Why are food prices rising around the world?

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Food prices have been rising around the world. What is behind this trend? Food has now become a commodity for price manipulation and criminal speculation. These articles help to explain the fraud, market manipulation, and forces behind this destabilizing phenomena.


Ellen Brown

February 2nd, 2011

“What for a poor man is a crust, for a rich man is a securitized asset class.”

–Futures trader Ann Berg, quoted in the UK Guardian

Underlying the sudden, volatile uprising in Egypt and Tunisia is a growing global crisis sparked by soaring food prices and unemployment. The Associated Press reports that roughly 40 percent of Egyptians struggle along at the World Bank-set poverty level of under $2 per day. Analysts estimate that food price inflation in Egypt is currently at an unsustainable 17 percent yearly. In poorer countries, as much as 60 to 80 percent of people’s incomes go for food, compared to just 10 to 20 percent in industrial countries. An increase of a dollar or so in the cost of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread for Americans can mean starvation for people in Egypt and other poor countries.

Follow the Money

The cause of the recent jump in global food prices remains a matter of debate. Some analysts blame the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” program (increasing the money supply with credit created with accounting entries), which they warn is sparking hyperinflation. Too much money chasing too few goods is the classic explanation for rising prices.

The problem with that theory is that the global money supply has actually shrunk since 2006, when food prices began their dramatic rise. Virtually all money today is created on the books of banks as “credit” or “debt,” and overall lending has shrunk. This has occurred in an accelerating process of deleveraging (paying down or writing off loans and not making new ones), as the subprime housing market has collapsed and bank capital requirements have been raised. Although it seems counterintuitive, the more debt there is, the more money there is in the system. As debt shrinks, the money supply shrinks in tandem.

That is why government debt today is not actually the bugaboo it is being made out to be by the deficit terrorists. The flipside of debt is credit, and businesses run on it. When credit collapses, trade collapses. When private debt shrinks, public debt must therefore step in to replace it. The “good” credit or debt is the kind used for building infrastructure and other productive capacity, increasing the Gross Domestic Product and wages; and this is the kind governments are in a position to employ. The parasitic forms of credit or debt are the gamblers’ money-making-money schemes, which add nothing to GDP.

Prices have been driven up by too much money chasing too few goods, but the money is chasing only certain selected goods. Food and fuel prices are up, but housing prices are down. The net result is that overall price inflation remains low.

While quantitative easing may not be the culprit, Fed action has driven the rush into commodities. In response to the banking crisis of 2008, the Federal Reserve dropped the Fed funds rate (the rate at which banks borrow from each other) nearly to zero. This has allowed banks and their customers to borrow in the U.S. at very low rates and invest abroad for higher returns, creating a dollar “carry trade.”

Meanwhile, interest rates on federal securities were also driven to very low levels, leaving investors without that safe, stable option for funding their retirements. “Hot money” – investment seeking higher returns – fled from the collapsed housing market into anything but the dollar, which generally meant fleeing into commodities.

New Meaning to the Old Adage “Don’t Play with Your Food”

At one time food was considered a poor speculative investment, because it was too perishable to be stored until market conditions were right for resale. But that changed with the development of ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and other financial innovations.

As first devised, speculation in food futures was fairly innocuous, since when the contract expired, somebody actually had to buy the product at the “spot” or cash price. This forced the fanciful futures price and the more realistic spot price into alignment. But that changed in 1991. In a revealing July 2010 report in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away with It,” Frederick Kaufman wrote:

The history of food took an ominous turn in 1991, at a time when no one was paying much attention. That was the year Goldman Sachs decided our daily bread might make an excellent investment. . . .

Robber barons, gold bugs, and financiers of every stripe had long dreamed of controlling all of something everybody needed or desired, then holding back the supply as demand drove up prices.

