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Food prices squeezing poor people and driving social change by stealth

Domianah Mwikali struggles with high food prices in Mukuru, Nairobi. Photo: Jennifer Huxta
Domianah Mwikali struggles with high food prices in Mukuru, Nairobi

A new era of high and volatile food prices goes beyond affecting what people can afford to eat and is causing life-changing shifts in society, experts warn today.

The report, Squeezed: Life in a time of food price volatility, reveals a global snap-shot of how the failure of wages to keep pace with five years of food price rises is putting a strain on families, communities and society, including increased levels of domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse. Roles and social needs are changing as women who once remained at home are entering the job market and agricultural jobs are being abandoned for more lucrative jobs in an attempt to afford higher food prices.

The research is from international development agency Oxfam and research charity the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and is the first of four annual reports which will assess the wider implications of high food prices and volatility in 23 urban and rural communities in ten countries: Bolivia, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In pictures: Portraits from Kenya – how people are affected by volatile food prices

Oxfam’s policy researcher Richard King said: “Poor people across the globe are feeling the strain in this era of high and volatile food prices. The implications go way beyond the dinner table and are driving social change that must be better understood and addressed if communities are going to survive intact.”

Research findings include:

  • Food safety is a growing concern as families are forced to turn to cheaper, poor quality and sometimes contaminated food to stretch the budget.
  • Increased migration as people leave rural homes for the city or other countries for more economic opportunities. In Ethiopia, where a sharp rise in the price of staple foods such as teff was recorded, high food prices were blamed for an increase in women moving to the Middle East to find work.
  • A knock-on effect on education. In Kenya a rise in food prices left some families struggling to afford school fees. In Ethiopia, young women reported spending more time working to support their families, leaving less time for school
  • Heightened family tensions are revealed in increased incidences of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse as men struggle to fulfil their traditional role as the ‘breadwinner’. In Kenya concerns were raised about men turning to alcohol.
  • Unpredictable profits and higher costs mean a new generation of farmers are turning to riskier occupations, including gold mining in Burkina Faso and jungle fishing in Bangladesh.
  • Community life is breaking down as families cut back on important community events such as weddings and funerals in an effort to save money.
  • High food prices are exacerbating changes in community labour systems. In Ethiopia, traditional “labour-share” systems where neighbours help with work and a large communal meal is provided are increasingly replaced by wage labour.
  • With the squeeze on family budgets women are entering the waged workforce in ever greater numbers and grandparents and older daughters are forced to step in to help with childcare
Sara Damalogu, a farmer in Lango Baya, Kenya, struggles to put her kids through school. Photo: Jennifer Huxta
Sara Damalogu, a farmer in Lango Baya, Kenya, struggles to put her kids through school

Naomi Hossain, IDS research fellow, said: “As families increasingly struggle to earn enough to eat we are seeing how money is becoming more important than relationships, to the point that the social implications are potentially alarming. Policy-makers need to catch up.”

The report shows the human cost of high and volatile food prices in a world where one in eight people around the world already go to bed hungry. Oxfam is a member of the 180-member Enough Food For Everyone If coalition, which is calling on G8 leaders meeting next month in Northern Ireland to take action to tackle global hunger.

The ground-breaking research comes in a new era of high and volatile food prices since the global food crisis in 2008. Food prices remain extremely high and volatile and it is the world’s poorest people, who spend up to 80 per cent of their incomes on food, who are hardest hit.

Recommendations include improved social protection policies to address the vulnerability of the poorest, including cash transfers or subsidies. Improved management of food reserves and regulation of the international grain trade is also needed, while steps to make agriculture a more credible vocation by investing in training, technology and sustainability should also be taken. Recognition of the need to design and support a growing number of child-carers, particularly grandparents and older daughters, whose health and education may suffer, is also needed.

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