Time for a wider conversation about life in a time of food price volatility


Alexandra Wanjiku KelbertA Kelbert photo

In the past few days, I have come across a couple of great articles looking at masculinities, or rather the need to talk about it. Laurie Penny’s recent Comment article in the Guardian looked at masculinities in a context of recession, stating that ‘Nobody seems to have bothered to ask men and boys whether they actually want to be “breadwinners” […]’. ‘Spot on!’, I thought.

In January, I was invited to speak at a conference in Berlin and share some of the gender-related findings from the IDS-Oxfam project Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility. The conference was titled Agriculture and Sustainable Rural Development in Times of Crisis Critical Engagements from a Gender Perspective. In my presentation, after exploring the different ways of understanding the importance of care, I highlighted what was starting to emerge from our research: that the care economy is increasingly squeezed as women are undertaking more paid and cost-saving work.

Given the depth of the data we’ve been able to collect with the project, my presentation ended up being rather ‘quote-heavy’. Some of the ‘best’ ones included accounts of the life of women in some of the communities we conducted our research in. One notably, from a woman in Dhaka, transcribed with lots of exclamation marks starts with ‘I am a machine’. The woman then goes on to list all of the care and non-care activities of her day. The quote itself sounds like a race and finishes with: ‘Where should I get time for gossiping or partying!!!! A domestic maid is in service 30 days in a month. […] No off day.’

Another finding is that the pressure on women to contribute to household incomes often means that others (typically grandparents and older sisters) have to do more of the care work.

Domestic harmony is also affected by food price volatility, as relationships between couples and parents and children are strained by the external pressures to deal with an uncertain environment.

In other words, on the one hand carers have less time to ‘care’ and providers face increasing pressure to ‘provide’.

Gym kenya

Men at the gym in Mukuru, Kenya

My final point after that was the impact on men and masculinities. To give a bit of context, I should say that I was the first speaker on an early Saturday morning. I had no idea how well a point about men would go down at a feminist conference. Still, I talked about the pressure of being a breadwinner, of having to provide for the family. I looked at changing roles, with some men stepping in to help with chores or taking on new responsibilities such as going to the market. I went on to talk about shame (see a previous post on the topic), embarrassment for assuming unmasculine roles, and pride. I also talked about violence, frustration and blame, again with much use of quotes.

‘I more often do the shopping than my wife, it’s normal. My wife has to work. Doing it later in the day… I wait until the shop gets empty… I am rather embarrassed’. (Man in Cianjur, Indonesia)

‘[Males] are proud and have difficulties asking for help because they must think other will criticize them for doing so […]’ (Participant in Bolivia)

In the question and answer session that followed, the first hand raised was to say how much we needed to talk about masculinity.

Going back to those articles published last week, they made me wonder how long it would be before a wider conversation emerged, linking findings from our project, and the arguments made by feminists in Britain. If we’re saying the same thing, it’s probably time to talk to each other.

Many of us are starting to be more vocal about the need to look at the similarities between ‘development’ and other political arenas. A lot of our year 1 project findings are somewhat relevant to people living in hardship in Britain, as Naomi Hossain explained in her recent blog. The people whose benefits are being threatened may not have to eat caterpillars like some of the vulnerable focus groups interviewed in Zambia, but there are clear patterns between increasing risks of undernutrition and people resorting to eating ‘dangerous’ foods in the ‘Global South’, and some of the debates that emerged following the horsemeat scandal about coping strategies and switching to ever cheaper food products in the ‘Global North’. I think it’s time for a wider conversation linking what happens ‘here’ to what happens ‘there’.

NB: Our first year project findings are free to download online, see SQUEEZED: Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility, Year 1 Results.

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is an MA graduate in Development Studies at IDS. She is currently working 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.

Read other blogs by Alex Kelbert:

Digging deeper: what is Democracy?


Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

This post also appears on the IDS Governance team blog.

Recently several of my IDS colleagues and I attended a network meeting  organised by the Democratisation, Decentralisation and Local Governance Network (DLGN) of the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in Aswan, Egypt. It brought together about 80 practitioners, policy makers and academics working on good governance and decentralisation from SDC and their partner organisations worldwide. The topic for the meeting was based on the quote ‘Democracy is when accountable local leaders promote inclusive participation’.