As Kaufman explained this financial innovation in a July 16 interview on Democracy Now:

Goldman . . . came up with this idea of the commodity index fund, which really was a way for them to accumulate huge piles of cash for themselves. . . . Instead of a buy-and-sell order, like everybody does in these markets, they just started buying. It’s called “going long.” They started going long on wheat futures. . . . And every time one of these contracts came due, they would do something called “rolling it over” into the next contract. . . . And they kept on buying and buying and buying and buying and accumulating this historically unprecedented pile of long-only wheat futures. And this accumulation created a very odd phenomenon in the market. It’s called a “demand shock.” Usually prices go up because supply is low . . . . In this case, Goldman and the other banks had introduced this completely unnatural and artificial demand to buy wheat, and that then set the price up. . . . [H]ard red wheat generally trades between $3 and $6 per sixty-pound bushel. It went up to $12, then $15, then $18. Then it broke $20. And on February 25th, 2008, hard red spring futures settled at $25 per bushel. . . . [T]he irony here is that in 2008, it was the greatest wheat-producing year in world history.

. . . [T]he other outrage . . . is that at the time that Goldman and these other banks are completely messing up the structure of this market, they’ve protected themselves outside the market, through this really almost diabolical idea called “replication” . . . . Let’s say, . . . you want me to invest for you in the wheat market. You give me a hundred bucks . . . . [W]hat I should be doing is putting a hundred bucks in the wheat markets. But I don’t have to do that. All I have to do is put $5 in. . . . And with that $5, I can hold your hundred-dollar position. Well, now I’ve got ninety-five of your dollars. . . . [W]hat Goldman did with hundreds of billions of dollars, and what all these banks did with hundreds of billions of dollars, is they put them in the most conservative investments conceivable. They put it in T-bills. . . . [N]ow that you have hundreds of billions of dollars in T-bills, you can leverage that into trillions of dollars. . . . And then they take that trillion dollars, they give it to their day traders, and they say, “Go at it, guys. Do whatever is most lucrative today.” And so, as billions of people starve, they use that money to make billions of dollars for themselves.

Other researchers have concurred in this explanation of the food crisis. In a July 2010 article called “How Goldman Sachs Gambled on Starving the World’s Poor – And Won,” journalist Johann Hari observed:

Beginning in late 2006, world food prices began rising. A year later, wheat price had gone up 80 percent, maize by 90 percent and rice by 320 percent. Food riots broke out in more than 30 countries, and 200 million people faced malnutrition and starvation. Suddenly, in the spring of 2008, food prices fell to previous levels, as if by magic. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has called this “a silent mass murder”, entirely due to “man-made actions.”

Some economists said the hikes were caused by increased demand by Chinese and Indian middle class population booms and the growing use of corn for ethanol. But according to Professor Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies in New Delhi, demand from those countries actually fell by 3 percent over the period; and the International Grain Council stated that global production of wheat had increased during the price spike.

According to a study by the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, index fund speculation jumped from $13 billion to $260 billion from 2003 to 2008. Not surprisingly, food prices rose in tandem, beginning in 2003. Hedge fund manager Michael Masters estimated that on the regulated exchanges in the U.S., 64 percent of all wheat contracts were held by speculators with no interest whatever in real wheat. They owned it solely in anticipation of price inflation and resale. George Soros said it was “just like secretly hoarding food during a hunger crisis in order to make profits from increasing prices.”

An August 2009 paper by Jayati Ghosh, professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Dehli, compared food staples traded on futures markets with staples that were not. She found that the price of food staples not traded on futures markets, such as millet, cassava and potatoes, rose only a fraction as much as staples subject to speculation, such as wheat.

Nomi Prins, writing in Mother Jones in 2008, also blamed the price hikes on speculation. She observed that agricultural futures and energy futures were being packaged and sold just like CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), but in this case they were called CCOs (collateralized commodity obligations). The higher the price of food, the more CCO investors profited. She warned:

[W]ithout strong regulation of electronic exchanges and the derivatives products that enable speculators to move huge proportions of the futures markets underlying commodities, putting a bit of regulation into the London-based exchanges will not alleviate anything. Unless that’s addressed, this bubble is going to take more than homes with it. It’s going to take lives.

What Can Be Done?

According to Kaufman, the food bubble has now increased the ranks of the world’s hungry by 250 million. On July 21, 2010, President Obama signed a Wall Street reform bill that would close many of the regulatory loopholes allowing big financial institutions to play in agriculture commodity futures markets, but Kaufman says the bill’s solutions are not likely to work. Wall Street innovators can devise new ways to speculate that easily dance around cumbersome, slow-to-pass legislation. Attempts to ban all food speculation are also unlikely to work, he says, since firms can pick up the phone and do their trades through London, or arrange over-the-counter (private) swaps.

