Hunger and Choice in the Developing World

After recently meeting a bunch of people who have to go without meals frequently, I was naturally very interested to read an article on reasons and solutions for world hunger, by two researchers from the „Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-PAL“ at the MIT, which is an excerpt from a recent book they wrote.

After some more illustrative than enlightening back an forth on the „hunger-based poverty trap“ (poor people cannot eat enough to be strong enough to earn enough to eat enough) and examples of how poor people make choices that cause malnutrition themselves (spending money on tasty but little nutritious food or on non-food luxuries, mostly entertainment and drugs) they get to the point, and a quite interesting one. Here are some of the central ideas.

First, they refute the radical Homo Oeconomicus assumption that, by definition, people’s choices of consumption are to their best utility.

Should we let it rest there, then? Can we assume that the poor, though they may be eating little, do eat as much as they need to?

That also does not seem plausible. While Indians may prefer to buy things other than food as they get richer, they and their children are certainly not well nourished by any objective standard. Anemia is rampant; body-mass indices are some of the lowest in the world; almost half of children under 5 are much too short for their age, and one-fifth are so skinny that they are considered to be „wasted.“

And this is not without consequences. There is a lot of evidence that children suffering from malnutrition generally grow into less successful adults. In Kenya, children who were given deworming pills in school for two years went to school longer and earned, as young adults, 20 percent more than children in comparable schools who received deworming for just one year.

There are other good examples beyond the Kenya one, and the authors also point out that fixing many of the nutrition-related health problems could be achieved for small money, in reach even for the poor’s budgets.

The first and simple explanations for the problem, then, are information …

It is simply not very easy to learn about the value of many of these nutrients based on personal experience. Iodine might make your children smarter, but the difference is not huge, and in most cases you will not find out either way for many years. Iron, even if it makes people stronger, does not suddenly turn you into a superhero. The $40 extra a year the self-employed man earned may not even have been apparent to him, given the many ups and downs of his weekly income.

… and motivation:

We shouldn’t forget, too, that other things may be more important in their lives than food. Poor people in the developing world spend large amounts on weddings, dowries, and christenings. Part of the reason is probably that they don’t want to lose face, when the social custom is to spend a lot on those occasions. In South Africa, poor families often spend so lavishly on funerals that they skimp on food for months afterward.

And don’t underestimate the power of factors like boredom. Life can be quite dull in a village. There is no movie theater, no concert hall. And not a lot of work, either. In rural Morocco, Oucha Mbarbk and his two neighbors told us they had worked about 70 days in agriculture and about 30 days in construction that year. Otherwise, they took care of their cattle and waited for jobs to materialize. All three men lived in small houses without water or sanitation. They struggled to find enough money to give their children a good education. But they each had a television, a parabolic antenna, a DVD player, and a cell phone.

But what I found most interesting is the aspect of expectation, hope and something vaguely resembling self-efficacy:

The poor often resist the wonderful plans we think up for them because they do not share our faith that those plans work, or work as well as we claim. […]

We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don’t invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

This, I think, is a connecting point both for what we can learn from the poor for our own lives, and for how we can help them. And I think that a small-scale development aid that involves a lot of personal contact and brings some recognition and „audience“ for the lives and struggles of the poor is a pretty good way of doing that. Which I hope and think we do with Action 5.

But with my few days of experience I also believe that the old-fashioned education systems here do a lot to discourage the kind of initiative and trust in one’s own abilities that could lead to more sustainable personal choices. Which makes me wonder about an aspect of poverty that I have never read anything about — the relationship between the poor and their own countries‘ elites. I would of course be grateful for any pointers here.

Datum: Mittwoch, 4. Mai 2011 16:58
Trackback: Trackback-URL Themengebiet: English, Weltreise 2011

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