World Bank President Robert Zoellick has warned that food prices had reached “dangerous levels” and could hamper political transitions taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, the wider Middle East and Central Asia.
“The area that obviously bears watching is where you have a combination of political upheaval and food price stress,” Zoellick said in a conference call with reporters in Washington Tuesday.
The World Bank said that global food prices on average were 29 percent higher in January than a year earlier and just 3 percent below a peak reached in 2008, when the rising cost of food sparked deadly riots in many parts of the developing world.
The rising costs had pushed 44 million people back into extreme poverty, and Zoellick urged leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) bloc of leading global economies to make the food crisis their top priority. G20 finance ministers are meeting Friday and Saturday in France.
“Global food prices are now at dangerous levels. It is already clear recent price rises for food are causing pain and suffering to poor people around the globe,” Zoellick said.
While rising food costs had not been the chief cause of Egypt’s uprising, Zoellick said the spike in prices had been an “aggravating factor” in the three-week protests that eventually toppled Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Zoellick said he was more worried about the impact of prices going forward, as Egypt’s military takes power and guides the most populous Arab country toward democratic elections in September. The same applied to Tunisia, where the wave of protests began with the ouster of long-time leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January.
“I’m concerned that higher food prices could add to stress points and could add to the fragility that is already there,” Zoellick said.
A US Treasury official in Washington acknowledged that surging food prices and the ensuing dangers of inflation were likely to be a top issue for developing countries at the G20 talks this weekend.
Outside of the Middle East, Zoellick said rising food prices could impact stability in Central Asia.
“Given the poverty levels (in Central Asia) … there’s a real stress point that could have social and political implications,” Zoellick said.
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