As an alternative, Kaufman suggests a worldwide or national grain reserve, so that regulators can bring wheat into the market when needed to stabilize prices. He notes that we actually kept a large grain reserve in the Clinton era, before the mania for deregulation. President Franklin Roosevelt pledged to maintain a large grain reserve in his second Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1938.

Chris Cook, former director of a global energy exchange, maintains:

The only long term solution is to completely re-architect markets. Firstly, cutting out middlemen — which is a process already under way. Secondly, a new settlement between producer and consumer nations — a Bretton Woods II.

Speculative markets today are driven more by fear, says Cook, than by greed. Investors are looking for something safe that will give them an adequate return, which means something they can live on in retirement. They need these investments because their employers and the government do not provide an adequate safety net.

At one time, federal securities were a safe and adequate investment for retirees. Then federal interest rates plunged, and investors moved into municipal bonds. Now that market too is collapsing, due to threats of bankruptcy among bond issuers. Cities, counties and states floundering from the credit crisis have been denied access to the quantitative easing tools used to bail out the banks — although it was the banks, not local governments, that caused the crisis. See “The Fed Has Spoken: No Bailout for Main Street.”

Meanwhile, pensions are being slashed and social security is under attack. Arguably, along with the grain reserves institutionalized under Franklin Roosevelt, we need an Economic Bill of Rights of the sort he envisioned, one that would guarantee citizens at least a bare minimum standard of living. This could be done through job guarantees when people were able to work and social security when they were not. The program could be funded with government-created credit or government-bank-created credit, and this could be done without causing hyperinflation. To support that contention would take more space than is left here, but the subject has been tackled in my book Web of Debt. In the meantime, the credit needed to get local economies up and running again can be furnished through publicly-owned banks. For more on that possibility, see http://PublicBankingInstitute.org.

Source: http://www.webofdebt.com/articles/egyptian_tinderbox.php


The 25 Countries Whose Governments Could Get Crushed By Food Price Inflation

Food inflation is now a reality for much of the world. It contributed to the overthrow of the Tunisian government, has led to riots across the Middle East and North Africa, driven up costs in China and India, and may only be getting started. Whether you blame a bad crop or bad monetary policy, food inflation is here. Nomura produced a research report detailing the countries that would be crushed in a food crisis. One, Tunisia, has already seen its government overthrown. Their description of a food crisis is a prolonged price spike. They calculate the states that have the most to lose by a formula including:

  • Nominal GDP per capita in USD at market exchange rates.
  • The share of food in total household consumption.
  • Net food exports as a percentage of GDP.

We’ve got the top 25 countries in danger here and the list, including a major financial center, may surprise you.

#1 Bangladesh

  • GDP per capita in USD: $497
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 53.8%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -3.3%

#2 Morocco

  • GDP per capita in USD: $2,769
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 63.0%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -2.1%

#3 Algeria

  • GDP per capita in USD: $4,845
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 53.0%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -2.8%

#4 Nigeria

  • GDP per capita in USD: $1,370
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 73.0%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -0.9%

#5 Lebanon

  • GDP per capita in USD: $6,978
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 34.0%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -3.9%

#6 Egypt

  • GDP per capita in USD: $1,991
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 48.1%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -2.1%

#7 Sri Lanka

  • GDP per capita in USD: $2,013
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 39.6%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -2.7%

#8 Sudan

  • GDP per capita in USD: $1,353
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 52.9%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -1.3%

#9 Hong Kong

  • GDP per capita in USD: $30,863
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 25.8%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -4.4%

#10 Azerbaijan

  • GDP per capita in USD: $5,315
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 60.2%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -0.6%

#11 Angola

  • GDP per capita in USD: $4,714
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 46.1%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -1.4%

#12 Romania

  • GDP per capita in USD: $9,300
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 49.4%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -1.1%

#13 Philippines

  • GDP per capita in USD: $1,847
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 45.6%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -1.0%

#14 Kenya

  • GDP per capita in USD: $783
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 45.8%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -0.8%

#15 Pakistan

  • GDP per capita in USD: $991
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 47.6%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -0.4%

#16 Libya

  • GDP per capita in USD: $14,802
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 37.2%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -1.7%

#17 Dominican Republic

  • GDP per capita in USD: $4,576
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 38.3%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -1.1%

