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Mon 15 Jul 2013
Posted by Ed under development, Development Institutions, Food Security, Livelihoods, migration, policy
Comments Off on Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit: A schizophrenic title for a wonderfully coherent novel of humanitarian assistance
Development and humanitarian assistance have, over their respective histories, attracted rather substantial literatures. The percentage of that literature I might call “accessible” to the general public is quite small, and much of that popular literature does very little to convey the experience of working in these fields (indeed, very little of the literature in general accomplishes this)*. In 2010, after 13 years of studying development and development issues as an academic, I joined USAID in a policy position. It took only a few days for me to realize that I had no idea what was going on, what motivated decisions within the Agency, and what it actually meant to do development and humanitarian assistance. Nothing in my reading (and I am an academic, so it was a lot of reading) had prepared me for this experience.
In retrospect, it is too bad Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit had not yet been written before I went to USAID, but I suspect that even if it had been I would not have read it (academic snobbery and all). This would have been a mistake. MMMM presents a compelling, accurate feel for what it is to be a part of the development and humanitarian assistance industry. While J’s attention to detail is striking (for those of us in the industry, this accuracy can draw us in but also make us grumpy, as more than once I found myself muttering something about a particular meeting or document described in MMMM), he works in a lot of real material into an interesting, compelling read. In short, this book accomplishes something remarkable: I can recommend it to not only to anyone who thinks that humanitarian assistance or development looks like a good career path, but also to anyone who needs a good beach read this summer. Take that, Jeff Sachs, et. al.…
Set in Bur Amina, Ethiopia, MMMM traces J’s protagonist, Mary-Ann, through the twists and turns of delivering humanitarian assistance to refugees near the Ethiopia/Somalia border. The plot moves Mary-Ann through different positions in her small NGO, accurately conveying how abruptly one’s life and position can change in this world…and also (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrates one of the most important lessons of any career: competence is in much shorter supply than most people realize, and if you are good at your job people will notice. At the same time, J lays out the jockeying of assistance organizations in the context of a humanitarian crisis, and the challenges of balancing the goal of helping the world’s most vulnerable with the institutional imperatives of budgeting, fundraising, and surviving. Even the most careerist and craven of the characters in MMMM is understandable and relatable – the reader can understand why they are pushing for a particular project or outcome, even as the reader loathes them for it. Perhaps this is why Soledad Muñiz Nautiyal, in her review of the book, noted “the book presents ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the aid industry without ever adopting a cynical perspective, and merely acts as an observer of a complex picture”. This perspective, which permeates MMMM, makes the world of compromise that is humanitarian assistance palatable. As the book so effectively conveys, too much idealism can render you irrelevant and ineffective. Some readers may hate this lesson and perspective. If so, you will probably hate the real world of humanitarian assistance.
The reliability of even J’s loathsome characters leads to my next major point about MMMM. In this book, J addresses my principal critique of his first effort, Disastrous Passion. In Disastrous Passion, I felt that J created well-rounded, interesting humanitarian assistance characters, but many of the ancillary characters felt like caricatures. This, perhaps, was a product of J failing to live by the first rule of so many writers: write what you know. In Disastrous Passion, I felt like I knew the characters that worked for the various donors and agencies in Haiti, but the ancillary characters felt a bit like unwanted interlopers. In MMMM, even the ancillary characters are better-rounded, and I was drawn in by them. I had exactly one moment in the book that I felt was too shallow – when the protagonist has to address a problematic personnel issue (trying to avoid spoilers here), J never explains the motivations of the problematic person. Now, on one had I must say that this reflect reality – sometimes people do things that are inexplicable. It is a frustration the real world hands us. But somehow, in the context of MMMM, this made that character feel a bit shallow – like a plot device that allowed us to see another stressor in Mary-Ann’s life. And while I did note that the character of Jon is, in many ways, the oracle of J in the narrative, unlike Dave Algoso I did not find this intrusive or slow reading. Instead, I thought these passages tended to crystallize the many plotlines J traces at various points in the book without having to abandon the narrative
I really enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, and one that I found difficult to put down. It was interesting, the plot very believable, the characters relatable, and the lessons (both overt and subtle) worthwhile. Whether or not you want to go into development or humanitarian assistance as a career, if you care about global poverty and want to better understand just how difficult this work really is – and you want to understand the real reasons why it is so difficult – then go get your copy of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. It is well worth the read.