The meeting was set in the historic location of Elephantine Island in the middle of the river Nile, where excavationsimage of excavation on Elephantine Island show layers upon layers of history from the 5th millennium BC up to colonial buildings from the 20th Century and a still inhabited Nubian village. Each civilisation destroyed, recycled or built upon the previous settlements, therefore leading to about 20m of historic settlements, one on top of the other. To me, the excavation was a good image for development work, showing that it sometimes takes quite a bit of ‘digging down’ to get through the various layers to the heart of an issue.

IDS colleagues from the Governance and the Participation, Power and Social Change  teams attended the meeting to present research which did exactly that, i.e. ‘digging down’ into various related topics to explore hidden layers and to stimulate innovative thinking on how to produce improved, inclusive, transparent and sustainable development interventions at the local level. The research was undertaken as part of the DLGN funded project ‘The Governance of Service Delivery’ .

Here is a summary of the research my colleagues presented:

Andrés Mejia Acosta and Jethro Pettit: A Combined Approach to Political Economy and Power Analysis
The purpose of political economy and power analyses (PEPA) is to explain power relations and political dynamics in the formulation, adoption and implementation of development initiatives. Despite having different backgrounds and methodologies, both frameworks share the common objective of unpacking the visible, invisible and hidden relationships between key actors involved in producing (or blocking) meaningful changes.

Anuradha Joshi: Context matters: A Casual Chain Approach to Unpacking Social Accountability Interventions
A common premise of development interventions is that context matters for development outcomes, yet there is little understanding of how exactly ‘context’ affects outcomes and which contextual factors matter most.

The paper focuses on social accountability interventions, to explore macro and micro contextual factors. On the macro side, accountability processes need to take into account larger histories of citizen state engagement and related political processes. At the micro level, local factors can clearly drive the way certain social accountability interventions unfold and the extent to which they are successful, even within otherwise broadly similar contexts.

Mariz Tadros: Egypt’s Unfinished Transition or Unfinished Revolution? Unruly Politics and Capturing the Pulses on the Street
The paper focuses on Egypt’s transition, and cautions that if external political analysis fails to capture the pulse of the street in Egypt today, a situation much like that at the wake of the uprising of January 2011, where change happens through actors, spaces and mechanisms that are least expected, could come around again.

Rosemary McGee and Jethro Pettit: Outcome Measurement in Local Governance Programmes: A Power Dimension
This paper explores how outcome measurement is understood in several SDC local governance programmes, reviewed in a HELVETAS Learning Project. This critical review assesses the extent to which power issues are recognised, understood and tracked within such programmes and suggests ways to enhance this.

Shandana Mohmand and Snezana Misic-Mihajlovic: Connecting Citizens to the State: Informal Local Governance Institutions in the Western Balkans
Informal institutions, that lie wholly or partly outside formal state structures, have tremendous potential to strengthen citizen participation, encourage inclusive decision-making and promote improved service delivery at the local level. The authors discovered that local informal governance institutions are widespread throughout former Yugoslav countries, but empirical research on these models is limited. The paper reviews the existing literature and reported practice in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia. The authors’ key question is, ‘how do informal local governance institutions facilitate relations between citizens and the state around service provision and other governance functions’?

Joanna Wheeler: using visual methods
Joanna presented two different projects that use visual methods as part of their process. The first, a digital storytelling project in Mozambique, and the second, a capitalisation project in Bosnia Herzegovina where Joanna Wheeler and Tessa Lewin have been working with OneWorldSEE and MDPi on a project that uses both digital storytelling and participatory video.

More research undertaken as part of the SDC funded project can be downloaded from the project page.

Sue Schirmer works as Communications Coordinator for the  Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS and as Project Coordinator for the project ‘The Governance of Service Delivery’.

‘Squeezed’: how are poor people adjusting to life in a time of food price volatility?


Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain

This blog also appeared today, 23rd May 2013, on Duncan Green’s blog ‘From Poverty to Power’.

If the point of development is to make the Third World more like the First, then we aid-wallahs can pack our bags and go home. Job done.

The most striking finding of Squeezed, the first year results from the four year Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project, is how like the people of the post-industrial North the people from the proto-industrial South now sound:

  • Stressed and tired
  • Juggling work and home
  • Surrounded by selfish individualists, led by uncaring politicians
  • In strained relationships
  • Constantly pressed for time
  • Never enough money, even for the basics.