#18 Tunisia

  • GDP per capita in USD: $3,903
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 36.0%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -1.1%

#19 Bulgaria

  • GDP per capita in USD: $6,546
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 49.5%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -0.1%

#20 Ukraine

  • GDP per capita in USD: $3,899
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 61.0%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): 0.9%

#21 India

  • GDP per capita in USD: $1,017
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 49.5%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): 0.3%

#23 Latvia

  • GDP per capita in USD: $14,908
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 34.3%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -1.1%

#24 Vietnam

  • GDP per capita in USD: $1,051
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 50.7%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): 0.8%

#25 Venezuela

  • GDP per capita in USD: $11,246
  • Food as a percentage of total household consumption: 32.6%
  • Net food exports (as percentage of GDP): -1.0%

Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/governments-food-price-inflation-2011-1?slop=1


The Rise Disaster Capitalism Again – Credit Default Swaps


April 14, 2005
By Naomi Klein

Fittingly, a government devoted to perpetual pre-emptive deconstruction now has a standing office of perpetual pre-emptive reconstruction.

Gone are the days of waiting for wars to break out and then drawing up ad hoc plans to pick up the pieces. In close cooperation with the National Intelligence Council, Pascual’s office keeps “high risk” countries on a “watch list” and assembles rapid-response teams ready to engage in prewar planning and to “mobilize and deploy quickly” after a conflict has gone down. The teams are made up of private companies, nongovernmental organizations and members of think tanks–some, Pascual told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in October, will have “pre-completed” contracts to rebuild countries that are not yet broken. Doing this paperwork in advance could “cut off three to six months in your response time.”

The plans Pascual’s teams have been drawing up in his little-known office in the State Department are about changing “the very social fabric of a nation,” he told CSIS. The office’s mandate is not to rebuild any old states, you see, but to create “democratic and market-oriented” ones. So, for instance (and he was just pulling this example out of his hat, no doubt), his fast-acting reconstructors might help sell off “state-owned enterprises that created a nonviable economy.” Sometimes rebuilding, he explained, means “tearing apart the old.”

Few ideologues can resist the allure of a blank slate–that was colonialism’s seductive promise: “discovering” wide-open new lands where utopia seemed possible. But colonialism is dead, or so we are told; there are no new places to discover, no terra nullius (there never was), no more blank pages on which, as Mao once said, “the newest and most beautiful words can be written.” There is, however, plenty of destruction–countries smashed to rubble, whether by so-called Acts of God or by Acts of Bush (on orders from God). And where there is destruction there is reconstruction, a chance to grab hold of “the terrible barrenness,” as a UN official recently described the devastation in Aceh, and fill it with the most perfect, beautiful plans.

“We used to have vulgar colonialism,” says Shalmali Guttal, a Bangalore-based researcher with Focus on the Global South. “Now we have sophisticated colonialism, and they call it ‘reconstruction.'”

It certainly seems that ever-larger portions of the globe are under active reconstruction: being rebuilt by a parallel government made up of a familiar cast of for-profit consulting firms, engineering companies, mega-NGOs, government and UN aid agencies and international financial institutions. And from the people living in these reconstruction sites–Iraq to Aceh, Afghanistan to Haiti–a similar chorus of complaints can be heard. The work is far too slow, if it is happening at all. Foreign consultants live high on cost-plus expense accounts and thousand- dollar-a-day salaries, while locals are shut out of much-needed jobs, training and decision-making. Expert “democracy builders” lecture governments on the importance of transparency and “good governance,” yet most contractors and NGOs refuse to open their books to those same governments, let alone give them control over how their aid money is spent.

Three months after the tsunami hit Aceh, the New York Times ran a distressing story reporting that “almost nothing seems to have been done to begin repairs and rebuilding.” The dispatch could easily have come from Iraq, where, as the Los Angeles Times just reported, all of Bechtel’s allegedly rebuilt water plants have started to break down, one more in an endless litany of reconstruction screw-ups. It could also have come from Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai recently blasted “corrupt, wasteful and unaccountable” foreign contractors for “squandering the precious resources that Afghanistan received in aid.” Or from Sri Lanka, where 600,000 people who lost their homes in the tsunami are still languishing in temporary camps. One hundred days after the giant waves hit, Herman Kumara, head of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement in Negombo, Sri Lanka, sent out a desperate e-mail to colleagues around the world. “The funds received for the benefit of the victims are directed to the benefit of the privileged few, not to the real victims,” he wrote. “Our voices are not heard and not allowed to be voiced.”