Buy it here:
Find a set of pictures that inspired details from MMMM on the book’s Facebook page here.
*I feel compelled here to note that John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is just awful. I can’t speak to the veracity of his firsthand accounts, but his reading of institutional motivations and processes is beyond poor. Seriously, don’t waste your time…
Wed 29 Aug 2012
So, given the twitter/blog/social media/whatever response to my post expressing shock at my students’ lack of awareness of the Horn of Africa drought, I did a little follow-up with them today. This was the first day of real lecture content in the class, and as it happens one of the first examples I hit on (while trying to demonstrate the concept of interdependence – how every part of the world is inextricably linked to other parts of the world, for better or for worse) was the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011 (and the imminent spike coming this fall as a result of the drought that has devastated the US maize crop). Since we were on food insecurity, I pivoted a bit and decided to just talk to them directly. A summary, for those of you interested in how the hell a bunch of college students/college-bound high school students could have missed a crisis of this size:
1) The crisis was horribly branded: I think talking about the Horn of Africa confused the few people who did know something had happened. When I started casting about (around this time last year, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, starving African babies…) a few students did remember seeing something on the news. As one student put it, he saw it on a major network, but the anchor wasn’t reporting. I suspect more of the students were briefly aware of the crisis at the time, but it has since been lost to time because of the sheer volume of calls for help/mentions of crisis to which they are exposed (see point #2).
2) In general, the students disliked most current “disaster messaging.” Yes, it grabs their attention…and then it overwhelms them. First, there are a lot of bad things that happen, and therefore a lot of news stories/PSAs/etc. coming down the line all the time. They become hard to differentiate, such that students just tune out the PSAs entirely. Second, the messaging largely seems to be a competition to horrify people even more…but the explanations for the problem are simplistic or, worse, nonexistent. The students don’t understand why the crisis is happening, and they are turned off by “solutions” that amount to “send me $5 and I will fix it.” These are young, idealistic, energetic people – this particular constituency has a greater interest in acting directly than many others. To summarize: screaming “IT’S A DISASTER!!! SEND ME MONEY TO FIX IT!!!” is rarely going to generate deep interest and engagement (and we need both, for a lot of reasons – see below). Most messaging around the Horn was of this genre, and as a result it quickly receded into the daily noise of news feeds and celebrity weddings.
3) Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame. In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis. Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off. Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged. Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work. So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase. If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc. In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms. After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand. Why?
- Crowdsourcing: folks, there is a big world outside the aid and development community, and some of those people actually have interesting ideas. Maybe those ideas can only address part of one of the many causes of the crisis (i.e. adjusting a market’s function for one commodity in one part of the world), but with a lot of people acting in this manner, it becomes possible to identify a wide range of potential options to address a given crisis/prevent its recurrence.
- Politics: not one person in my classroom, or really any person anywhere who has a clean bill of mental health, wants to see 100,000 people die for any reason. I believe that the vast majority of them would support spending tax dollars to prevent this from happening. But when we fail to explain what needs to be done, in all its complexity, we are turning off a key constituency that can be mobilized and can make its voice heard – they have something that all politicians want. Votes. I can’t guarantee that my students would use those votes to shape policy, but they can’t do this until someone gives them a reasonable, actionable explanation for the events in the world that we would all like to address.
4) Message management is anathema to social media: let me state the obvious – in the social media era, controlling the message is only possible if the message is so insipid that nobody cares about it at all. A lot of the Horn messaging was about controlling the message, which is the equivalent of lecturing people via social media. Ugh. One student who wrote to me after class argued, more or less, that our role should be a catalyst for social media – we light the fire, but count on the fire to catch and build in its own way once it is started. Social media that tries to message top-down, instead of evolving with a viral situation, will fail…it will be ignored. I just realized what I am going to assign my students to do in my absence next week – I am going to make them follow a few official twitter feeds and critique them…oh, the horror! This will be fun…
5) Explain why the crisis at hand is important to their self-interest. Yes, this sounds crass, but self-interest is a broad thing that can be mobilized with decent messages. To pull an example from my own work, I can sell using development dollars on forest conservation because it has an important impact on the functioning of ecosystems that limit the pace of climate change – climate change that is raising sea levels along the South Carolina coast and producing drought across the state, and eventually will negatively impact the tourism industry in South Carolina (one of the few sectors here that is going well). The students got that right away. But nobody really did this for the Horn. Which is pathetic. Hell, I did an off-the-cuff 2 minute explanation of why they care about the failed state in Somalia in terms of piracy in class today, by referencing the various ways in which piracy is raising shipping costs and therefore commodity prices…which hits their pocketbooks, impacts job growth, etc. From there, it is easy to get into a reasoned conversation about the relative cost of the development and aid work that could change things in Somalia and end piracy as a viable livelihood versus doing nothing and bearing the cost of piracy. It is all about entry points and catalysts, folks.
