Dubai's free bread machines can help fight regional hunger

If the affluent among us contribute directly to society by buying bread for the poor, it will build direct access to the needy, cutting all bureaucratic tapes

By Ehtesham Shahid

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Published: Mon 26 Sep 2022, 10:46 PM

A humble loaf of bread, or the lack of it, can cause havoc on the streets. Blood has been shed for bread for centuries in different parts of the world. The Middle East has witnessed these numerous times, even in recent memory. Since food is essential for human survival, its shortages have a profound and immediate effect. Bread is among its most omnipresent component in the region and beyond. At least a part of the chaos associated with the Arab Spring can be attributed to food supply shortages.

In Egypt, way back in the late 1970s, bread riots became a spontaneous response to rising commodity prices. The root of the problem may have been dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the government in power, but the trigger came from the shortage of bread in local markets. Similar protests in the country in 1984 and 2017 resulted from the scarcity of bread and other essential food items. In 2013, bread prices had to be rolled back after widespread riots.

Jordan has also witnessed food riots in recent years. Once again, anger over economic policies or a lack of long-term planning led to a general rise in food prices, especially bread. In Lebanon, in the late 1980s, protesters chanted a generic but evocative slogan – “We’re hungry! We want to eat!” – compelling the authorities to take notice. In 2020, protesters in Beirut blocked roads over reports of a proposed cut in subsidies for essential goods.

In Tunisia, from December 1983 to January 1984, high bread prices led to massive protests. Morocco witnessed similar turbulence during its 1984 Bread Uprising. Iran has also frequently seen riots over bread and other essential commodity prices. As recently as May this year, shops were set on fire in the country, and scores of “provocateurs” arrested.

In other words, the Middle East knows that bread can become an explosive issue, and such a situation must be avoided at all costs. Other factors are also involved, as food riots are not always “spontaneous acts of mindless mobs.” According to an Orient Institute, Beirut, research paper, such protests follow “a limited and rather stable set of repertoires that are deeply rooted in prevailing social norms.” Yet, a smooth supply of bread at least guarantees social stability.

In this context, Dubai’s initiative to ensure free bread provides a template for tackling the region’s food supply challenges, at least at a micro level. It shows how to address the root of the problem, avoiding hunger at all costs, so no one sleeps hungry. It does so smartly, using technology. The bread-vending machine may look like another headline-grabbing announcement, but a deeper look suggests a simple solution that works at various levels.

The vending machine is a “user-friendly” option where the press of an “order” button dispenses bread. But as a starting point to resolving the essential needs of the most underprivileged, it transforms how we approach governance. Development experiences from across the world suggest that once governments fulfil their primary responsibility of delivering critical elements of growth – such as food, water, electricity, health, and education – the masses tend to take the baton and run with it.

Social inequality may still remain in most societies as it is far more complex than food supply. However, making essential items available to all, especially the underprivileged, provides a broader level-playing field for most segments of society. By ensuring an uninterrupted supply of these products and services, governments automatically ensure social harmony, political stability, and a conducive environment for everyone to compete and excel. Here goes the most exciting element of such initiatives. By building a participatory model, the government ensures that the rich in society join hands in helping the poor. In the case of the bread-vending machine, those with an extra ounce in their pockets can add to the machine’s dispensing capacity and expand their reach to more people, stabilizing more lives.

If the affluent among us contribute directly to society by buying bread for the poor, it will build direct access to the needy, cutting all bureaucratic tapes. Of course, a broad network of NGOs exists alongside the government, and they are already making a difference. However, this model employs the optimum use of technology to solve a problem, such as hunger on the streets.

Let me amplify this ambition and suggest a template for countries yet to overcome essential item shortages. In today’s day and age, vending machines can be developed in months. If these countries can identify even 3-5 essential items their population needs daily, they can at the least ensure no chaos on the streets. That would leave them with time, resources, and energy for larger battles and challenges.

The writer is a senior researcher based in Abu Dhabi

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