But if the reconstruction industry is stunningly inept at rebuilding, that may be because rebuilding is not its primary purpose. According to Guttal, “It’s not reconstruction at all–it’s about reshaping everything.” If anything, the stories of corruption and incompetence serve to mask this deeper scandal: the rise of a predatory form of disaster capitalism that uses the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering. And on this front, the reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that the privatizations and land grabs are usually locked in before the local population knows what hit them. Kumara, in another e-mail, warns that Sri Lanka is now facing “a second tsunami of corporate globalization and militarization,” potentially even more devastating than the first. “We see this as a plan of action amidst the tsunami crisis to hand over the sea and the coast to foreign corporations and tourism, with military assistance from the US Marines.”

As Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz designed and oversaw a strikingly similar project in Iraq: The fires were still burning in Baghdad when US occupation officials rewrote the investment laws and announced that the country’s state-owned companies would be privatized. Some have pointed to this track record to argue that Wolfowitz is unfit to lead the World Bank; in fact, nothing could have prepared him better for his new job. In Iraq, Wolfowitz was just doing what the World Bank is already doing in virtually every war-torn and disaster-struck country in the world–albeit with fewer bureaucratic niceties and more ideological bravado.

“Post-conflict” countries now receive 20-25 percent of the World Bank’s total lending, up from 16 percent in 1998–itself an 800 percent increase since 1980, according to a Congressional Research Service study. Rapid response to wars and natural disasters has traditionally been the domain of United Nations agencies, which worked with NGOs to provide emergency aid, build temporary housing and the like. But now reconstruction work has been revealed as a tremendously lucrative industry, too important to be left to the do-gooders at the UN. So today it is the World Bank, already devoted to the principle of poverty-alleviation through profit-making, that leads the charge.

And there is no doubt that there are profits to be made in the reconstruction business. There are massive engineering and supplies contracts ($10 billion to Halliburton in Iraq and Afghanistan alone); “democracy building” has exploded into a $2 billion industry; and times have never been better for public-sector consultants–the private firms that advise governments on selling off their assets, often running government services themselves as subcontractors. (Bearing Point, the favored of these firms in the United States, reported that the revenues for its “public services” division “had quadrupled in just five years,” and the profits are huge: $342 million in 2002–a profit margin of 35 percent.)

But shattered countries are attractive to the World Bank for another reason: They take orders well. After a cataclysmic event, governments will usually do whatever it takes to get aid dollars–even if it means racking up huge debts and agreeing to sweeping policy reforms. And with the local population struggling to find shelter and food, political organizing against privatization can seem like an unimaginable luxury.

Even better from the bank’s perspective, many war-ravaged countries are in states of “limited sovereignty”: They are considered too unstable and unskilled to manage the aid money pouring in, so it is often put in a trust fund managed by the World Bank. This is the case in East Timor, where the bank doles out money to the government as long as it shows it is spending responsibly. Apparently, this means slashing public-sector jobs (Timor’s government is half the size it was under Indonesian occupation) but lavishing aid money on foreign consultants the bank insists the government hire (researcher Ben Moxham writes, “In one government department, a single international consultant earns in one month the same as his twenty Timorese colleagues earn together in an entire year”).

In Afghanistan, where the World Bank also administers the country’s aid through a trust fund, it has already managed to privatize healthcare by refusing to give funds to the Ministry of Health to build hospitals. Instead it funnels money directly to NGOs, which are running their own private health clinics on three-year contracts. It has also mandated “an increased role for the private sector” in the water system, telecommunications, oil, gas and mining and directed the government to “withdraw” from the electricity sector and leave it to “foreign private investors.” These profound transformations of Afghan society were never debated or reported on, because few outside the bank know they took place: The changes were buried deep in a “technical annex” attached to a grant providing “emergency” aid to Afghanistan’s war-torn infrastructure–two years before the country had an elected government.

