Living on a spike: how is the 2011 food price crisis affecting poor people?

Living on a spike: how is the 2011 food price crisis affecting poor people?

Global food prices rose through much of 2010 and into early 2011. What does that mean for the lives of poor people in developing countries, who spend up to 80 per cent of their household income on food? To find out, IDS research partners and Oxfam went to ask them, returning in March 2011 to eight community ‘listening posts’ in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, and Zambia, that were previously visited in 2009 and 2010. The researchers asked: What has happened to prices and wages since last year? How are people adjusting to these changes? What do people think causes food price volatility, and what do they think should be done about it?

The overall picture that emerges from these eight communities is of a more varied impact than during the 2008 food and fuel price spike. This is partly because food prices have not risen evenly everywhere. Zambia, for instance, has seen prices of maize (its food staple) decline since 2010, whereas in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Kenya, the price of the main staple – rice or maize – is higher than in 2010. In all eight communities, prices of most other foods, including sources of protein (meat, fish, tofu, or lentils), vegetables, and cooking oil, have also risen, as have many non-food essentials, such as cooking fuel, transport, rent, and other items, including fertilizer in Zambia.

The extent of people’s discontent with the situation becomes clearer when asked about their opinions on the causes of food price rises, and what should be done about them. From across the eight sites comes the sense that local food prices depend on harvests and environmental conditions in-country; there was a strong undercurrent of concern over scarcity from the way people spoke about population pressures and shrinking agricultural farmland in some places. Few people think international food prices are an important cause; some even dismiss such factors as merely convenient excuses made by their ineffective governments. But while governments are held responsible for acting to protect their people from price spikes, they are generally seen as having failed to do so effectively. There is a belief that governments can act to keep prices low if they want to; in Zambia, for instance, some people credited the imminent elections with putting political pressure on the government to keep staple prices low.

Poor people’s explanations of why governments have generally failed to act on food price rises revolve around two key perceptions: that governments do not care about poor people’s concerns; and that corruption at different levels of the system ensures that prices cannot be controlled, either because market inspectors can be bought off, national politicians owe big businessmen favours for help with election expenses, or cartels are permitted to operate.

Young urban men appear particularly angry about government failures to act. With ongoing revolutions in the Middle East and other protests against governments in Europe, the stress and discontent fuelled by high food prices merits close attention.

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