When I started working on the ‘Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility’ project, I was faced with the task of reading day after day stories of people’s experiences of food price volatility. Having worked in development for a few years, I realise that at times I find myself detaching myself emotionally from what it is I’m working on. Even so, after a few weeks of going through transcripts dealing with very real and tangible facts, one transcript made it impossible for me to stay detached.
In Bangladesh, the southern district of Khulna was hit by cyclone Aila in 2009. Agricultural lands were flooded by the tidal wave and many people lost everything. A fifty-year-old man, President of a local market committee gave a very vivid account of what poverty and changing prices meant to him.
He explained that clothes were now ‘too precious’. The price of saris (traditional clothing for women) has increased. Besides, wearing a sari entails additional costs, such as the blouse and petticoat that go with it. For that reason, his wife now wears a maxi (a long dress) instead of a sari as it has become comparatively cheaper (despite rising tailoring costs for maxis). He says: ’My wife feels shy to go to different social functions like wedding ceremonies wearing torn old clothes. She tries her best to avoid such functions’.
The entire transcript transpired of the sadness of an older man who, in his own words, could not ‘think himself as a reputable person in the society as he used to think previously, which causes a lot of disappointment in him’.
So why did this story in particular strike me the way it did? Maybe it is to do with the fact that part of the aim of the project ‘Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility’ is to make big words and concepts like ‘poverty’ or ‘hunger’, tangible to policy-makers and people who, like me, most certainly will never have experienced either. If it’s difficult for a young development practitioner in London to relate to ideas of ‘hunger’, talking about shame and the inability to interact with your environment because of the clothes you wear feels less abstract. I couldn’t construct those little barriers that make it easier to deal with what can often be a very harsh reality.
But another reason why that story in particular stuck in my mind is that it made me angry. That man could ‘cope’, no doubt about that. And so could all the people that due to the increase in volatility and unpredictability of prices, have had to, or rather, made the rational decision to switch to ‘less favoured food’. By choosing cheaper alternatives, all those people had become shining examples of resilient development subjects.
But behind big words like ‘coping’ and ‘resilience’ is a reality based on emotions, psychological aspects and deeply felt personal impacts. This man told a different, unfiltered story, a story of the body and of shame.
When people switch to less preferred clothing or eat food they find ‘disgusting’, they might be making a rational decision, but it is often one which huge emotional impacts.
The problem with emotions is that we can’t measure them. And all too often in development, what cannot be measure tends to go unnoticed or unaddressed (think reproductive freedom). Yet emotions, or the way people feel, are a huge part of the picture.
What we need is more work like what we are trying to do in this project, i.e. work that brings the ‘human’, the ‘body’ and emotions like shame (but also pleasure and happiness) back in the picture.
Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is an MA graduate in Development Studies at IDS. She is currently works with Naomi Hossain on the ‘Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility’ project, a collaborative project between the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS and Oxfam.