‘Squeezed’ is how the UK has been describing its middle classes, beset by austerity and recession. But the countries in our research have high growth rates and apparently a lot of poverty reduction.

So what’s squeezing them? The accumulation of five years of cost of living – particularly food price – rises, is the short answer. The early research results suggest price rises are bringing about social change by stealth, as people and their relationships to food (and each other) are being commodified faster than ever before. Policymakers seem oblivious to these changes, obsessed as they are with changes they can measure.

What does it matter if food prices rise? Economists tell us it doesn’t, at least not in the long run. Wages adjust, they say. High food prices mean more people will grow food, is the theory. People substitute cheaper alternatives for newly expensive foodstuffs.

Well, yes, wages adjust, people grow more food and substitute. But these are not costless adjustments. Wages are rising, for most people, but at a price: more dangerous jobs (work in a Bangladeshi garments factory, anyone?), less reliable work, more competition as women flood the informal sector. People don’t feel better off. Home life is less harmonious, with the unpaid work of care left undone or shouldered by harassed working mothers, tired grandparents or children. People see their wages rise but know this is a mirage: they are not, in fact, getting any better off. It is more difficult to save and so also more difficult to hope or aspire. Small wonder the period since 2008 has been replete with global disgruntlement: riots, protests, even the odd revolution.

Higher prices should mean people try to grow more food, but returns are unpredictable even while input costs rise. No sane young person wants to be a farmer when they grow up. The only appetite for growing more food seems to be in kitchen gardens: wherever people have a patch of land and the time, they are trying to avoid food markets by growing their own.

And yes, people substitute. They eat more tasteless food, protein-less staples tarted up with monosodium glutamate and e-numbers, cheap and cheerful sauces that the food companies are selling more of. They eat more dangerous food – smelly rice, broken eggs, fish of uncertain origins, pesticide-sprayed vegetables.

In these days of food price volatility, food is further from being a right than it has ever been. The change in how people relate to food – and each other – is one of kind more than quantity: uncertain and relatively high prices mean prioritising earning the cash needed for food above all else.

The squeeze is tighter in Nairobi than in London, true, but in both places, price rises force people onto the uncertain mercies of charity – NGOs and aid FoodRiots227102010in Nairobi, food banks in London. Global food policy makers need to check their assumptions about adjustments to food prices, and decide whether they want the kinds of societies where cash matters above all else.

Pushing back against the squeeze on everyday lives means policies that protect people – stabilising prices for farmers and consumers and developing emergency ‘spike-proofing’ cash or food subsidies. It means policies that ensure everyone has the right to eat well and to be part of decisions about the food they eat, rather than relying on faceless global markets.

Ignoring the squeeze on everyday life that rising and volatile food prices create for people in poverty everywhere is dangerously short-sighted, and not only for people in the poor South. In the long run, we are all commodified.

And here’s Naomi introducing the report (6m video)

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

Related resources

MA course on Participation, Power and Social Change: ‘It changes People’s Lives’


Rosalind Eyben

‘What’s special about MAP?’ I asked, bursting into Patta’s office, ‘I promised Rosie, I would blog about it today.’ 

‘It changes people’s lives’, came my colleague’s prompt answer, as she smiled at me before returning to her email I had so impetuously interrupted her from sending.

MAP – aka the MA in Participation, Power and Social Change that Rosie (McGee) currently convenes. The first week of the course, we ask the ‘Mappers’ to each draw a river of life, marking the key stepping stones that have brought them here to IDS. As the semester flows on, they find themselves taking a critical look at their professional practice.

‘I’m sure it comes as little surprise to you’ emailed a Mapper I supervised a few years ago, ‘that this course has the effect of making students seriously evaluate how they work. For me, this has included some reflection on where I’m working, and what I’m working on.’ 

The course is designed to enhance reflective practice: using critical and creative methods to develop self-awareness of our own power, identities and worldviews and how these shape our perceptions and actions.

‘MAP stirs you up’ a student said to me. ‘It has been one of the most exciting things about learning at IDS.’

Some time ago. a Mapper – a social marketing consultant – asked past students what they most liked about the course, summing up their answers as:  

  • The mix, or balance of theory and practice – we get a solid grounding in theory and the opportunity to put our learning into practice
  • Our experience and thinking matters to this MA
  • We get a lot out of IDS, in terms of personalised support from staff and access to resources
  • We get a lot out of each other – we feel part of a team, a community of support and practice

When asked who they would recommend MAP to, MAP is considered ‘ideal’ for everyone from natural scientists to business professionals to people with a development background; for people with a couple of years’ experience to people with 10 years experience.

