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An opposition activist shouts slogans holding up bread as he protests along with others against rising living costs, at the entrance of the president's office in Colombo on March 15.ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

When hundreds of people took to the streets of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq this month to protest a sharp rise in flour and cooking oil prices, it was an early sign of the social unrest that could hit many regions of the world in the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In the days since the protests in Iraq, similar demonstrations have erupted in Sri Lanka, Sudan and Albania, with food and fuel prices a key factor in all of them. Analysts believe it is a foreshadowing of the turmoil to come.

Food prices have long been connected to political instability, igniting riots and toppling governments worldwide. Now some are trying to calculate where the latest shock waves will cause the most damage.

“The ripple effects of the war are spreading,” said Bamo Nouri, an international politics researcher at the University of London, in a recent analysis. “Iraqis may be the first in a global movement of protests over price rises as the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues.”

The prices of wheat, barley, cooking oil and fertilizer have spiked internationally since the beginning of the war last month, while global oil prices have climbed to an eight-year high. Ukraine and Russia are major producers of grain and other commodities, but the war and resulting sanctions have reduced their exports.

David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), said the pressures for consumers today are worse than they were in 2011 when soaring food costs – including the tripling of bread prices in Egypt – helped trigger the Arab Spring uprisings.

“Don’t be surprised if you see destabilization, mass riots and protests over the next 12 months,” he told a panel at the International Monetary Fund on Friday.

Russia’s war on Ukraine sets the stage for worst food crisis in decades

Nicolas Kazadi, the Finance Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told the IMF panel that the rising prices of bread and oil are “a major risk” for his country and could be “major sources of instability.”

Congo is one of 18 low-income countries, primarily in Africa, that receive more than half their wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. Food costs are about 40 per cent of consumer spending in sub-Saharan Africa, so an increase in grain costs could have a huge impact.

Ukraine normally produces enough food to feed 400 million people worldwide and supplies about half of the WFP’s own grain supplies, Mr. Beasley noted.

The food shortages and higher prices are expected to increase the humanitarian agency’s costs by US$350-million annually, which could force it to ration its aid to millions of desperate people who have few other sources of food, unless the agency can obtain more funding.

“Is it fair for us to take food from hungry children to feed starving children? And is it fair for us to take food from children in Ethiopia to give to children in Ukraine?” Mr. Beasley asked. “No. Don’t put us in that position.”

The higher food and fuel prices will push 40 million more people into extreme poverty, according to analysts at the U.S.-based Center for Global Development.

They warned that political tensions are likely to increase in countries such as Egypt, which is heavily dependent on imported wheat. This, in turn, could heighten the bitter conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over a hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is constructing on the Nile.

A report last week by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) showed that political instability has been “highly correlated” with increases in food prices over the past 15 years.

“The risk of civil unrest, food shortages and inflation-induced recessions cannot be discounted, particularly given the fragile state of the global economy and the developing world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said.

The UNCTAD report cited the Arab Spring uprisings and an earlier wave of food riots in dozens of countries in 2007 and 2008 as possible precedents for what could happen.

Food price increases in 2008, for example, led to massive protests that toppled Haiti’s government.

More recently, Sudan’s long-ruling dictator, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted from power in 2019 after months of street protests that began in reaction to the tripling of bread prices.

“No matter what happens next, the disruption wrought by Russia’s invasion will keep commodity prices high for the year,” said Champa Patel, a researcher at the International Crisis Group, in a commentary last week.

“This will increase the risk of violence in vulnerable countries and make it harder to resolve particular conflicts,” she said.

Some countries will be more vulnerable to price shocks than others. “Places that import more goods from abroad than they sell will be particularly vulnerable,” she said.

“Countries with low reserves of foreign currency and strategic commodities, high inflation and weak state finances, and [located] closer to disrupted supply chains, are going to be in bad shape.”

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