There were several other points that the students made – the one that sticks with me now is one student’s observation there is real experiential distance between their lives and what is happening in a famine that limits their engagement. While we cannot bring students to a food crisis, we need to start thinking about how to create this experiential engagement. For me, this happened when I became a parent…I will never again be able to objectively stomach an infant mortality statistic, because I flash to one or more of my children lying dead on the ground and I start to get the shakes. I’m not sure what would do that for an 18-22 year old, but that sort of visceral connection spurs action.
To summarize: I think I was right in my initial post. My students’ failure to recall the Horn of Africa crisis was not really their fault. The messaging went awry in all sorts of ways because it assumed a lot about the audience (they had no interest in the issue, and only wanted simple stories with simple solutions) that was simply wrong. Not everyone is going to care about every crisis – everyone has limited bandwidth – and so bad messaging just fell back into the everyday noise of social and old media, another data point among many, but nothing new or engaging. Good messaging won’t make everyone care about every crisis, but it could engage enough of the right people each time to get us different outcomes, and fewer crises in the future. That alone should make the effort worthwhile – so I guess I am disagreeing with J over at AidSource. Or the hopelessly realistic optimist in me is just winning out again…
Mon 27 Aug 2012
Today, I reentered the classroom for the first time in two years. That’s not completely accurate, actually – I lectured at the Foreign Service Institute several times while I was in DC, and I have a number of lectures, so I am not totally out of practice. And after you’ve spent over 1000 hours (!!!) in front of a classroom, it really is like riding a bike…
Despite my classroom experience, I was seriously thrown by a moment in class today – I was discussing the different climates we see in East Africa, and mentioned the Horn of Africa famine in an offhand way…then realized there were too many blank stares. So I asked the class directly how many of them were aware of the famine. Not a single hand went up – 70 students, no hands. Now, maybe someone put up a hand in that half-shrug, uncomfortable sort of way and I missed it. And perhaps a few people had heard of the famine, but had not heard of it as something going on in the Horn of Africa. But…at best, that is a few people. Out of 70.
HOW THE HELL COULD THIS HAPPEN? Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine – actually, that is a very low estimate, given that we were looking at 20,000-30,000 under-5 deaths in August 2011, and things stayed bad for quite a while after. This is probably the single biggest human catastrophe since the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 (that killed 230,000 people).
I don’t blame the students. Honestly. They are wired in – they get all kinds of media all day long. The simple fact is that the story of this famine was never sold very well, or very widely. I thought the PSA campaign around the famine was terrible – a bunch of B-list celebrities, at best, in really dull clips (more on that in a later post). Media coverage was confused. Most could not separate drought from famine (which led me to write my most-viewed post ever), attributing the causes completely to the weather. Others played up the Somalia terrorism angle with al-Shabab, a heterogenous and not terribly effective fundamentalist group in Somalia that decided to turn itself into drone bait by aligning with al-Qaeda. But the whole story was much more than could be compressed into 2 minutes on the nightly news.
That these students didn’t know about the famine is a lost opportunity – an opportunity to illustrate how complex the world is, how climate change compromises development efforts, how relief work is very hard, and very political, and how there are a hell of a lot of really heroic people doing amazing work that probably saved as many lives as were lost, if not many, many more. These are the people who will become educated voters, who will shape America’s place in the world through who they elect and what sorts of priorities they express – and they have no idea that America has a tool like FEWS-NET, which now can predict when and where famine will break out months in advance in several African countries…this is an astonishing accomplishment, and the envy of the world. And if the foreign aid cutters in Congress get their way, it could go away.
