Reflections from researching social impacts of the food, fuel and financial crises

20 April 2012

This month we are launching our latest book, 'Living through Crises: how the food, fuel, and financial shocks affect the poor'. The book, which is a collaboration between IDS and the World Bank documents ordinary people's severe hardship during the global economic crises of recent years.

Hands holding grain. Credit: Sven Torfinn/Panos

The book showcases the extent to which adverse, damaging coping responses became necessary. Based on qualitative data covering 17 developing countries from 2008 to 2011, the book describes the social impacts of the crises on the poorer, more vulnerable populations, revealing realities that are not always visible with quantitative research methods.

Launching the book made me reflect back – what were some of the things I learned about poverty and vulnerability that I didn’t already know?

Securing enough food is stressful

Women and men would often take extra jobs and work very long hours to put food on the table. They complained of physical and mental exhaustion. They sought to keep the calories but lowered the quality to an extent where less nutritious diets caused malnourishment and made them more susceptible to health shocks. Stress led to alcohol and drug use and violence within the family.

Gender norms evolved

When men were no longer able to be breadwinners and women had to work more. Women faced pressures that were different from those faced by men but also sometimes had opportunities in the informal sector that men did not. Women were often very entrepreneurial in their efforts to diversify informal business activities but did not always meet with success, since many other people were trying the same just as crisis caused demand to fall off. Women faced a lot of stress and burdens of working long hours trying to earn something and making ends meet. Men also faced many hardships, including the loss of dignity when unable to provide for the family.

Youth might have been hit the hardest

Youth were we caught in a vacuum when having to drop out of education at a time when there were no jobs and no opportunities for them, at a critical juncture in their life. People often empathised with their condition, and lamented when it led to them teaming up in gangs or engaging in risky behaviours.

Informal support structures were critical but also became over-stretched

Informal mechanisms of support were easily more important than formal ones (although one wouldn't guess that from policy discussions that inevitably focus on the formal). Formal credit and social protection were not much present and when they were, did not always prove very helpful. One villager in Cambodia told us that "we fear the credit agent like we fear the tiger" – reflecting the dark side of the pride that microlenders universally take in their high repayment rates. Instead, family and community support networks helped people cope but also became over-stretched, reconfirming a point that has been made often though perhaps on somewhat speculative grounds, that systemic shocks overwhelm the capacity of informal structures. When that happened, support would sometimes be allocated along ethnic or religious lines in ways it had not been in the past, causing new frictions in the communities.

Thus, I learned that vulnerability has social costs and that vulnerability is not merely an abstract probability of falling below the poverty line. Many of these social costs play out at the level of individuals and of communities and may therefore not always be visible to quantitative approaches focused on the household as units of observation and analysis. The qualitative methods picked up on these nuanced aspects of crisis impacts and coping and delivered compelling narratives of what it means to live through times of crises.

There is a tremendous power in listening to the people one wants to learn about, a power that development economists like myself too often shy away from. This will not be the last time I use qualitative methods, although, as I also learned, one has to be careful with causality, sampling and when aggregating results from scattered sites into universal claims.

Rasmus Heltberg is a Senior Social Development Specialist at the World Bank's Social Development Department and author of more than 20 publications on poverty, vulnerability, household energy and climate change.

Related Resources