, as it led to extreme class divides between a minority super-rich and a majority super-poor, with a small but growing middle class besieged in between. Oil also led to large military and luxury purchases, uneven urbanization and environmental wastes, and growing dictatorship and corruption of the dependent and largely weak states. The Arab‑Israeli conflict exacerbated external interventions and local distresses caused by war and human displacement.
Under these conditions, Arab and Muslim reassertion took the form of several nationalist and populist coups, and a struggle against Israel. However, these movements failed to evict the imperial powers, defeat Israel, or deliver the promise of justice, freedom, and independence sought by the growing middle and working classes. The military defeats and loss of lands to the Jewish state became a source of frustration, anger, and ultimately humiliation. In the face of defeat and despair, a culture of victimization emerged in the Arab World.
Contributing to the humiliation, Orientalism was promoted in Western policy circles, academia, and media, exaggerating and distorting the differences between Arab peoples and cultures and those of the West. Arabs and Muslims were viewed as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. For many years the thinking of Western scholars was dominated by the idea that Arabs are not ready for democracy, and are indeed even incapable of living under democratic rule. The racism and stereotyping went so far as to claim that there was an “Arab mind” bent on rejectionism, fundamentalism, and terrorism. Cultural demonization complemented the Western economic domination and murderous political humiliation; while Britain was seizing control of Arab oil resources, for example, France was killing a million Algerians.
Worse, Arabs and Muslims were also humiliated by their own corrupt, inept, or ignorant rulers—dictators and populists alike. These rulers, many of whom had been nurtured and supported by outside powers, made the national state their private property, extended their rule to lifelong terms, and limited elite circulation to their immediate families, allies, and stooges. They created oligarchic economies, mismanaged the country, and misappropriated the public budget and wealth.
Middle Eastern rulers, aided by foreign powers, destroyed all nationalist, reformist, and socialist opposition. In Iran, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, supported by the United States and Britain, crippled the nationalist and leftist movements. In the Arab World, the Six-Day War of 1967 ended with Israel’s military defeat of the anti-West camp, including Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, leading to the humiliation of Arab nationalists and the death of pan-Arabism. The U.S. invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 destroyed the last vestiges of Arab nationalism.
Islamist movements, however, survived the efforts of Middle Eastern rulers and their foreign allies to eliminate opposition. In Syria, while then-President Hafez Al-Assad dismantled the Syrian Cultural and Social Forum, which sought a secular, socialist, democratic state, he failed to annihilate the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its various youth organizations. In 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood’s military wing massacred several hundred Syrian officers near Aleppo, most of whom were members of the minority Alawite religious sect of the Al-Assad family. When cracks began developing in the dictatorships in the late 1970s, only Islamists could quickly emerge and assume leadership. In the Arab World, as well as in Iran and Afghanistan, Islamist forces became radicalized and set the stage for the third wave of Middle East geopolitics.
Refuge in Religion
Across the Islamic World the radicalization of Islamists occurred quite unevenly. Generally speaking, where pre-Islamic civilizations existed, such as in Iran, Turkey, and Egypt, extremism was contained as the humiliated Muslims sought glory in their distant pasts. This was not the case for most Arab Muslims who lacked pre-Islamic civilization. To counter humiliation they took refuge in Islamic teachings and culture. Islamic fundamentalism is perhaps best defined as a desire to return to Islam’s Golden Age, when most other regions of the world, including Europe, were in decline.
During the Golden Age, the Islamic World was ruled by a caliphate, enjoyed political superiority, and made important advances in science and philosophy. Jihadist groups such as ISIS seek a unified Islamic state, a restoration of the caliphate. They view the Western powers and Arab dictators as obstacles to this objective, and are prepared to use violence against them. In a suffocating political environment, and feeling culturally demonized by the West, their quest to return to Islam’s past glory led to a politics of reaction and extremism. Jihadist groups have primarily targeted local authorities and Western powers, whom they see as the perpetrators of their humiliation.
