Of Wedding Feasts and Famines

In the media-driven frenzy of royal-watching, the wedding between Kate and Wills harks back to a time when the pomp and pageantry of the monarchy provided a diversion from the daily struggles of their subjects. In England, as late as the 1930s, poor families struggled with the problem of hunger. Yet as George Orwell wrote,

The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes — an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots.

The May/June 2011 online version of the magazine Foreign Policy is devoted to the problems associated with food price inflation and the impact this would have on poverty and hunger. The development aid community has flagged this as a potential cause for dragging many in the middle to low income countries into poverty.

Calls have been issued to address this pressing problem. But in a piece written by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, the general consensus regarding the issue is challenged. What if the experts are wrong, they ask.What if the problem of hunger is not caused by the lack of affordable food? Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen has famously pointed to the fact that famines have only occurred in recent times in countries that lacked democratic institutions of accountability. Poor governance rather than a lack of food supply creates extreme hunger.

In India where Sen is from, despite the rise in per capita income, per capita caloric intake has declined. The piece points out that

(t)he change is not driven by declining incomes; by all accounts, Indians are making more money than ever before. Nor is it because of rising food prices — between the early 1980s and 2005, food prices declined relative to the prices of other things, both in rural and urban India. Although food prices have increased again since 2005, Indians began eating less precisely when the price of food was going down.

What if the problem of hunger is not driven by a lack of affordable food, but the fact that the poor demand a different variety of food? They use one example to bear this out:

Using price data from the Philippines, we calculated the cost of the cheapest diet sufficient to give 2,400 calories. It would cost only about 21 cents a day, very affordable even for the very poor (the worldwide poverty line is set at roughly a dollar per day). The catch is, it would involve eating only bananas and eggs, something no one would like to do day in, day out. But so long as people are prepared to eat bananas and eggs when they need to, we should find very few people stuck in poverty because they do not get enough to eat.

To provide more evidence of this, they cite a study conducted in two regions of China where researchers offered randomly selected poor households a large subsidy on the price of basic staples believing this would result in greater consumption of food. Instead they found that:

(o)verall, the caloric intake of those who received the subsidy did not increase (and may even have decreased), despite the fact that their purchasing power had increased. Nor did the nutritional content improve in any other sense. The likely reason is that because the rice and wheat noodles were cheap but not particularly tasty, feeling richer might actually have made them consume less of those staples.

They go on to point out the possible reasons why the poor might be eating less. Better water and sanitation for instance may lead to a lower incidence of nutrition depleting diseases. Women in rural villages which now have access to water no longer need to spend a good deal of effort fetching water to and from rivers. Aside from that is the penchant of the poor to spend on non-essentials like vices and other forms of entertainment (televisions, DVDs, mobile phones, movies, etc).

Many programs aimed at boosting protein and iodized salt intake have been met with a dismal response from poor households. It seems that when it comes to deciding what to spend their income on, they seem to have other priorities.

This article originally appeared in The Cusp (the author’s blog).

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy (www.thecusponline.org) and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

  • From a policy perspective, it is important to answer the question, why did self-reported hunger rise at a time when income subsidies (or cash transfers) were being provided to poor households in the Philippines.

    In Brazil the spending of poor families under the Bolsa Familia program was monitored using electronic debit cards. It provided rich data with which to assess how money was being spent and also quarantined money from being spent on non-essentials. The alternative approaches, i.e. food stamps, have a way of being circumvented.

    Interestingly, this week marked the anniversary of the intervention in the Northern Territories where the Federal government quarantined welfare money to Indigenous Australians through income management. The program which also included liquor bans was deemed necessary due to a report which stated the alarmingly high incidence of child abuse.

    We need to find a way of empirically testing whether the CCT is working as it should, and to find ways to improve it based on whatever findings arise.

  • Bert

    Poor or rich, what’s the difference but the amount of money available on them. This article has enumerated the folly of the poor, let me if the rich has the same attitude. After all human nature does not distinguished whether one is poor or one is rich, does it?

    Here goes:

    – the rich will have ten cars when four will do.
    – the rich will go to the Bahamas or to Paris when Boracay or Palawan, or my island in Bicol are just as beautiful.
    – the rich will have five houses when one will do.
    -etc.

    Fair is fair. Right, Doy?

    • If you have enough money to buy a hundred cars without comprising your basic needs such as food/clothing etc then why not?

      • Bert

        Ah, tech84, you’re indeed with Doy on this. And like Doy who lives comfortably in the land of rich people I believe you are also rich like him and therefore don’t know what it’s like and what it feels to be poor. I live and I am in the midst of them, the poor. Just want to inform you that we are just as human, the same person as you are, and though you enjoy eating imported steak and drink caviar, us poor people enjoyed just as much as you do eating tuyo or Ligo sardines and drinking tuba.

        Now, if you want to give to us one or two of your one hundred cars then we will kiss your feet for being such a nice and kind person. Kung ayaw mo namang mamigay, huwag mo naman kaming lalaitin ng ganyan. Hindi naman namin hinihingi sa iyo ang pambili namin ng Ligo sardine at tuba.

  • True, many of the “poor” spend more on getting drunk with ‘barkadas’ (and sometimes on gambling) rather than for their basic needs like food and clothing.

    • Bert

      hindi naman yata sila naghihingi sa’yo ng pang-inom, bakit mo naman sila nilalait? buhay nila iyon, ‘di ba?

      • What you are saying is true, I should have posted this comment in a more comedic matter to point out the irony.

        But what I’m getting from what you replied is you’re just basically saying: “Let them burn”?