Sunday, 14 November 2010

The lived experience of price-hikes

I went shopping yesterday, which doesn't happen all that often, and was struck by how much everything cost. I don't normally notice price increases. Not that I'm unaffected by them, I'm just terribly inattentive. So, there has to be a significant increase for me to notice it. Which is crazy because the inflation rate in South Africa isn't supposed to be overly high just at the moment. But the numbers don't seem to tally with the prices in the shops. The lived experience of high prices differs from the stats and analysis. How much more dramatic must the experience be for those who are far more insecure and vulnerable than I?

Duncan Green's excellent blog, From Poverty to Power, talked on Friday about the dramatic volatility currently being experienced in food and other agricultural product markets. Sugar, for example experienced a 30-year high and a 30-year record one-day sell-off on the same day. Agflation.

The 2008 food crisis created a situation where 1 in 7 of the world's poor went to bed hungry every night. It also led to food riots in countries across the globe. To those for whom inflation figures and food price rise warnings are mostly just statistics, with the occasional annoying need to cut back on some luxury items, riots over rising food prices must seem bizarre - as if people are slightly unhinged to be destroying property and threatening lives and livelihoods over the inevitable fluctuations of the market.

I am usually a fan of numbers and facts rather than heart-wrenching stories, but sometimes I am forcibly reminded of the importance of understanding the abject terror, incredible frustration and feelings of hopelessness that must be the real experience when you walk into a supermarket and the prices of (food and non-food) items you bought last week have suddenly risen way beyond your means.

Food prices and the food system are complicated. South Africa is currently trying to bolster the price of the regional staple maize because if it is too low this year (after a bumper crop) it will become economically unsustainable for farmers to plant and there will be a shortage next time around. Sometimes sustaining prices is necessary to ensure supply. This probably isn't all that reassuring to the tens of thousands of South Africans who, should another food crisis occur, will experience the terrifying hopelessness of suddenly being unable to feed their families every day.

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