ISIS is inspired by religion, finding an ideological foundation in principles derived from Salafism (a return to original Islam) and Wahhabism (the unity of God). Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahhab was a scholar of the conservative Hanbali school of Islam. He believed that only the Qur’an and the Sunna are the true sources of Islamic law, unlike other schools that accept collective scholarly reasoning (ijma) or individual analogical reasoning (qiyas). While ISIS justifies violence on the basis of narrow religious doctrine, its prime motivation seems essentially political—a drive for territory, resources, trade routes, and human traffic, as well as dignity, identity, independence, and self-preservation. It uses religion to advance a political cause, aimed at reversing humiliation and regaining an idealized past, rather than the other way around.
The conflict with Islamic extremism has no military solution. ISIS is a movement with the political goal of overcoming the humiliation that Muslims have suffered at the hands of foreign powers and local dictators. ISIS draws on religious ideology, nostalgia for a glorious past, deep-rooted societal impairments and psychological outrage against violations of sacred or moral values. As long as the root causes remain, movements like ISIS will feed on them. A case in point is that America’s self-congratulatory killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden did nothing to prevent the rise of ISIS, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, from the ashes.
The challenge posed by Islamic extremism is likely to be complicated by any number of other factors as the Middle East grapples with the third wave of geopolitics. ISIS and other groups will benefit from the coming demise of American global power and the diminishing interest of the United States in the Middle East. The surge in U.S. domestic oil production through shale extraction and other technological means makes the United States less dependent on Persian Gulf oil—a dependency that for decades has been a vital U.S. national interest that justified the projection of military power in the region. America’s bitter and costly experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya make Washington reluctant to remain directly involved in the region. Instead, the Obama doctrine uses drone attacks and airstrikes to fight terrorists, and sells arms to regional states to balance one against the other. American policy also calls for a so-called pivot to Asia, whose growing economies offer opportunities for huge trade deals.
No other major power, whether it be Russia, China, the European Union, or even the United Nations, is willing or able to fill the gap that will be left by America’s retreat. Russia is already involved in supporting the Al-Assad regime in Syria, and seeks to become a bigger player in the Middle East. But neither other Arab states nor Washington welcomes an expanded Russian role.
Perhaps equally disturbing is the fact that no foreign power is willing to acknowledge the causes of rising extremism and embark on a workable solution. Domestic and foreign powers continue with authoritarian and militaristic policies, as witnessed in the violent suppression of the Arab Spring and the purely military approach to dealing with the challenge from ISIS. Military sales and regime security were the main items on the agenda when President Barack Obama hosted leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries at a Camp David summit meeting in May. Rather than more arms sales, the Middle East needs benevolent foreign powers, patriotic leaders, democratic politics, and balanced economic development.
Another complicating factor is the likely emergence of a tripartite struggle for the region as Iranians, Turks, and Arabs seek to revive past glories. Iranians will increasingly turn to chauvinistic Persianism, Turks to jingoistic Ottomanism, and Arabs to intemperate Islamism. Before the Arab uprisings in 2011, Iran and Saudi Arabia were already engaged in a new regional Cold War, with the Saudis aligned with Egypt, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf states, and Iran with Syria as well as with the Palestinian and Lebanese Shia factions, Hamas and Hezbollah. Saudi-Iranian relations further deteriorated into proxy wars amid evolving political crises in Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and eventually Yemen.
Turkey’s intervention in Syria against the Al-Assad government, in turn, has worsened its already strained relations with Iran. The biggest danger is that their geopolitical rivalry will erupt into a struggle over competing versions of Islam. Turkey’s Sunni government wishes to be a key player in the Islamic World, while the Shia government in Iran is opposed to such a role for Turkey or other Sunni states. Kurdish nationalists may seek to exploit the rivalry in their quest for independence, which in turn would threaten the territorial integrity of both Turkey and Iran. The tripartite struggle poses a greater risk of chaos in the region than the existing Sunni-Shia split, with its potential to fuel discord among Sunnis and widen the gulf between extremist and moderate Muslims.
As old conflicts continue and new ones emerge, they may assume troubling new dimensions. Domestic turmoil will increasingly pit the younger generation of the educated middle class against the authoritarian state, relations between the poor and the rich will become more antagonistic, and secular and religious forces will become estranged. As states begin to fail, regimes will call foreign powers to the rescue, a move that will further complicate domestic politics in the region. A new era of foreign intervention carries the risk of greater destabilization, as the crisis in Syria illustrates.
