Jordanians grapple with rising food prices

The fourth poorest Arab country has a high cost of living, and rulers worry about potential unrest and food riots.

Amman, Jordan – In an old drinks chiller, tucked in the corner of a small dusty shop in Jordan’s capital, is pile of tiny chickens. They cost almost $5 each.

A few streets down is the creaky blue door to Mona Al Basabseh’s apartment. She earns less than $400 a month and rarely eats chicken.

“With the rent, water, electricity, and food for the house like vegetables, bringing meat or chicken home once a month is a privilege,” said the widowed mother of nine.

Jordan is the fourth poorest country in the Arab world – after Yemen, Sudan and Syria – yet it is one of the most expensive to live in. The price of food in Jordan will continue to rise in the coming months as extreme weather in food-producing nations destroys crops from the US to Russia.

That’s not good news for a government that has been trying to stave off years of interspersed protests about the cost of living. Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Jordan has had four separate governments. Even for a country where political inertia is the norm, that’s more than usual.

Bread and democracy

In countries such as Syria and Libya the message of armed groups is now louder than the original calls for fairness and a decent standard of living that sparked the Arab Spring. From the start, however, Jordan’s protesters called for bread and democracy in the same breath.

“We are affected by global prices upwards and not downwards, because of monopolistic practises amongst suppliers

– Yusuf Mansur, Jordanian economist

In January 2011, people took to the streets of various cities to protest the price of food. Since then, there have not been meaningful reforms regarding food prices.

Increases in fuel taxes this June and July have pushed prices up even further. The government increased taxes in an attempt to cut the country’s large public deficit – which currently stands at more than 10 per cent of GDP.

“Eighty seven per cent of the caloric intake of the average Jordanian is imported,” said economist, Yusuf Mansur. “So we import everything – and fuel price rises will make that more expensive.”

He sees the country’s heavy dependence on imports as a sign of poor management. “Thirty years ago we used to produce 50 per cent of our wheat needs. Nowadays what we produce won’t last longer than eight days.”

As meat, wheat and other produce is flown and driven into and around the country, global shortages and fuel price rises affect the cost of everything, from a carrot to a plate of rice.

Beyond the usual economic forces, however, is the work of monopolies affecting wholesale imports and food distribution in Jordan, Mansour said. When food prices go up, those monopolies keep prices high after the external affects have abated, he said.

“When there is a disaster outside and there is a shortage of supplies, immediately there is a rise in the price of food in Jordan. We are affected by global prices upwards and not downwards, because of monopolistic practices amongst suppliers.”

Tough choices

The IMF recently agreed to lend Jordan $2bn to help its economy through the current tough times brought on by the global economic slowdown and knock-on effects from the Arab Spring. In the past five years, Amman has also received $2.4bn in military and economic aid from the US.

Mansour believes such injections of cash are futile without reforms and smarter economic policies.

Meanwhile, in a busy Amman fruit and vegetable market, most agree that food prices keep going up. Wael Abu Hassan is a charity worker who regularly distributes food to poorer families. He says Muna, the widow, is not alone in cutting meat out of her diet.

“What we are seeing right now – especially in the poorer families – they are saying ‘we are tired of eating the same beans every day’,” Hassan said. He wanders between the stalls, asking vendors about the prices of their goods. His eyes widen at their answers and he walks on.

One woman stops nearby, picking out fruits carefully. “Grapes are 2 Jds ($2.8) or 1.5 Jds ($2.1)!” she says. “Even a local Jordanian grape.”

Back in Mona’s small kitchen, there is no sign of anything as extravagant as grapes. She says balancing the books is almost impossible, and most months she has to choose between paying the rent, the bills, or buying groceries to feed her family.

“There are months when I put off paying the rent or electricity bills are not paid and likewise the water,” she said. “Even if I didn’t pay the rent for three months – it doesn’t matter, I have to provide them with food.”

Source: Al Jazeera