Maybe many more people paid attention to the famine on other campuses, in other states…but somehow, I have a feeling that my class was not all that much of an anomaly. Simply put, we in the relief and development community suck at messaging. Between the frantic and often disingenuous fundraising that imprint television viewers with the belief that the situation is hopeless, the confused media reporting as everyone looks for their unique angle, and the near-total failure of messaging from the donor institutions, it is no wonder my students were clueless – hell, they almost certainly knew about the famine, at least in passing, but the completely disjointed storytelling probably prevented any meaningful understanding of the causes of the events or how to address these causes and their impacts.
I have no idea how to fix this, but somebody has to fix this. It is too important to be lamented and then ignored in favor of “doing the work” of development and relief. Messaging is the work of development and relief – telling the story of what we do, why it needs to be done, and how we could do less of it in the future if we just addressed some root causes now is fundamental to getting the societal buy-in we need to do our jobs right. Somebody do this right. I can only reach 70 people at a time…
Thu 21 Jul 2011
After reading a lot of news and blog posts on the situation in the Horn of Africa, I feel the need to make something clear: the drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia. We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause . . . which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.
First, I recommend that anyone interested in this situation – or indeed in food security and famine more generally, to read Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts. It is a very readable account of massive famines in the Victorian era that lays out the necessary intersection of weather, markets and politics to create tragedy – and also makes clear the point that rainfall alone is poorly correlated to famine. For those who want a deeper dive, have a look at the lit review (pages 15-18) of my article “Postmodern Conceptualizations, Modernist Applications: Rethinking the Role of Society in Food Security” to get a sense of where we are in contemporary thinking on food security. The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies. The HoA situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).
For those who doubt this, look at the FEWS NET maps I put in previous posts (here and here). Famine stops at the Somali border. I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have. Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya. Rainfall is not the controlling variable for this differential outcome, because rainfall is not really variable across these borders where Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet.
This is not to say that rainfall doesn’t matter – it certainly does. But it is not the most important thing. However, when we focus on rainfall variability exclusively, we end up in discussions and arguments that detract from understanding what went wrong here, and what we might do going forward. Yes, the drought reflects a climate extreme . . . but this extreme is not that stunningly anomalous in this part of the world – we are getting similar (but not quite as bad) results quite often these days. Indeed, these results seem to be coming more frequently, and appear to be tied to a shift in the climate of the region – and while it is a bit soon to say this definitively, this climate shift is very likely is a product of anthropogenic climate change. So, one could indirectly argue that the climate change (mostly driven by big emitters in the Global North) is having a terrible impact on the poorest and weakest in the Global South. It will take a while to make this a firm argument, though.
On the other hand, it is clear that politics and markets have failed the people of Somalia – and the rainfall just pushed a very bad situation over the precipice into crisis. Thus, this is a human crisis first and foremost, whatever you think of anthropogenic climate change. Politics and markets are human inventions, and the decisions that drive them are also human. We can’t blame this famine on the weather – we need to be looking at everything from local and national politics that shape access and entitlements to food to global food markets that have driven the price of needed staples up across the world, thus curtailing access for the poorest. The bad news: Humans caused this. The good news: If we caused it, we can prevent the next one.
This paper is currently available for review at The Winnower.
Fri 4 Feb 2011
The other day, I posted about the convergence between my own qualitative findings on the food security outcomes of food price instability and those of Marc Bellemare, Chris Barrett and David Just: that, at least in various parts of Africa, such instability was most likely to impact the middle and upper income cohorts more than the lower income cohorts of a given population. However, I jumped too quickly in assuming that their dataset included rural and urban households – as Marc pointed out on his blog, they used a panel of rural household surveys. So my initial argument about convergence does not hold up, as they did not consider the urban context in their work.
This is not to say that I am backing away from my assessment of the vulnerabilities of urban populations to this sort of challenge – I stand by it, having seen it, if only anecdotally, in towns and cities in Ghana over the past 13 years. Urban populations are generally much more dependent on markets for their food supply than those living in rural areas (though this is not always true), and therefore price instability does create significant livelihoods uncertainty that is very difficult to manage, especially for the urban poor. I therefore stand by my argument that we need to be keeping a close eye on the relative impact of price volatility on urban and rural populations, as the impacts of such volatility is likely to have very different impacts on these groups.
