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Case study: The importance of non-market entitlements

Although it is entirely predictable that households with fewer resources and productive assets are more likely to be food poor, it is far less predictable which of the millions of impoverished households in the developing world will be unable to provide food for all of their members under normal circumstances, or which are best equipped to survive crisis conditions. In food-insecure environments, the ability of households to avoid food poverty depends critically on their ability to minimize risk. This entails a diversification of entitlement strategies, but the hunger literature has focused far more on production-based, market-based, and government-provided entitlements than it has on non-market exchanges, which are part of the "moral economy." Some have argued that non-market access to food is becoming a less-important survival strategy as production systems become more cash oriented and integrated into national economies; Collier (1990) showed that cash transactions were replacing labour and food exchange in a highland Mexican community. But others find that non-market sources of entitlement are still crucial for many households, and the ability to obtain food through non-market channels helps to explain why, at the same income level, some households are food poor while others are not.

Adams' detailed study of Bambara households in central Mali (Adams 1993) illustrates just how essential social and affective ties are in safeguarding vulnerable households against hunger. The poorest households were more likely to give food away under normal circumstances. They used their gifts to create ties to more prosperous households which, in turn, sustained them with food when production was limited by scant rains. Non-market exchanges among the Bambara extended beyond the village, through marriage ties that created additional obligations to share food. These inter-village linkages were particularly important during times of crisis: when food shortage weakened intra-village lineage networks through household fission and migration, cereals provided by in-laws became crucial for subsistence (Adams 1993).

Affective ties between farmers and traders also proved to be important during times of food shortage: loyal clients of local traders were extended uncustomary credit and even employment opportunities (Adams 1993).

In sum, non-market entitlements to food were secured in three main ways by Bambara households: these were from cereal gifts, exchange of labour for cereal, and use of non-market credit (Adams 1993). Together, these strategies provided food for almost a quarter of the food-short days during the weak 1988/89 agricultural year. For households on the receiving end, non-market transactions met about half of their food needs, so non-market exchange was far from being a trivial part of household subsistence strategies. Although Adams showed that some Bambara households did not participate actively in non-market labour and food exchange because they devoted more of their resources to cash-cropping (a pattern that has also been documented elsewhere [Collier 1990]), the modern exchange economy has not completely eroded more traditional patterns of exchange.

Relationships that appear to be market based but are also governed by strong affective and moral ties during times of food scarcity have parallels in other African (Valentine 1993) and non-African (Payne et al. 1994) countries. The importance of non-market transfers in Botswana is particularly noteworthy because public assistance (made possible largely through diamond wealth) has been noted as a crucial part of drought relief. Even with public assistance widely available, Valentine (1993) showed that private non-market transfers were an important factor in maintaining the same (relatively low) level of income inequality across drought and non-drought years.

Policy recommendations to reduce food poverty

Trends in world food poverty are encouraging: despite rapid population growth, there are fewer households now that cannot afford to feed all of their members than in recent decades. From what we know about who is hungry, we can also identify ways to reduce food poverty further among the approximately 786 million that are still food poor, for whom the positive trend so far makes little difference.

More effective monitoring efforts

Famine early warning systems include highly technological components, such as atmospheric monitoring, but they are based on the knowledge that food scarcity changes the way households meet their food needs. Under the most austere conditions, coping strategies include divesting wealth and finally selling off productive assets in order to meet short-run food needs. Information about sale of such assets as jewellery and livestock is gathered to identify areas where hunger is very likely to occur.

These monitoring efforts are not particularly costly, given how much more effectively interventions can be targeted with better knowledge of which populations are affected. Nevertheless, the cost of monitoring is much higher than it needs to be, because some areas are covered by two or more monitoring programmes. Duplication wastes resources that could be used for combating hunger and sometimes also delays relief action. During the 1991/92 Southern African drought, estimates of food needs were prepared by local monitoring agencies, but distribution of relief supplies did not begin until international agencies also had conducted their own monitoring efforts (Callihan et al. 1994). Coordination of efforts would save both money and time.

Longer time-frames for structural adjustment

The magnitude of the effect of structural-adjustment programmes on income distribution in developing countries was not fully appreciated when the first programmes were implemented. The Social Dimensions of Adjustment project, and other poverty-alleviation programmes that now typically accompany structural adjustment, have taken important steps toward reducing the human suffering that accompanies adjustment. However, for the most part these poverty-alleviation elements are simply add-one rather than being integral to the adjustment plans that still reduce employment and access to subsidized food (Jolly 1988).

For adjusting countries to comply with conditions of structural adjustment without leaving large segments of their populations more vulnerable to hunger, poverty-alleviation programmes should be coordinated with the broader adjustment goals. This will usually mean that the adjustment process needs to proceed more slowly than currently typical timetables allow (Jolly 1988). If the goal of structural adjustment is to alter the fundamental production and consumption structures so that the economy will function in a sustainable way, the longer time-frames will make success more likely; if the primary goal of structural adjustment is, in fact, debt repayment, longer programmes have little political chance of succeeding.

More employment programmes

Creating employment through public works projects or promotion of more labour-intensive technologies in the private sector enhances household command over food through wage-based entitlements. Public employment programmes supplement earning opportunities during times of structural transition and are especially important under conditions of extreme food and employment scarcity, including post-war reconstruction (Callihan et al. 1994). After conflict has ceased, household wherewithal to secure food can be strengthened by operating programmes that replace lost sources of entitlement. Food-for-work or cash-for-work programmes can also be used to rebuild food-distribution infrastructure damaged by violent conflict.

More emphasis on rural development

A primary cause of urban poverty is rural poverty. Poor employment options in the rural sector contribute to migration, even where urban areas are already overcrowded. Urban jobs, when available, tend to be better remunerated than rural jobs, and even the underemployed tend to fare better in urban areas because they have better access to government food-distribution programmes, public health-care facilities, and education. More equitable distribution of public programmes would reduce incentives for rural-to-urban migration and contribute to sustaining a diversified set of food entitlements for rural households. Better health care in rural areas would also decrease household hunger by increasing worker productivity and individual ability to utilize food efficiently. Public investment to generate greater employment and private-sector industry in rural areas would benefit households that still engage in subsistence agriculture but that cannot meet all of their need in that way (Meter 1989).

Increasing employment and income in the agricultural sector must also be a priority. Government low-cost-food pricing and marketing policies that limit incentives for food production and rural incomes should be modified. National food availability and the livelihoods of agriculturists could be simultaneously improved if prices for food crops were not held artificially low. Furthermore, government programmes that emphasize basic food production as well as export promotion could eliminate cascading effects of national-level food shortages on food poverty.

Improved rural access to credit

Skewed income distribution in rural areas often is reinforced by participation in the market economy. Those who start out best situated multiply their productivity and wealth by early adoption of modern agricultural inputs. Small landholders without investment capital or margin for risk are left far behind. Government export promotion favours those growing cash crops and helps to institutionalize a bimodal pattern of agricultural development where only one segment is benefiting from change.

Rural financial institutions and credit programmes targeted at poorer farmers can help interrupt growing social inequality and vulnerability to hunger by making credit available to those unable to secure it on normal commercial terms. Even where smallholders are not favoured in the distribution of credit, better rural finance and credit infrastructure could help smooth seasonal fluctuations in income and accompanying seasonal patterns of hunger. Secure financial institutions also could increase the reliability of migrant remittances, since transferring income back to rural areas would be less risky. All are programmes that might constrain household poverty, and thereby give all individuals in poor households a greater pie from which to bargain their fair share.

Summary and conclusions

This chapter has shown that there are more food-poor households in food-short regions but that there are also substantial numbers of food-poor households in food-adequate regions. Rural households are more likely to be food poor than urban ones. Within rural areas, the main factors associated with food poverty are as follows: undiversified production; low food prices for rural produce coupled with high prices for other commodities; excessive taxation; low revenues for cash crops without compensating low food prices; lack of transport and market opportunities; lack of control over resource endowments such as land; low exchange entitlements (wages); and lack of alternative employment opportunities and sources of income. Within urban areas, food poverty is related to underemployment and poor remuneration, but it also results in part from substandard housing, unhygienic living conditions, and lack of access to health care.

Short-term relief projects can temporarily improve submarginal household incomes. Longer-term adjustment programmes are designed to strengthen private-sector investment and make government programmes more cost-effective. But, in the short term, transition economies tend to have more food-poor households that need special social programmes to avoid food poverty.

Food-poor households often compromise their longer-run security in order to survive the short run. They also face decisions about whether to put some members at a relative disadvantage in order to protect the health and earning capacity of others. The following chapter evaluates evidence for systematic discrimination in the allocation of food to individuals within households; it gives special attention to differences between crisis situations and normal conditions, and also compares the distribution patterns within food-poor households with those in food-adequate ones.

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