Eat this: the unpopularity of food price spikes

21 June 2011

New IDS-Oxfam research suggests global food policymakers need to do better to measure the quality of life impacts of food spikes if they are ever to appreciate the powerful political pressures they create for national governments.

The research report 'Living on a Spike' was launched today to coincide with the G20 agricultural ministers meeting this week in Paris, where issues of price volatility in food markets will be high on the agenda.

Our research on people's experiences of the 2011 food spike in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya and Zambia suggests that ministers attending the meeting and other global policymakers should keep two aspects of food spikes to the front of their minds. First, food spikes are not only about hunger - they make all kinds of people feel worse off in all sorts of ways. Second, because spikes are so unpopular, governments typically face strong pressures to protect people from them, even if there is little action they can take. Global food policy needs to be far better attuned to the political unpopularity of price spikes if there are to be workable solutions.

Understanding the impacts of food spikes on everyday-life

The research revisited eight community 'listening posts' which the IDS partners first worked with as part of a UK Department for International Development-funded study on social impacts of crisis in 2009 and 2010. In March-April 2011, we went back to hear people's analyses of changes in the cost of living and wages, the effects on their everyday lives, the causes of the rising cost of living, and what action should be taken.

The 2011 pattern seemed more diverse than after the 2008 spike: staple costs were down this year in the Zambian communities, for instance, but prices of other food, energy and non-food items were high, as were staples for the people in the Bangladesh, Indonesia and Kenya sites. The effects were also more diverse and unequalising than after 2008 because some people, mainly organised formal sector workers, had seen wage or income rises, but most informal sector workers and other very poor groups had not.

Whether or not their wages increased, for everyone, whether on a middle- or low-income, the 2011 food and fuel price spike was a major headache. It was hardest for the poorest, who immediately cut back to make sure they covered their basic costs. A substantial minority of the poorest people in these areas were said to be eating less and going hungry. Even middle class people able to secure good pay rises - government workers for instance - were likely to find that any sense of progression they may have had was illusory - that they were not, in fact, getting better off. Most people complained of eating less preferred and less diverse food, including items they disliked or thought dangerous (chicken legs and skin, cracked eggs, caterpillars). People spent more time and effort hunting for bargains, gathering and borrowing. They cut down their social lives and happy times with friends and family. They stopped buying cosmetics and new clothes and feeling good about their appearance. Sometimes there was more tension at home: couples fought and split up, children nagged, and there was more drinking. Women were doing more in the informal sector, combining harder unpaid care work with marginal economic activities to keep some income flowing.

These are all vital quality-of-life issues that affect a wide section of the population. Most are not covered by measures of bare 'hunger'. But they are fundamental enough that it should not surprise anyone that they may contribute to popular discontent.

A litmus test of political legitimacy

Understanding the quality of life impacts of food spikes is particularly urgent because the research confirmed what we knew from history - that food spikes can be a litmus test of popular legitimacy. This emerged to different degrees across the very different country contexts and political histories. From all 8 communities came a shared view that national governments were ultimately responsible, and should take firmer action to regulate market actors to keep prices down. Particular ministers and agencies were commonly blamed for sitting on their hands or talking, rather than acting, about food price rises. Corruption and collusion were widely felt to be at the centre of local food price problems. And few people appeared to have absorbed official explanations about global markets causing these spikes. Instead, most of the problems were explained as faulty agriculture, land and food policies, and within the control of their local and national governments. Some of the young urban men in Dhaka and Nairobi were particularly angry and vocal about the need for action and their willingness to protest. Many others were merely quietly dissatisfied.

What global policymakers need to know

There is a gulf here between the perspectives in these places - governments have a clear responsibility to control markets when people find food unaffordable - and the global policy emphasis on keeping markets open and working and free. In between, many governments around the world have been taking action to protect people from the spikes, at a time when budgets are already tight. The pressure on them to do so without distorting markets is powerful. Yet how many national governments are actually equipped to ride out the effects of global food price volatilities? And do global policymakers take into account the social discontent and political pressure created by food spikes in their decision-making? It could only aid the development of credible solutions if global policymakers were to acquire a fuller understanding of the wider implications of food spikes.

The IDS research partners for the crisis impact studies in developing countries were BRAC Development Institute in Bangladesh, SMERU in Indonesia and teams led by Grace Lubaale in Kenya and Mwila Mulumbi in Zambia.The UK Department for International Development funded the 2009 pilot and the 2010 study. Oxfam supported the 2011 revisit on which this article is based.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in IDS' Participation, Power and Social Change team.