Foreign Policy Blogs

How to aid the hungry? FP Magazine pt. 2

How to aid the hungry?  FP Magazine pt. 2

What’s the best way to aid the hungry?   Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spend their time trying to answer this question, and they wrote about their findings, as well as the findings of other researchers, in the recent food issue of Foreign Policy Magazine.

Much of the answer depends on what causes poverty and it’s cohort, hunger. A prevalent rationale into why poverty exists is known as the “poverty trap.”  The poverty trap basically says that once you are poor, you do not have enough money to invest in certain assets; such as a car, an education, the right clothes to go to an interview, that can help you generate more wealth.  Instead, you spend all of your time making enough money just to survive, leaving you without any spare time or money to invest in assets that can help you get out of poverty.

Analogous to this poverty based poverty trap is the “nutrition based poverty trap.”  In this, people simply do not have enough food in order to work and earn income.  Because they are not earning, they face even more hunger and are able to work even less.  Alternatively, once they are well fed, they can work more, in turn eat more and better, and thereby improve their economic situation.

According to research done by the authors and others, there are experiments showing that the nutrition based poverty trap exists.  But there is also evidence that poor people behave as if it doesn’t exist, instead making harmful choices which are not in their long term self-interest.

For example, the authors cite a study done in Kenya, where “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.”  But, when an NGO in Kenya asked the mothers to spend a few cents in order to purchase the deworming pills for their children, almost all refused, “thus depriving their children of hundreds of dollars of extra earnings over their lifetime.”

This example speaks to the larger question asked by the authors:  Why would a poor person refuse an opportunity to feed themselves better and be better able to improve their circumstances?  The authors note the fact that many of the poor spend their extra money on tobacco, alcohol, and festivals, or even on tastier but less healthy food.  Why would they do so, when more nutritious food is in their self-interest?

The authors cite several reasons.

1)  The poor may not know the value of feeding themselves and their children better.  “Not everyone has the right information, even in the United States.”  In the Kenya example above, the effects of deworming pills take a long time to appear, and alongside of the ups and downs of the work week might, they might not even be noticeable.
2) Other things that the poor spend their income on, such as weddings, dowries, and christenings are social and cultural necessities.  Better food, or even TVs and DVD players, are also part of the personal and emotional necessities that make life more bearable, and even less boring.
3) The authors state, “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.”
4) The poor think that any change worth sacrificing for will simply take too long.  Instead, “they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.”

The fact that poor people do not behave as if there is a nutrition based poverty trap doesn’t prove that there isn’t one, what it seems to prove is that people do not always function like economic creatures.  The authors cite George Orwell in “The Road to Wigan Pier” in their article, and as is often with literature, perhaps he says it best:

Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t.… When you are unemployed … you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food.



Rishi Sidhu

Rishi Sidhu is a freelance writer and journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. He found his love for international relations while teaching English on the Japan Exchange and Teaching program in the rural town of Agematsu in Nagano prefecture. After 2 years in Japan, Rishi traveled to India to study Hindi and pursue his journalism career. He became interested in food security when he first heard people in India complaining about rising food prices and loves the issue because of its impact on all aspects of human society; from health to politics, from environmentalism to global development.