The Way Forward
The new geopolitics of the Middle East will be characterized by failed states, political chaos, popular revolt, religious extremism, inter-state conflict, foreign rivalries, and military interventions. Countries of the region will be left plundered, their social systems twisted and dehumanized, their environments ruined, their cities and towns vacated by citizens migrating to safer places. In such a dark scenario, a condition of despair will prevail and extremist groups and their rivals, struggling for self-preservation, will scar the Middle Eastern landscape.
The trajectory of these disastrous developments can and must change. The causes of the Middle East catastrophe must be fully understood and addressed. Autocratic rulers and foreign powers must bear responsibility. For too long they have worked, whether together or in opposition, to suppress popular demands for political reform, ruin economies, provoke regional conflict, and humiliate beleaguered populations. Ideologies, religion in particular, have promoted obliviousness and intolerance; they and their institutions must be reformed or else replaced by new drivers of change, namely the young generations.
At the global level, the international community must come together in supporting the end of dictatorship, corruption, and monopolistic practices in favor of democratic rule, transparency, and a free market system. Foreign powers must reduce their negative interference, including arming dictatorial regimes, in favor of positive mediation and coalition building. They must openly advocate political and economic reforms and provide practical and peaceful support, logistical and financial, for nationalist and democratic forces.
They must also refrain from coercive diplomacy in favor of engagement, advancing economic cooperation, protecting regional environments, and promoting sustainable democratic development. A strengthened UN role in democratic change and economic development à la the Marshall Plan, focused on the middle class and the working people, may be required. Other international organizations should also become involved in the promotion of democracy in the region. Connecting economies of these countries to the global economy will diminish Islamic extremism. International NGOs can play a more active part in strengthening democratic institutions.
At the regional level, there must be concrete attempts to reform failed regimes or force them into retirement in favor of new democratic leaderships. The Arab Spring and the earlier Green Movement in Iran failed because democratic and nationalist forces are too weak to stand on their own. Such movements need unconditional outside support and the development of domestic fronts. All states in the region must be encouraged to become legitimate, sovereign, and cooperative.
At the national level, multiple reforms must be instituted from the top and secured by public participation at the bottom. These should include democratizing local politics, developing the economy, leveling income distribution, mitigating poverty, eliminating repressive social restrictions on youth and women, and protecting religious and ethnic minorities. Without courageous steps, the future is bleak for the peoples of the Middle East.
Finally, while authorities at the international, regional and national levels have a responsibility to effect significant positive changes in the objective (economic and political) conditions of the Muslim and Arab masses, the scholarly and journalistic communities must also help alter their subjective (identity and culture) conditions that are so badly demonized and damaged by Orientalism and racism. These terrible ideologies must be dispelled if Muslims and Arabs are to regain dignity. Unless dignity is returned to these communities, there will be no way forward to a better Middle East.
Hooshang Amirahmadi is a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and former director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. He is the founder and president of the American Iranian Council and a Senior Associate Member at Oxford University. He is author of The Political Economy of Iran Under the Qajars: Society, Politics, Economics and Foreign Relations 1796-1926; and Revolution and Economic Transition: The Iranian Experience. On Twitter: @HAmirahmadi.
Myths of the Oil Boom
Myths of the Oil Boom: American National Security in a Global Energy Market. By Steve A. Yetiv. Oxford University Press, New York, 2015. 272 pp.
Even the most casual of news observers would be hard pressed to disagree with the opening of Steve A. Yetiv’s argument: oil is “by far the most important energy source in the world.” Crude oil and its refined byproducts fuel the global economy. The vast majority of vehicle driving worldwide—private, governmental, commercial—is done with an internal combustion engine that runs on gasoline or diesel. In many places, it is the main source of heat for private homes. Of the top ten companies by revenue worldwide, half are in the oil and gas sector. In addition to being big business, oil is a geostrategic commodity. For the past forty years, the United States has been committed militarily to the Persian Gulf in an effort to ensure security of supply.
Issues affecting the global oil market have taken particular salience since the summer of 2014, as the price of crude oil has plunged—thanks in part to new supplies brought to market by a revolution in unconventional drilling in the United States, weakened global economic growth, and a decision by Saudi Arabia not to cut its own production. That latter policy change was widely interpreted as an effort to slow the U.S. oil boom.