It has been much the same story in Haiti, following the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In exchange for a $61 million loan, the bank is requiring “public-private partnership and governance in the education and health sectors,” according to bank documents–i.e., private companies running schools and hospitals. Roger Noriega, US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, has made it clear that the Bush Administration shares these goals. “We will also encourage the government of Haiti to move forward, at the appropriate time, with restructuring and privatization of some public sector enterprises,” he told the American Enterprise Institute on April 14, 2004.

These are extraordinarily controversial plans in a country with a powerful socialist base, and the bank admits that this is precisely why it is pushing them now, with Haiti under what approaches military rule. “The Transitional Government provide[s] a window of opportunity for implementing economic governance reforms…that may be hard for a future government to undo,” the bank notes in its Economic Governance Reform Operation Project agreement. For Haitians, this is a particularly bitter irony: Many blame multilateral institutions, including the World Bank, for deepening the political crisis that led to Aristide’s ouster by withholding hundreds of millions in promised loans. At the time, the Inter-American Development Bank, under pressure from the State Department, claimed Haiti was insufficiently democratic to receive the money, pointing to minor irregularities in a legislative election. But now that Aristide is out, the World Bank is openly celebrating the perks of operating in a democracy-free zone.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been imposing shock therapy on countries in various states of shock for at least three decades, most notably after Latin America’s military coups and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet many observers say that today’s disaster capitalism really hit its stride with Hurricane Mitch. For a week in October 1998, Mitch parked itself over Central America, swallowing villages whole and killing more than 9,000. Already impoverished countries were desperate for reconstruction aid–and it came, but with strings attached. In the two months after Mitch struck, with the country still knee-deep in rubble, corpses and mud, the Honduran congress initiated what the Financial Times called “speed sell-offs after the storm.” It passed laws allowing the privatization of airports, seaports and highways and fast-tracked plans to privatize the state telephone company, the national electric company and parts of the water sector. It overturned land-reform laws and made it easier for foreigners to buy and sell property. It was much the same in neighboring countries: In the same two months, Guatemala announced plans to sell off its phone system, and Nicaragua did likewise, along with its electric company and its petroleum sector.

All of the privatization plans were pushed aggressively by the usual suspects. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the World Bank and International Monetary Fund had thrown their weight behind the [telecom] sale, making it a condition for release of roughly $47 million in aid annually over three years and linking it to about $4.4 billion in foreign-debt relief for Nicaragua.”

Now the bank is using the December 26 tsunami to push through its cookie-cutter policies. The most devastated countries have seen almost no debt relief, and most of the World Bank’s emergency aid has come in the form of loans, not grants. Rather than emphasizing the need to help the small fishing communities–more than 80 percent of the wave’s victims–the bank is pushing for expansion of the tourism sector and industrial fish farms. As for the damaged public infrastructure, like roads and schools, bank documents recognize that rebuilding them “may strain public finances” and suggest that governments consider privatization (yes, they have only one idea). “For certain investments,” notes the bank’s tsunami-response plan, “it may be appropriate to utilize private financing.”

As in other reconstruction sites, from Haiti to Iraq, tsunami relief has little to do with recovering what was lost. Although hotels and industry have already started reconstructing on the coast, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and India, governments have passed laws preventing families from rebuilding their oceanfront homes. Hundreds of thousands of people are being forcibly relocated inland, to military style barracks in Aceh and prefab concrete boxes in Thailand. The coast is not being rebuilt as it was–dotted with fishing villages and beaches strewn with handmade nets. Instead, governments, corporations and foreign donors are teaming up to rebuild it as they would like it to be: the beaches as playgrounds for tourists, the oceans as watery mines for corporate fishing fleets, both serviced by privatized airports and highways built on borrowed money.

In January Condoleezza Rice sparked a small controversy by describing the tsunami as “a wonderful opportunity” that “has paid great dividends for us.” Many were horrified at the idea of treating a massive human tragedy as a chance to seek advantage. But, if anything, Rice was understating the case. A group calling itself Thailand Tsunami Survivors and Supporters says that for “businessmen-politicians, the tsunami was the answer to their prayers, since it literally wiped these coastal areas clean of the communities which had previously stood in the way of their plans for resorts, hotels, casinos and shrimp farms. To them, all these coastal areas are now open land!”

Disaster, it seems, is the new terra nullius.

About Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and syndicated columnist and the author of the international and New York Times bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (September 2007); an earlier international best-seller, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies; and the collection Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (2002). more…