Poor Man’s Patriarchy

Alex Kelbert and I wrote this for a great symposium called Undressing Patriarchy back in 2013, but it is also based on the Life in a Time of FPV projectI realise now other people had already made these points and more elegantly and cleverly. But I think its a good paper because it connects food insecurity to masculinity. It is always women being referred to when experts talk about ‘gender and food security’, but global patriarchy means there are few societies in which men are not seen as ‘the breadwinner’, no matter how families are configured. So food crises are always crises of masculinity.

Poor Man’s Patriarchy

Schooling the Poor

Thanks to Naila Kabeer who got me interested in the issue, I ended up doing a lot of research on the surprising successes of mass education in Bangladesh. In the 2000s, this was a lot about why and how the Government and the mega NGOs like BRAC managed to get so many poor kids into school, in particular girls, when other places, including many richer and better organised than Bangladesh, did less well. These are some of the papers I wrote with or based on work with Naila and Ramya Subrahmanian:

The Politics of Educational Expansion in Bangladesh (2003)

Achieving universal primary education and eliminating gender disparity (2004)

Expanding access to education in Bangladesh, chapter in Ending Poverty in South Asia: ideas that work (edited by D. Narayan and E. Glinskaya, 2007)

I later worked on the more nitty gritty issues of the governance of educational expansion in Bangladesh, including a couple of very good rich multi-sited case studies that looked at accountability and performance in close detail.

School choice in Bangladesh (2008) made a close study of the implications of the growing range of availability of school types, and of why people choose the schools they do for their children.

Governance, management and performance in health and education facilities (2006) was an in-depth study of how schools and clinics were being managed and governed, a qualitative component of a larger Public Expenditure Tracking Survey of government services in Bangladesh. This study’s important finding that in the absence of much formal good governance, informal accountability mechanisms were how people tended to hold public services accountable got me started thinking about rude accountability in the first place.

In 2006, with support from Lamia Rashid then at Save the Children UK in Bangladesh, and with colleagues at BRAC Research and Evaluation Division I led a study called Inheriting Extreme Poverty on how children inherit their parents’ poverty, and the role of communities, social institutions and education systems in making that happen. I remained interested in the politics of child labour, and worked with Sheikh Tariquzzaman (now at BRAC International research unit) on this issue, including on a (2009) paper called The Boys Left Behind: where public policy has failed to prevent child labour in Bangladesh.

More recent work on education in Bangladesh has involved analysing the conditional cash transfer schemes as a species of governmentalism (School exclusion as social exclusion: the practices and effects of a CCT for the poor in Bangladesh (2009)). This was part of a comparative research project led by Sam Hickey at the Chronic Poverty Research Centre. We’re currently working on another comparative study looking at education in Bangladesh, this time trying to solve the puzzle of why quality reforms have proven impossible to implement, and the role of the political settlement within that.

Snapshots of crisis

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:

[From ‘The Impact of the Global Economic Downturn on Communities and Poverty in the UK’, 2011]
One mother of small children in Newhaven felt the poorer quality of food she was buying had affected her children’s health:
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.
This mother saw a difference between the robust health of her four year old when he was a baby, and her eight month old daughter:
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.

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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)

‘A ‘Lost Generation’? Impacts of Complex Compound Crises on Children and Young People’ (with A. McGregor), in Development Policy Review (2011)

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.]

What citizens expect

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 CentreTheir 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.

Popular expectations of Government

Who Trusts Government?

Who wants to be a farmer?

Nobody, is the short answer [1]. But Jen Leavy and I still managed to spin it out for another 40 pages.

who wants to farm?

[1] The long answer is nobody wants to because its risky, poorly paid, kids of farmers have seen their parents suffer, everyone wants a job that pays a regular cash income that lets you buy and wear nice clothes and can get you a phone, smart if poss., and mainly because people on low and precarious incomes can’t get the land, agri inputs or credit to farm on the scale you need to make a living in volatile globalising times.


First report from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, 2013. The title and this 6 minute film by my brilliant colleague Carol Smithyes tell you pretty much all you need to know about how people on low and precarious incomes feel about rising food prices and other cost of living increases, while their incomes feel, and often are, pretty static.


The right to food should be common sense

My total admiration for human rights defenders is not matched by clarity about why they think the law is A Thing. It isn’t, or it isn’t much more than an idea, unless someone does something with it. The right to food seems to me to suffer in particular from being an excellent idea that hasn’t yet got round to being A Thing that people can do something with. Its a bit broad and its a bit nebulous and its never very clear who should do what about it.

With this somewhat fuzzy notion about what was wrong with the right to food, with colleagues Alex Wanjiku Kelbert and Dolf te Lintelo we wrote a paper about what the human right to food means in ‘common sense’. It’s part of the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project so the actual research was done by our colleagues in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Viet Nam and Zambia (for which many thanks).

By ‘common sense’ we meant that a) groups of people agreed with the meaning – it was commonly agreed upon and b) it made sense in everyday life – it was realistic and reasonable, and possibly also realisable.

People living on low and precarious incomes in developing countries do, it turns out, have ideas about the right to food. But these are more often based on faith, membership of a community, and a sense of the innate needs of human beings than on a sense of right deriving from the law. Many people don’t have any sense of the right as relating to their relationship to the state or (less still) the global community.

Human rights defenders can do a lot in these communities and countries to advance the cause of the right to food as part of international human rights law. People believe they have these rights.  But there is work to be done to translate the language of the law into the language of common sense.