The 2008 food, fuel and financial crisis was the moment when globalisation really and truly caught up with us all. Not everyone realised this and many sensible people said the moment was only a crisis for global elites, because most people living on low and precarious incomes lived lives of constant crisis. Nevertheless, something definitely happened in that year that shook things – markets, politics, peoples, environments – up and made us realise that as the artist David Shrigley so wisely put it – Its Getting Worse. Hydra-headed crises, the Perfect Storm, whatever you wanted to call it, it was a moment for pause. (The advantage was, in the end, seized by the political right almost everywhere in the world, but that is another story).
Accounts of crisis
I was involved with groups doing a lot of research at that time. Not all of it was ‘gold standard’ but all of it did something important: it tried to be in the moment, to take snapshots of the crisis, to capture the mood and talk and feeling on the street. You can think of it as an effort at a popular political sociology of global economic crisis.
The first piece of work was a study using participatory methods commissioned by the UK Department for International Development in late 2008. DFID very sensibly wanted something to report to the G20 meeting about how poor developing country folk were experiencing these shocks. From commissioning to reporting Accounts of crisis took 10 weeks but if it was quick it was also very powerful. All of us involved found we were absorbed and dismayed, and sometimes very shocked by the stories people told us in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya and Zambia. Mwila Mulumbi’s images of a Zambian food basket became famous.
We followed the 2009 study up with a second round of research, Social Impacts of Crisis with the same communities in 2010, this time including Yemen instead of Jamaica. This was when we first started to hear about the food crisis beginning to engulf the Middle East, of which Yemen, being the poorest country, was at the frontline.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked if we could do a similar piece of work to explore how globalisation might be affecting people living in poverty in the UK. Impacts of global crisis on UK communities and poverty was my first experience of researching poverty in the UK, but the research proper was done by colleagues in Oldham in Lancashire (Bridget Byrne and Pasha Shah), Newhaven in East Sussex (Elizabeth Harrison) and in Kildress, in rural Northern Ireland (Aidan Campbell and Bebhinn McKinley). What shocked me most about the study was a young woman in Newhaven who was concerned about her children’s health and whether she could afford to feed them properly any more:
Whereas before they would always have like grapes, strawberries – they’re so expensive … Ellie’s not going to have that as a treat, she’s going to have crisps and a biscuit, things like that. It’s terrible when you say it out loud actually, it really is awful. But that’s exactly what I used to do with Jason before, when we had money, was his treat would be fresh fruit, because he loved it, with a pile of yoghurt or something on top, he loved it. But I can’t even buy yoghurts really these days, they’ve gone through the roof.
She’s always a bit run-down. She hasn’t been too bad for the last couple of months actually, but,before that she seemed to be ill from the day she was born, nothing too serious but always a constant cold or cough, or things like that. And I’d say that was her diet.
This study made me realise that even while the global elite are increasingly all looking the same, wearing the same rolexes and carrying the same handbags, global poverty is beginning to converge too. It is not only those on low and precarious incomes in developing countries who cannot afford to feed their children nutritiously, but even people a 10 minute train ride from my own office in East Sussex.
And then in 2011, even while the rich world was reeling from the global financial crisis, food prices spiked again. And with Duncan Green of Oxfam, our researchers produced this report with the painfully apt title Living on a Spike.
Living with Crisis was a book edited by Rasmus Helberg (he did all the heavy lifting) at the World Bank that I was involved with. Its got a lot of good case material based mainly on ‘real time’ qualitative research into the global ‘triple F’ crises of food, fuel and finance in 2008 – how people adjusted and coped, and what it was like in different parts of the world. Amazingly enough you can get the whole thing for free here.
Other papers from the social impacts of crisis research c. 2009-11 are
‘Coping and Resilience during the Food, Fuel, and Financial Crises’ (with Rasmus Heltberg, Anna Reva and Carolyn Turk) in Journal of Development Studies 49 (5) (2013)
‘Invisible impacts and lost opportunities: evidence of the global recession in developing countries’ (with Rizki Fillaili and Grace Lubaale) in Journal of Poverty and Social Justice 18 (3) (2010)
‘Anatomy of Coping: Evidence from People Living Through the Crises of 2008-11‘ (with R. Heltberg, A. Reva and C. Turk) World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5957 (2011)
[Not all of these are freely downloadable, so contact me if necessary.]
This is a recurring theme in my work and it links to points I’ve made elsewhere about rights – that people have to be willing & able to claim them or they remain a pretty fiction. And this means people have to expect something of their state. In my work, often with others (like the lovely Tariq Omar Ali, now an economic historian, but once upon a time a development researcher too) it seems that what people expect from their state partly depends on political culture – the political ideas and practices that resonate with the powerful. It depends very much on how governments have responded in the past and on how people expect they will in the future. This describes a dance of citizens with their state, an elaborate, longstanding and sometimes unruly or even violent courtship.
These papers are from decade-old work done in the early stages of the Chronic Poverty Research Centre. Their messages – that the average Bangladeshi actually trusted their state a fair bit to provide some basic protections was not very popular nor very credible at the time – with good reason. But the more I research and think about this, the truer I think it probably is that the average Bangladeshi citizen expects their government to at least protect them from the crises of barest subsistence. They do so because this is what successive governments have tended to do, for a population that faces such frequent catastrophes from its ecology, unruly politics, and its prone position in the global political economy.
The garment factory collapse in Savar in Bangladesh is a parable of globalisation. The visceral images needed to make world headlines are there, as dead and broken bodies are pulled from the rubble for a fourth and fifth day. If there are any more survivors, as the tapping sounds of life fade out, they will have endured 100 hours trapped under the concrete and steel of the profit machine of a political youth leader – which description, by the way, translates in Bangladesh as ‘thug’.
Stories of heroism and agony and the criminal apathy of officials stirred up yet another round of mass violence in Dhaka. Factories were attacked and inevitably, someone died. This is with the secular-Islamic clash surrounding the Shahbag movement for justice for war crimes still bubbling in the background. There is a domestic politics angle to Rana Plaza, including the political lessons of the…
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