Duncan has written previously about one of the projects he was most proud of initiating while in (nominal!) charge of Oxfam’s Research Team. This started out as Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility’ and was a four year study of the impact of the chaotic food prices of recent years on the lives of poor people and communities in rural and urban communities in 10 countries. DFID funded it, and the Institute of Development Studies was Oxfam’s main research partner.
Now the project has reached a hopefully grand conclusion and the final report is about to be launched.
“Precarious Lives: Food, Work and Care after the Global Food Crisis” says that though global food price volatility has diminished, the prices that people pay for their food have remained high, demanding a bigger portion of incomes. People are having to work increasingly hard and often in more precarious work to make ends meet and are more reliant now on markets for basic subsistence. As one man interviewed in Pakistan said: “One has to arrange for feeding 10 people and together with rising prices and the lack of employment opportunities, things have become difficult… Even though one is trying to hide these issues they start suffocating the person from the inside”.
What does the end of the era of cheap food mean for development?
Are universal systems of social protection the answer against the downsides of globalizing development?
What are the politics of social protection and food justice movements arguing for and why?
Without giving the game away too much (we’ll link to the report when it goes live), the report argues that a broader concept of social protection is required by governments. Far from seeing it primarily as a safety net for those at the bottom of society, social protection should incorporate the worlds of work and of care. People in insecure, dangerous, low-paying work – formal or informal – need protections to make that work as safe, secure and reasonably paid as possible. And social protection should relate to the unpaid care roles carried out primarily by women, and often ignored by conventional economics. As more and more women work, and work longer hours, the burdens of also maintaining households and being the principle carers for children are becoming ever greater. As a woman in Pakistan explained: “After coming back from work the body gives in and you don’t feel like working, you feel like lying down and closing your eyes but you can’t because of your responsibilities… Because of my job I cannot take a look if they [my children] are eating properly or not. Because of my work I cannot take care of my son like I used to”.
Social protection according to this thinking should encompass basic services like health, education, water and sanitation and care for children and the elderly – the social and political frameworks within which people can live decent lives.
It should also include protections against bad food and incentives for good food. A perhaps surprising stand-out finding from the research is just how much price shocks and higher prices have speeded up the process of transformation in global diets towards more ‘Western style’ foods; the food that people are increasingly eating is often processed and packaged ‘fast food’ high in sugar and fat.
So whilst there is progress on some development indicators as incomes are generally higher and so are calorie intakes, as Patta Scott-Villiers, one of the authors, says: “Calories and income are being bought at a cost of malnutrition, stress and attenuation of care.”
Malnutrition in the form of obesity is rising everywhere. From Indonesia to Ethiopia, parents interviewed frequently voiced concerns over food safety and high levels of sugar, colourings and additives and said they wanted government restrictions on advertising junk food to children and regimes to guarantee food safety. Unfortunately, from recent experience in the UK we know how difficult that is going to be….
This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and author of ‘From Poverty to Power’. This personal reflection is not intended as a comprehensive statement of Oxfam's agreed policies.