Amartya Sen

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).