Perhaps more telling is the range of ways they have grappled with participation, power and social change in their professional practice that lead them to this MA. MAP students work all over the world. And not just in the ‘South’. We have also had community development practitioners, social workers, even a politician, working for social change in their own organisations and communities in North America or Europe.  

I hadn’t stayed to ask Patta whose lives she was referring to. She may have been thinking of the lives of the people Mappers meet during their 4-month period of action research and work-based learning in an organisation of their choice in the third term. – and also all those they work with after graduating, including when, as is often the case, their career follows a new pathway. After graduating, Mappers work to further development within particular communities; to support groups and causes often marginalized by those in power; to build agency and capacity among communities; to support participation in national and local policy processes; in civil society organisations, local and international NGOs, faith based organizations, media and communications, international development organizations and consulting firms.

Perhaps Patta was thinking also of another change? She is one of several IDS researchers and teachers, including Rosie and me, involved one way or the other with the course since its inception in 2004. My involvement with MAP has been something I have most enjoyed about working at IDS. I have been challenged in my assumptions, impelled to clarify my thinking, stimulated to reflect critically on my own practice and to experiment with new ways of learning (and teaching). MAP has certainly changed my life. Perhaps it might change yours?

Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and her Twitter account is: @rosalindeyben

Previous blog posts by Rosalind Eyben:

Read a previous blog post by a MAP student:

Two Cheers for (Development) Anarchism


Katy OswaldKaty Oswald image

I went on holiday last week and it rained, a lot, so I had plenty of time to read. One of the books I read was ‘Two Cheers for Anarchism’, James Scott’s latest book, and it really got me thinking. First, it resonates strongly with the work the Power, Participation and Social Change team at IDS has been doing on Unruly Politics, and second, if we are to take Scott’s argument seriously, it has huge ramifications for the ‘development project’.

So what is Scott saying? He isn’t saying we should get rid of all governments and become anarchists, but he is saying that if we see like an anarchist, or adopt an ‘anarchist’s squint’ as he calls it, we will see the history of social change differently. We will see that change happens through messy political contestation and perpetual uncertainty, it is not organised, it doesn’t happen through institutions, and it often occurs through unruly acts that do not have clearly articulated demands attached to them. He acknowledges that such acts can lead to an increase in state repression, and therefore do not automatically lead to progressive social change, but his basic premise is that ‘extra-institutional protest is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for major progressive structural change’. And many of these protests will constitute illegal acts, violence and, by definition, be uncontrollable.

So what does that mean for those of us, like the researchers here at IDS, who try to not only understand social change, but somehow to influence it too? Does it mean we should all quit our jobs and go out and start a riot? Maybe, but even then we can’t be sure that it won’t mean we end up in prison and the government introduces more draconian laws against protest. But, as a researcher, it got me thinking about why Scott’s argument makes me, and many others, feel uncomfortable. Intellectually, I get it, I agree with it. But practically, and personally, I find it difficult. I find myself returning to Lenin’s question, ‘but what is to be done?’ I want to be able to know that I can act, and organise with others, and that this will make a difference, it will contribute to social change. And this made me think back to another book I read not long ago, ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’, by Alain de Botton. He talks about the idea of ‘meaningful work’, where someone can make an imaginative connection between what they have done and their impact on others. Of course, what counts as meaningful will depend upon the values of that person and the society they live in, but my values tell me that meaningful work for me is one where I can ‘make a difference’.

The challenge Scott poses us, is that this desire to know whether or not one has ‘made a difference’, is precisely what takes the all important politics out of social change. Our desire to ‘objectively’ measure whether or not a development project has been successful, for example, deprives us of the important political debate about what assumptions underlie the supposedly objective definition of ‘success’. Our desire for clear, uncontested narratives, that explain how social change happens, make us impose causation where perhaps it didn’t exist, and blind us to the disorderly, unplanned, and unpredictable acts that disrupt order and drive progressive social change.

Katy Oswald is a Research Officer at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS. She can be found on Twitter: @ogmog

A bold and practical proposal for the post-2015 framework


Joanna WheelerJoanna Wheeler mini photo

This post previously appeared on 22 March 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

At the opening of the Advancing the Post‐2015 Sustainable Development Agenda conference in Bonn last month, Horst Kolher noted wryly in his opening remarks that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon asked the High Level Panel (HLP) to be ‘bold and practical’ in its recommendations for the post-2015 framework.