But recognizing that Bellemare et al’s work only addresses rural outcomes is not a problem for my argument about what I am loosely calling temporary deglobalization as a strategy for managing price instability (and price increases) – indeed, I think it strengthens the argument because it means that their dataset is now commensurate with mine, which was also rural. As I argued in an extended comment on Marc’s blog:
The rural farmers most hit by price instability are those most integrated with global markets – the ones least able to deglobalize, as it were, when things get uncertain . . . Meanwhile, the bottom 60% is not as engaged with markets in which price volatility matters, and therefore can back away from them in terms of how they use their crops. In my work in Ghana, I found very few true cash crops (in the area I was working). Instead, some crops were treated like “cash crops” in years where price conditions and farm outputs of staple crops were favorable, and as staple crops when either prices were not favorable (including periods of volatility) or outputs of other staples used for subsistence were not adequate to meet household food needs. (Note: in many cases, the treatment of a crop as “cash” or “staple/subsistence” was highly gendered as well). The real difference between the rich and poor (relative terms in the Ghana sample) is the overall livelihoods strategy – one strategy (seen among the wealthier) is much, much more engaged in production for local markets, while the other (seen among the poorer) hedged market production with significant subsistence production (again, highly gendered). In years of volatility (or really in the face of most shocks), the market-oriented livelihoods were simply less resilient than the more diversified livelihoods strategies of the poorer households.
Or, as Marc himself noted in his response to my post on his blog:
[The wealthier] households tend to be hurt by price volatility because they are producers and therefore net sellers of most of (if not all) the seven commodities retained for analysis (i.e., coffee, maize, beans, wheat, teff, barley, sorghum).
So this means that the “temporary deglobalization” argument is not merely a rural-versus-urban argument, but one that can separate households in the same rural community. This, I think, strengthens one of the arguments I was making in my original post:
- Demanding that rural producers orient themselves toward greater and greater integration with global markets in the absence of robust fallback measures (such as established, transparent microinsurance and microsavings initiatives) will likely extend the impact of future price instability further into the poorest populations.
Mon 31 Jan 2011
UPDATE: Marc Bellemare pointed out some issues with this post, which I have addressed here. These issues, though, strengthen the argument about strategic deglobalization . . .
There have been an interesting series of blog posts going around about the issue of price speculation in food markets, and the impact of that speculation on food security and people’s welfare. Going back through some of these exchanges, it seems to me that a number of folks are arguing past one another.
The most recent discussion was spurred by a post on the Guardian’s Global Development blog by John Vidal that took on the issue of speculation in food markets. In the post, Vidal argues that food speculation is a key driver of price instability on global food markets, which results in serious impacts for the poorest people in the world – a sort of famine profiteering, as it were.
The weakness of this post, as I see it, are twofold. First, it doesn’t take the issue of price arbitrage seriously – that is, how speculation is supposed to function. Aid Thoughts, via one of the comments on Vidal’s post, takes Vidal to task for this. As Aid Thoughts/the commenter point out, the idea behind speculation is to pull future price impacts of shortage into the present, stimulating responses to future shortages before they occur. Thus, a blanket condemnation of speculation makes very little sense from the perspective of one who wants to see food security enhanced around the world – without speculation, there will be no market signal for future shortage, creating a world that addresses shortages in a reactive instead of proactive manner. This is a completely fair critique of Vidal, I think.
However, neither Vidal nor those responding to him actually address the evidence for significant market manipulation, and the intentional generation of instability for the purposes of profiteering. This evidence first emerged in a somewhat anecdotal manner in Fredrick Kaufman’s “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it.” In this article, Kaufman uses a fairly limited number of informants to lay out a case for the intentional manipulation of wheat markets in 2008. It is an interesting read, though I argued in an earlier post that it suffers from trying to be a parable for the pervasive presence of complex investment vehicles in the modern world. And in the end, its findings can hardly be called robust.
