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Bob Geldof and the food riots in Mozambique

Nicholas van Praag's picture

Last Friday, Bob Geldof’s face gazed pensively from the front page of the FT’s business section over a story that he was seeking to raise a billion dollars for a venture capital fund for Africa.

The front page of the main paper, meanwhile, told of violence on the streets of Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, where more than 20 people died in food riots after the price of bread went up by 25 percent.

Same day, same paper, same continent. But for me, the two stories were linked in another way. Let me explain.

Geldof’s transition from advocate for aid to fund manager, seeking to capitalize on resurgent economic growth, is not as surprising as it may sound.

Africa can certainly use more investment in agri-business, financial services and telecommunications that will be the focus of the new fund.

And these investments, if capably managed, should contribute to creating economic growth and opportunity.

But the scenes of violence in Maputo show that economic growth is not enough to ensure a peaceful future in a society that has known or is prone to violence. Rather, they indicate that even the most enduring transitions away from conflict and fragility can experience a violent tipping point.

After a bitter series of colonial and civil wars, Mozambique has been growing at breakneck speed for the last few years. Many commentators portray it as a shining example of how to put a country together again after decades of conflict.

When I visited Maputo earlier this year, I saw the fruits of years of strong growth. The city is humming with new cars and investment banks are busy. But just beneath the surface, the divisions are deep. Despite strong macro-economic performance, the haves have more while the poor struggle to get by.

   A tale of two front pages.

As the riots in Mozambique demonstrate, growth, as a proxy for rising economic opportunity, is all very well. But economic development, especially if it is relatively job-poor, as in Mozambique, is not enough on its own.

Preventing violence is a three-legged stool. Our research is pretty categorical that unless economic opportunity is matched by security and a sense of justice and inclusion, growth statistics may be replaced by other metrics, cataloguing the descent into violence and bloodshed.

Experience in fragile states suggests that it takes a lot longer to create confidence in security, economic and justice arrangements than it is likely to take Bob Geldof to raise a billion dollars. It also shows that a spark, like a food riot or natural disaster, can trigger a rapid reversal of fortune.

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