Cutting through complexity to inspire learning

Published on 23 July 2021

New analysis on global food inequities illustrates how we can cut through complexity to inspire learning on critical development issues.

Global development challenges are by their very nature complex, contested and rapidly changing. Realising long-term, sustainable transformation relies on development researchers and practitioners communicating knowledge and evidence effectively. This demands that we find ways of presenting information in highly engaging and digestible ways that encourage audiences, whether academics, community groups or policy makers, to want to find out more and understand what action is needed.

To illustrate how this can be achieved, we’ve published new analysis that uses a publicly available dataset to communicate a critical issue in global food equity. It coincides with the launch of our new Learn campaign and highlights why now, more than ever, world leading research, evidence and leadership is so critical in addressing the most urgent issues globally. Our students and researchers are what the world needs right now.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief issues within the global food system because of its impact on the livelihood and food security on already marginalised communities, particularly women and those who work in informal economies. According to a  report from the UN World Food Programme, the number of people without access to adequate nutrition increased last year by 320m to 2.4bn — nearly a third of the world’s population. The increase is equivalent to that of the previous five years combined.

Bringing attention to the scale of the issue prompted us to consider finding a new way of showing how the affordability of food varies globally. Our idea was to use the publicly available global cost-of-living database, Numbeo, to create the ‘Cost of Food Basics’ analysis that compares the monthly minimum recommended spend on food per adult and monthly average wage in 107 countries globally. The minimum recommended amount on food is based on 12-14 basic items that together would account for 2,100 calories per adult per day. This is the level recommended by the World Health Organization and US Committee on International Nutrition for energy needs assuming standard population variation, body size, ambient temperature, pre-emergency nutritional status and light physical activity level. To enable comparison, data on spend and wage incomes have been converted into US$ and we have assumed 31 days per month. All analysis was completed using data published in June 2021.

Map showing the minimum amount of food as a percentage of average wage in 15 countries

The affordability of food basics

The Cost of Food Basics found that, more than one year since the outbreak of Covid-19, there is vast disparity between countries in terms of the proportion of average wages needed to afford enough food. Basic food is least affordable in Syria, where the minimum recommended monthly spend would account for 177 per cent of average wage income per adult. In contrast, in Qatar and UAE, the recommended minimum monthly spend on basic foods would account for just eight per cent of monthly wages.

Looking in detail at Sri Lanka, we found that the monthly recommended minimum amount of money for food per person would cost US$161.23. Today, average monthly wages per adult per month in Sri Lanka are US$245.81. This means that 66 per cent of average wages per person would need to be spent to afford the minimum recommended amount of food for an adult. This is before considering other costs such as feeding their family or expenses including rent, transport, utilities and other non-food purchases.

Figure 2: The ten countries where basic food is least affordable

Table showing the top ten poorest countries and the minimum amount of food as a % of average wage
Transcript of the information contained in the table within the image above (figure 2):

Country Minimum Amount of Food as a % of Average Wage
Syria 177%
Nigeria 101%
Ethiopia 96%
Philippines 66%
Sri Lanka 66%
Ghana 61%
Indonesia 60%
Algeria 60%
Iran 59%
Uzbekistan 58%

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Data source: Numbeo (June 2021)

Figure 3: The ten countries where basic food is most affordable

Table showing the top ten richest countries in terms of the minimum amount of food as % of average wage.
Transcript of the information contained in the table within the image above (figure 3):

Country Minimum amount of food as a % of average wage
Qatar 8%
United Arab Emirates 8%
Australia 9%
United Kingdom 9%
Germany 9%
Singapore 9%
United States 10%
Denmark 10%
Ireland 10%
Kuwait 10%

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Data source: Numbeo (June 2021)

Global North: a glimpse of food supply anxiety

Our analysis shows that the majority of countries where food is least affordable as a proportion of wage income are in the Global South. But it is not true to say that food affordability is only an issue for those in poorer countries. Food affordability varies dramatically within countries, regions and localities. The health crisis and worldwide food price inflation also led to concerns about food supply in high income populations.

To understand more, we looked at internet (Google) search trends as an indicator of shopping behaviour amongst those living in Europe and the US. When the first Covid-19 lockdowns were introduced in March and April 2020, there were significant increases in use of terms related to food basics such as eggs, bread and milk. We found in the UK that online search increased month-on-month in March for bread (+120%), milk (+89%) and eggs (+28%). In the same month in the US, online search traffic increased for bread (+55%), milk (+56%) and eggs (+16%).

The need for world leading research

The analysis demonstrates the failures of a food system that leaves so many unable to afford even the minimum amount of food needed to survive when there is enough food available globally. It demands us to understand the causes – and potential solutions – to issues of hunger, food insecurity, malnutrition, environmental sustainability, power politics, social justice and cultural identity. This is why at the Institute of Development Studies our Health and Nutrition research cluster includes a focus on inequity, justice and sustainability in food supply with dedicated postgraduate courses including MA Food & Development and MA Development Studies. Visit our website to find out more about our world-class postgraduate degrees and professional development programmes.

The numbeo.com data set focuses on Western basic food items and was used to provide illustration of global disparity using a universal data point. This creates limitation in that it does not allow for local food consumption patterns including the dominance of distinct food types that would cost potentially less than Western basic food items in some countries.



The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


Related content


Qualitative Analysis of 400 Life Stories from Children and Young People Working in the Worst Forms of Child Labour in Nepal

CLARISSA Research and Evidence Paper 7

28 May 2024