Living on a Spike
, Oxfam Research Report, June 2011
‘I often get afraid of asking the price – I ask from a distance, hear it, and then slowly goaway.’
Agricultural labourer in Dhamuirhat, Naogaon district, Bangladesh
Global food prices rose through much of 2010 and into early 2011. What does that meanfor the lives of poor people in developing countries, who spend up to 80 per cent of theirhousehold income on food? To find out, IDS research partners and Oxfam went to askthem, returning in March 2011 to eight community ‘listening posts’ in Bangladesh,Indonesia, Kenya, and Zambia, that were previously visited in 2009 and 2010. Theresearchers asked: What has happened to prices and wages since last year? How arepeople adjusting to these changes? What do people think causes food price volatility, andwhat do they think should be done about it?The overall picture that emerges from these eight communities is of a more varied impactthan during the 2008 food and fuel price spike. This is partly because food prices have notrisen evenly everywhere. Zambia, for instance, has seen prices of maize (its food staple)decline since 2010, whereas in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Kenya, the price of the mainstaple – rice or maize – is higher than in 2010. In all eight communities, prices of mostother foods, including sources of protein (meat, fish, tofu, or lentils), vegetables, andcooking oil, have also risen, as have many non-food essentials, such as cooking fuel,transport, rent, and other items, including fertilizer in Zambia.The more uneven impact of the 2011 food price spike also reflects the fact that somegroups have seen their earnings rise faster than inflation, while others have not. Anoverall pattern emerges from the recent global economic volatility: one of ‘weak losersand strong winners’. The losers – those already struggling in low-paid, informal sectoroccupations such as petty trading, street vending, casual construction work, sex work,laundry, portering, and transport – are doing worse. Many have seen stagnant or onlyslightly raised rates of pay, which have been swallowed up by higher food prices,combined with more erratic access to work or customers. These people are clearly worseoff than last year. They strongly believe that the government is not on their side in theirefforts to eke out a living. Regulations on where people can run their businesses orprovide their services, police harassment, and unfavourable new laws mean that makinga living has got harder, not easier, for many in this group over the past year.But some groups – usually those who were already relatively better off – have done betterthan last year. Commodity producers and export sector workers have largely benefitedfrom the global recovery, as have some people in other occupations linked to thesegroups. But minimum wage rises for garments export workers in Bangladesh (now at $41per month) have not come about as a result of the global recovery; a long and sometimesviolent campaign was necessary to raise workers’ wages there. In contrast, export sectorworkers in Indonesia are not feeling any better off, even though there are more jobs andthe minimum wage has increased at its (Indonesian) regional rate. This is because there isnow more competition and tighter eligibility conditions on export sector jobs, andcontracts are more ‘flexible’ – shorter-term, with poorer benefits – than before the crisis.Groups such as public sector workers have not become significantly better off, but theirstrong position in relation to governments has at least ensured that their earnings havekept pace with inflation. Small-scale farmers and small market and food traders have notgenerally done well, despite the high price of food. High input costs and the squeeze onpeople’s purchasing power has meant that profits from growing and selling food remainlow for those with least scope to diversify and spread their risk.