Though Kaufman’s argument might, by itself, be less than robust, it received a serious empirical boost from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the fall of 2010. In a discussion paper that remains underreported and under-considered in food security circles (trust me, it is difficult to get anyone to even talk about speculation in program settings), Bryce Cooke and Miguel Robles demonstrate quantitatively that the dramatic price rises for food in 2008 is best explained by various proxies for speculation and activity on futures markets. Now, we can argue about how large an impact that activity had on actual prices, but it seems to me that Cooke and Robles, when taken in concert with the Kaufman piece, have demonstrated that the speculation we see in the markets right now is not merely a normal market response to potential future shortage – indeed, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has been arguing for months that there are no likely supply issues that should be triggering the price increases we see. In other words, while it is foolish to simply blame price arbitrage for food insecurity, it is equally blind to assume that all of those practicing such arbitrage are doing so in the manner prescribed in the textbooks. Someone will always try to game the system, and in tightly connected markets, a few efforts to game a market can have radiating impacts that draw in honest arbitrage efforts. There is need for regulatory oversight. But regulation will not solve all our food problems.
But this all leaves one last question unanswered: what is the impact of price instability, whether caused by actual likely future shortages or by efforts to game markets for short-term profits, on the welfare of the poor? Vidal, Kaufman and many others assume that the impacts are severe. Well, maybe. You see, where matters (again – yep, I’m a geographer). In a very interesting paper, Marc Bellemare (along with Chris Barrett and David Just) demonstrates that, at least in Ethiopia:
contrary to conventional wisdom, the welfare gains from eliminating price volatility would be concentrated in the upper 40 percent of the income distribution, making food price stabilization a distributionally regressive policy in this context.
This finding may be a shock to those working in aid at first glance, but this finding is actually intuitive. In fact, in my book (out tomorrow!) I lay out a qualitative picture of livelihoods in rural Ghana that aligns perfectly with this finding. In Bellemare et al, I would bet my house that the upper 40% of the population is that segment of the population living in urban areas and/or wealthy enough to be purchasing large amounts of processed food. Why does this matter? This is the segment of the population that typically has the most limited options when food prices begin to get unstable. On the other hand, the bottom 60% of the population, especially those in this cohort living in rural areas (it is unclear from the study how much of an overlap between poor and rural there is in the sample, but I am betting it is pretty high), has a much more limited engagement with global food markets. As a result, when food prices begin to spike, they have the ability to effect a temporary partial, or even complete, disengagement from the global market. In other words, much as I saw in Ghana, this study seems to suggest that temporary deglobalization is a coping strategy that at least some people in Ethiopia use to guard against the vagaries of markets. Ironically, those best positioned to effect such a strategy are the poorest, and therefore they are better able to manage the impact of price instability on food markets.
In short, I would argue that Marc’s (and his co-authors’) work is a quantitative empirical demonstration of one of my core arguments in Delivering Development:
2. At globalization’s shoreline the experience of “development” is often negative. The integration of local economies, politics, and society into global networks is not the unmitigated boon to human well- being presented by many authors. Those living along the shores of globalization deal with significant challenges in their lives, such as degrading environments, social inequality that limits opportunity for significant portions of society, and inadequate medical care. The integration of these places into a global economy does not necessarily solve these problems. In the best cases such integration provides new sources of income that might be used to address some of these challenges. In nearly all cases, however, such integration also brings new challenges and uncertainties that come at a cost to people’s incomes and well- being. (pp.14-15)
I’m not suggesting Marc endorses this claim – hell, for all I know he’ll start throwing things when he sees it. But there is an interesting convergence happening here. I’m glad I met Marc at a tweet-up in DC a few weeks ago. We’re going to have to talk some more . . . I see the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
In summary, while efforts to game global food markets do exist, and have very serious impacts on at least some people, they do not crush everyone in the Global South. Instead, this instability will be most felt by those in urban areas – in the form of a disaffected middle and upper class, and a large cohort of the urban poor who, lacking alternative food sources, might be pushed over the brink by price increases. The policy implications are clear:
- We need to be watching the impact of price increases on urban food insecurity more than rural insecurity
- Demanding that rural producers orient themselves toward greater and greater integration with global markets in the absence of robust fallback measures (such as established, transparent microinsurance and microsavings initiatives) will likely extend the impact of future price instability further into the poorest populations.
- We need to better understand the scope of artificially-generated instability and uncertainty in global food markets, and establish means of identifying and regulating this activity without closing price arbitrage down entirely.