The ripple effects of this price drop have been quite profound. Venezuela, an oil-producing nation that relies on high export prices to fund social spending at home, had to send its president on a world tour to seek foreign financial assistance to make up the shortfall. The government in Baghdad says low oil prices are hurting its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an extremist movement that partially funds its activities through the black market sale of oil under its control. In the United States, Alaska is facing serious declines in revenue from its oil and gas production tax, as companies have slowed projects in response to price constraints.
Yetiv’s book is thus well timed, as it aims to explain some of the fundamental issues that drive the global oil market, and the ways in which U.S. drilling has and has not shifted the market’s long-term trends. He outlines and then corrects several “myths”: that U.S. presidents can control the global price of oil, that more oil produced in the United States means a lowering of our involvement in the Middle East, or that big multinational oil companies dominate the market. He clearly explains how unconventional drilling—methods such as hydraulic fracturing or horizontal drilling, which were not widely used even as recently as five years ago—is not solely responsible for the current low-price environment. Rather, he argues, it took a “perfect storm” including other factors as well: additional supply landing in a market that was seeing less than typical demand; and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) defying the conventional wisdom of market watchers by not cutting production to preserve a higher price band.
Busted myths are a useful reminder that in the global oil market, a measure of uncertainty should underpin any calculation about the future. Even with a strategic commodity such as oil, where nation states jockey for advantage, the laws of supply and demand have a pesky way of asserting themselves over the best-laid plans. As a result, as revolutionary as the U.S. advances in unconventional oil production have been, they do not guarantee insulation from a market reaction. Already, the economics of these projects are being challenged by the unwillingness of Saudi Arabia to cut its own production, even as the price of crude oil has dipped below their budgetary break-even point (the point at which oil prices will generate enough revenue to cover government expenditure). The market is resetting, and no one can say with real confidence what the industry will look like even in a year’s time.
These discussions lead Yetiv to his larger goal: convincing Americans that the myriad benefits of the domestic oil boom, which already have a tendency to be exaggerated, are no excuse for avoiding long-term planning to reduce global oil consumption. If more U.S. production cannot guarantee energy self-sufficiency and insulation from the vagaries of a global market, he argues, then reducing the role that oil plays in the global economy should be the proper goal. As long as oil is an essential economic input, the international community will be invested in its exploration and production, with various political, social, and economic consequences. Would it not be better for American energy security, Yetiv proposes, if the United States led the charge to reduce worldwide oil consumption, rather than focus exclusively on continuing the drilling?
It is a worthwhile goal, and certainly necessary if the planet is to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But Yetiv’s policy prescriptions here lack a sense of robustness. For example, there is currently no appetite, even from the otherwise environmentally conscious Obama administration, to raise the gas tax in the United States. Research and development in hybrid and electric vehicles continues, but it is not clear whether an accelerated effort, which Yetiv calls for, would make much headway in the current low-price environment—people buy these kinds of cars when gasoline is expensive.
At the international level, there is some optimism, as many countries are taking advantage of low crude prices to roll back wasteful fossil fuel subsidies which, ceteris paribus, would decrease consumption as more people pay closer to the market price. More international coordination on subsidy reform in the oil and gas industry, which the International Monetary Fund has championed, would be one crucial step. But the kind of “moonshot” reduction that Yetiv seeks is unlikely to materialize. With crude prices hovering at their lowest, outside of a period of global recession, in a decade, the political will necessary to spearhead that level of international coordination is nonexistent. Calls for that kind of activism were much more prevalent in the mid-2000s, when oil prices were much higher (West Texas intermediate topped out at $133 per barrel in July 2008), but even then, action never followed the talk. Unfortunately, this state of affairs guarantees decades more of the kind of market and geopolitical uncertainty spotlighted in this book.
Neil Bhatiya is a policy associate at the Century Foundation, focusing on U.S. foreign policy in South Asia. He was previously a research fellow at the Streit Council for a Union of Democracies. On Twitter: @NeilBhatiya.
The Rise of the Islamic State
The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. By Patrick Cockburn. Verso, London, 2015. 192 pp.
Journalist Patrick Cockburn’s first-hand observations and reported conversations with fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq lend much credibility to his coverage of events in those two countries. In The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, he provides valuable insights into the complex political scene that surrounds the fighting on the ground. His description of the killing fields in both countries as a strange mélange of fighters from around the region and the world, further complicated by the interventions, funding, and training of Western and Arab intelligence organizations, is quite compelling.