So far, it would appear that many of the proposals circulating are neither. Many are extremely technical, and seem disconnected from the realities of people living with extreme exclusion and marginalisation.

As the High Level Panel prepares the report of recommendations for the post-2015 framework, due to be finished at the end of May, it is an important moment to critically reflect on what these bold recommendations might look like.  One of the civil society declarations from Bonn aimed directly at the High Level Panel called for structural transformation that addresses ‘the failure of the current development model, which is rooted in unsustainable production and consumption patterns and exacerbates inequality as well as gender, race and class inequities.’ This is certainly bold in comparison to the current MDG framework, which leaves inequalities largely untouched.

Whilst the panel appears to be listening to civil society’s recommendations – for instance the recent Bali High Level Panel Communiqué released after the HLP meeting at the end of March, refers directly to the civil society declaration in Bonn, around the need for a new framework to ‘manage the world’s production and consumption patterns in more sustainable and equitable ways’ –  there is still too little being said about how to achieve the massive changes that would be required for sustainable development and social justice to be achieved on a global scale.  Skepticism and wariness characterize the views of many in relation to what is likely to be a protracted inter-governmental negotiation process. These have not had a good track record lately.

Here’s a bold and practical suggestion for the High Level Panel (and all those involved in trying to influence the post-2015 framework): citizen participation.  Not just citizen participation as in asking people living in greatest poverty to tell people in the UN what they want, but citizen participation as in creating opportunities for people to have a real say in the decisions that affect their lives. Not just citizens as in people holding passports for a particular national government, but people everywhere with the right to have rights, irrespective of their official status, gender, sexuality, disability, age, race, or religion.  Citizen participation is a bold approach for the post-2015 framework, because it turns much of received wisdom about ‘aid’ and international frameworks on its head:  it is not just about a small global elite ‘hearing the voices of the poor,’ but about creating sustainable and long-term mechanisms for citizens to be involved in decision-making at all levels (from local to global).  What is missing from all the talk about how to make the new global framework tackle the big problems facing all of us, is a focus on who needs to lead that transformation: citizens, themselves. Early findings from the Participate initiative show that top down policies and interventions frequently fail to respond to the everyday realities of those living in poverty, and increase their sense of powerlessness.

If it is done well, citizen participation would shake the very foundations of the current global power structure, getting to the root causes of poverty rather than just the symptoms.

Citizen participation is also practical in that there is already a long-track record of a range of approaches and mechanisms to citizen participation, and a large body of research that points to some clear ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ if you want meaningful citizen participation.  Consider where democracy is really flourishing at the moment:  while the US and many countries in Europe face financial crisis and political apathy, Brazil, India, South Africa, the Philippines, and others have been at the forefront of innovations in citizen participation.  There is a lot of evidence about how citizen participation can deliver better outcomes, in terms of citizens more capable of claiming their rights, states that are more accountable and responsive and societies that are more cohesive and inclusive.

According to the Participate initiative, the global framework could do at least two things to encourage meaningful citizen participation: strengthen the capacities of citizens to claim their rights (and of institutions to respond); and build in citizen-led processes of regulation and monitoring to really hold governments and agencies to account for their commitments in the post-2015 framework. (See Chapter 5 of ‘What Matters Most’ report).

This is not to suggest that citizen participation is a silver bullet.  It comes with its own potential problems and draw-backs, not least of which is the risk that it is used to keep people busy participating about relatively inconsequential questions, while the real power is exercised elsewhere.  It must be adapted to the particular circumstances and power dynamics in which it is used.  No global framework can really achieve a context-specific approach to addressing entrenched problems.  But a global framework can enable more opportunities for citizen participation that others can take up at local, national and regional levels.

The most compelling reason for taking citizen participation seriously in the post-2015 framework is not the view of a researcher at IDS (or anywhere else), but rather that it is a demand being made by people living in extreme poverty and marginalisation in over 100 countries. The Participate initiative has found that many of those living in the greatest exclusion and marginalisation believe that their meaningful participation can make development more inclusive and sustainable. People want to have a say in the actual decisions that get made about them.  If the international community were to listen, it would be truly bold.

Read other recent blog posts from Participate: