How do poor people see the impact of the global crisis? New research from five countries.

April 29, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

Some excellent new research on the impact of the global economic crisis: ‘Accounts of Crisis: Poor People’s Experiences of the Food, Fuel and Financial Crisis in Five Countries’. The project was run by the Institute of Development Studies, UK and builds on its pioneering work in participatory research methods to try and get inside poor people’s experiences. I’ve not come across this attempt at ‘real-time participatory tracking’ of a rapidly evolving situation before and the results are fascinating. They could also be very useful – listening to people can provide an early warning of emerging issues that may otherwise take months or years to come to public attention. A few highlights:

The food and fuel crises are by no means over. Research conducted in February 2009 in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya and Zambia finds that food prices have not come down everywhere, nor by enough (see photo). It finds that global crises are compounded locally by adverse climate conditions and difficult political transitions in a number of locations, contributing to uncertainty around agricultural production and local economic decline. Compound, complex crises are interacting with each other, making it difficult to disentangle their impacts on people’s lives.

Everywhere there are signs of strain. the ties that bind communities together also show signs of unravelling: people get together to save or celebrate less than they used to, and while there remains plenty of neighbourly support, some believe this is declining. In all five countries, people believe crime rates have risen. In the worst-hit communities, there are reports that children and the elderly are being abandoned by people no longer able to cope.

Many of the findings are the known consequences of economic crisis: people have been cutting back on the quality and quantities of food, struggling to pay education and health costs, borrowing and selling assets. In addition, this study flags a number of new issues that merit more sustained attention for policy, including reported rises in: the abandonment of children and the elderly; micro-credit default; crime, particularly criminalisation of youth; and risky sexual behaviour.

A major concern within communities was around the criminalisation of youth. This is an issue of grave moral concern, because there does appear to be a new generation for whom the crisis has had profoundly negative effects. In some contexts, there were stories of children robbing each other of food in schools, in others, there were accounts of anxiety and strain at home, and there were widespread fears among children that their school days may be cut short. Most serious of all were accounts of children trading sex for snacks.

In Nairobi, women explained that the pattern of their days had changed dramatically since 2007. In 2007, more women focused on domestic work and childcare. In 2008, a growing number began to look for supplementary sources of household income. By 2009, most women would leave home early, seeking work washing clothes or cleaning compounds, or selling charcoal, vegetables and foodstuffs by the road side.

Faith-based institutions and local charitable organisations and foundations appear to play a significantly greater role in all the communities compared to NGOs. In Bangladesh, known for its large development NGOs, little support during the crisis appeared to be forthcoming. In Zambia, women were highly critical of one international NGO which, they said, had been distributing dolls: ‘These organisations bring dolls for our children! Are we going to eat these dolls? We are hungry and we are only interested in help that will provide us food and fertilizer.’ By contrast, a shrine of a Sufi saint near the Dhaka community was reported to be feeding up to 500 people daily at the height of the crisis.

In Bangladesh, women were reported to be eating least and last in many households and there were instances of women not receiving healthcare when male household members had done so. The justification was often that as bread-winners, men needed to be fed or receive medical treatment as a priority. However, there were also households in which women were the main earners, in which men were still given priority.