Cockburn covers a wide and complex web of issues connected to the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The core concept of the book, however, is embedded in the title and points to the growth of Sunni anger against their corrupt governments as a major cause of the rise and expansion of ISIS. This anger, combined with pervasive Wahhabi values, offered ISIS at least an ambivalent reception if not an outright welcome mat in Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq.
Cockburn’s assertion that the rise of ISIS has changed the history of Iraq, Syria, and the region is overly dramatic, however. He declares the post-2003 Iraqi experiment in democracy dead in the water, based on “the battle lines between Kurd, Sunni, and Shia being too stark and embittered.” He also dooms the internal and international boundaries as having changed irrevocably. While the author is correct to point to the current fluidity of the Syria-Iraq border and to the strength and cohesiveness of the Kurdish areas relative to the Sunni and Shia districts, those may all be temporary trends given the continuing chaos in Syria and ascendance of ISIS across northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Cockburn, at the time of writing, did not anticipate Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds collaborating against ISIS as well as they did. He perhaps underestimated the historic staying power of the Sykes-Picot borders, having established hard realities on the ground despite the artificial nature of their genesis. ISIS may indeed be the most startling phenomenon of the twenty-first century in the Arab World, but one sells the uprisings of 2011 short if one limits their results to the rise of extremist Islam and ironically also underestimates the staying power of old regimes, especially those in the Gulf.
The book is disappointing when it makes some sweeping generalizations unsupported by evidence or logic. Cockburn’s overall derision of the youth who started the Arab uprisings in 2010 and 2011—accusing them of being politically naïve yet clever in “manipulating Western media”—seems devoid of research on the youth groups, their role in the uprisings, or their own assessments of how and what transpired. The young political activists who confronted authoritarianism across the region and succeeded in ousting four longtime dictators could not have anticipated all the tribal, militant, and extremist forces that would be unleashed in the process. After all, none of the academic or intelligence analysts looking at the region in 2010 correctly predicted the 2011 uprisings and their aftermath. Cockburn accuses the young activists of the uprisings of having misled Western media by exaggerating old regime atrocities and playing up their own successes against them. The dearth of in-depth analysis, however, is surely the fault of professional analysts and Western media and not that of activists risking their lives to send out images and news while under fire in the region, from Syria to Yemen and North Africa.
The author’s argument that there are too many players with conflicting goals in Syria for the crisis to be amenable to one fix-it-all peace plan, is apt. Cockburn makes the case that the Syrian opposition was “under the thumb of the regional powers.” To buttress the claim, he quotes a fighter who defected from the Free Syria Army (FSA) to ISIS describing the presence of Saudi, Qatari, and Jordanian intelligence agents and officials at FSA meetings in Ankara. That is hardly newsworthy in itself or discrediting of the FSA, which openly asked for foreign help from the start of the armed conflict. Given the uneven playing field in the beginning, and the direct intervention of Iranian and Hezbollah advisors and fighters later on, regional involvement on the side of the opposition is understandable.
The author is quite right in depicting the sorry state of the Iraqi armed forces, attributing the way in which they abandoned Mosul and Kirkuk to ISIS in 2014 to their lack of loyalty, training, and professionalism. He is correct in blaming the inflated numbers of soldiers on the corruption of officers and government officials alike. That corruption, along with the neglect and abuse of the Sunni opposition in Iraq, has now become former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s legacy. Cockburn, however, is unfair to Maliki’s successor, Haider Al-Abadi, in concluding that Al-Abadi’s failure to fill the position of defense minister in his first six weeks in office—something Al-Maliki was either unable or unwilling to do in as many years—was a telling sign of failures to come. Al-Abadi did eventually get the Iraqi parliament to agree on a Sunni defense minister and a Shia minister of interior after two months in office. Al-Abadi, though moving very slowly on reforms, was nonetheless in his first year as prime minister miles ahead of where Al-Maliki ever was in gaining the confidence of the Sunni community. He made more progress forging a workable arrangement for Sunni tribes to work alongside Kurds and Shia militias in taking the fight to ISIS fighters holding out in Tikrit, Mosul, and Anbar.
Cockburn takes on the controversial question of an ideological symbiosis between ISIS and Al-Qaeda on one hand and the Wahhabi religious tradition in Saudi Arabia on the other. The roots of extremism found in Saudi Arabia as well as in Pakistan are indeed worthy of further study. Ideological affinities, however, do not prove active collaboration between the governments of these two countries and the organizations listed as terrorist groups by both of them. In saying that the global war on terror is failing because it is not “targeting the jihadi movement as a whole . . . and because it is not being aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan,” the author begs the question of what exactly he is recommending as a policy option. A dramatic declaration like that cannot be left hanging without fuller justification and explication. There is certainly awareness in U.S. government circles that some Saudi clerics preach an unhealthy Salafi doctrine and some even support the actions of extremists in the region. Awareness of the problem, however, does not in itself suggest what to do about it. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two longtime allies of the United States, have a strong history of collaboration in the fight against terrorist organizations (albeit with shortcomings and gaps). What would Cockburn have Washington do? Condemn these states publicly, press them to eradicate the Wahhabi and Salafi cultures outright, or simply disown them and take them off the list of friends and allies and turn them into adversaries and pariahs?
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Cockburn concludes that the United States and the West may have no option but to “militarily assist” the Bashar Al-Assad regime if there is to be hope in defeating the Islamists. Yet, if the Islamists are so strong, why does Cockburn believe the Al-Assad regime can still defeat them after four years of failing to do just that? While it is true that the demise of Al-Assad would, at least in the short run, empower the Islamists, a victory for the regime would further empower and embolden Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah—itself an unpleasant prospect for the West.
One of the most interesting observations in the book is the author’s analogy between the current wars in the Middle East and the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. The analogy is well worth further contemplation and elaboration, given the complexity of forces now competing for power in the region and the time it is likely to take before all the social, economic, and religious conflicts are resolved.
Nabeel Khoury is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a visiting associate professor with the Middle East North Africa program at Northwestern University. He spent twenty-five years as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service in numerous posts from Morocco to Iraq. He has contributed to the Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, and Middle East Policy.
Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt. By Tarek Masoud. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2014. 252 pp.
How did Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood do so well in elections under the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak regime, and again in 2011 and 2012 after the January 25 uprising? Why did the Brotherhood then fall from power so quickly? Why has the secular opposition performed ineptly, and, in particular, why can’t the pro-welfare Egyptian Left win elections in a poor country? Tarek Masoud provides valuable insights into such crucial questions in Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt. His rigorous study should change how readers think about Egyptian politics.
Using extensive quantitative research (economic, voting, and polling data), Masoud challenges the widespread view that the Brotherhood’s famed organizational skills, its charitable work, or the appeal of its Islamist ideas are sufficient to explain its electoral success. He contends that for Egyptian voters, elections are mostly about economic interests—especially contests for parliament, whose main role in Egypt is to provide services, not to shape policy. In addition, decades of underdevelopment have structured Egyptian society to the advantage of pro-regime and Islamist candidates. Masoud analyzes various data to show that in authoritarian, poor, largely non-industrialized Egypt, state-controlled social and economic organizations, family networks, and Islamic institutions dominate the civic landscape; and pro-regime and Islamist candidates use them to lobby voters with economic promises. Meanwhile, secular opposition parties lack similarly dense networks of mobilization. For example, only 12 percent of workers belong to unions, and there are few other class- or occupation-based groups.
Masoud provides a close analysis of how the Brotherhood won numerous seats as a repressed opposition group during the Mubarak regime. He shows that the Brotherhood could not, as is often thought, use mosques as significant mobilization sites because of heavy regime policing. He also questions whether the Brotherhood’s charity network was as powerful as a vote-getting machine as is often assumed. As Masoud points out, there is actually little detailed evidence to show that the Brotherhood’s social services were anything more than modest. His own research suggests that those who received Islamic charity did not necessarily vote for the group. Instead, in the low-turnout elections of the Mubarak era, the Brotherhood won by mobilizing a very small number of middle-class constituents, its historic base. These voters didn’t need to trade their ballots for regime patronage as poor voters did, and thus could “afford” to cast protest votes for the Brotherhood.
Masoud does not fully explain, however, why these voters chose Brotherhood candidates. How did the Brotherhood convince voters of its competence and persuade them to risk violent harassment by Mubarak’s thugs when they went to vote? Masoud perhaps underplays the influence of the group’s social capital and political-religious authority among its followers—after all, the Brotherhood is first a significant social movement, only second a political party.
Concerning elections in the immediate post-Mubarak period, Masoud writes, “One would think that with democratization non-Islamists could improve, and the Islamists’ advantage would disappear, but this was not the case.” He argues that the Brotherhood secured a plurality in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections primarily because of economic factors, not a demand for sharia. According to 2011 polling data, the economy was the most important issue for the majority of voters. Moreover, polls showed that the Egyptian public had a clear leftist economic orientation, with distaste for neoliberal policies and a strong preference for welfare-statist and redistributive policies.
Why couldn’t leftist parties take advantage of the far more open political environment to tap into this constituency? They could not overcome two Brotherhood advantages, Masoud says. First, with the democratic opening, the Brotherhood suddenly had access to numerous religious institutions that had previously been hard to penetrate. Second, drawing on its reputation for competence and electoral success, the Brotherhood convinced enough voters that it shared their left-leaning economic preferences—even though the group’s platform actually espoused pro-capitalist policies. Masoud explains that many Egyptians “appeared to [vote for the Brotherhood] because they believed [it] would pursue the policies of wealth redistribution and strengthening of the social safety net that the Mubarak regime appeared to have long abandoned.” Masoud acknowledges that decades of repression and cooptation have contributed to the Left’s “political languor.” But he attributes its electoral failure more to factors associated with Egypt’s socio-economic structure—mainly the absence of a robust network of labor-oriented organizations through which to mobilize poor and working-class voters.
The May 2012 presidential election, narrowly won by the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, featured a different dynamic, Masoud explains. By this time, the Brotherhood’s weak performance running the parliament had punctured its claims of competence and cost it much public support. Though economic issues were still important, the presidential vote was more about personalities, and the mass media, over which the old regime still held sway, played a larger role in reaching voters. The old regime patronage networks, mostly dormant in the 2011 parliamentary elections, were revitalized by spring 2012 and sprang into action to support the candidacy of one of their own, Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, a former general who once headed the Air Force. Morsi tapped into religious networks and a strong anti-Shafik sentiment among enough secular voters to eke out a second-round victory by 3 percent. Still, in the first round, four million fewer voters cast ballots for the Brotherhood than in the parliamentary elections just six months earlier.
This leads to Masoud’s incisive rendering of Morsi’s July 3, 2013, ouster by the military. By late June, popular anger over the Brotherhood’s economic mismanagement, controversial social agenda, and authoritarian predilections had mushroomed into mass protests demanding that Morsi resign. These protests were backed by Mubarak-era business leaders and the police, military, and other state institutions. A severe political crisis ensued and violence flared when he refused to step down. The Brotherhood, refusing on principle to sacrifice the hard-fought presidency and also fearful of losing a snap presidential vote, pushed for new parliamentary elections, which were already due after the Supreme Constitutional Court had invalidated the 2011 parliament, and which they believed they could win owing to their structural advantages. The opposition, rather than trying to ride the huge wave of anti-Brotherhood anger to take control of parliament and marginalize Morsi that way, instead demanded an early presidential election, which they believed they could win. To break the civilian political gridlock, the military stepped in, removed Morsi, and pledged swift elections. But it then sidelined the opposition, consolidated power, and effectively ended the democratic experiment. The opposition’s aversion to parliamentary competition against Islamists, built up over years of defeat in elections, was only one of many factors in the complicated situation leading to the military’s takeover, but Masoud reminds us that its mistrust of democratic processes helped clear the army’s path.
Masoud’s overall conclusions are compelling. If the Brotherhood is ever allowed to reenter the political game after the current brutal crackdown, he argues that its social base, structural electoral advantages, and years of election experience may position it to do well in elections once again. Meanwhile, the Left faces a long political road ahead unless economic changes alter the socio-economic landscape to its advantage. As Masoud writes, the fall of Islamists in Egypt is unlikely to lead to the rise of the Left anytime soon.
Amy Hawthorne is resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She served in the U.S. Department of State as an advisor on Egypt policy in 2011 and 2012. From 2006 to 2010, she was executive director of the Hollings Center for International Dialogue. She was the founding editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin (now Sada) while serving as an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 2002 to 2004. On Twitter: @awhawth.