Friday, 7 November 2008

Livelihood Security, Worlds Apart

The FAO or Food And Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, has a publication available called "The household livelihood security concept"

It is interesting reading mainly because it highlights something of a disconnect between attitudes toward the condition of people in the third world, and a certain blindness to the plight, soon to be so greatly magnified, of people in the first world. We suggest and assist people in the third world to actively work to improve their livelihood security, yet in the first world we often have rules, regulations, economic and social hurdles to taking similar affirmative action to ensure security of livelihood. Indeed we actively encourage people to be more dependent on external agents for our livelihood, we are exhorted to it with every advertisement we see.

The start of the paper discusses how the idea of food security was once based on national and global food supplies, and how this changed when the people researching in those areas realised that it ultimately came down to whether individual families had access to the resources needed to secure the food. In a nutshell, a country could be awash with food yet people could still be starving if they didn't have a penny to their name.

Ideas about food security developed from the 70's through to the present day to gradually include a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to food security. It was discovered, for example, that people don't necessarily choose food over all other needs when they have constrained resources:

People may choose to go hungry to preserve their assets and future livelihoods. It is misleading to treat food security as a fundamental need, independent of wider livelihood considerations.
So for example they might choose to go hungry rather than eat the seed for next season's crop. This evolution in understanding has resulted in the "household livelihood security" concept.

Household livelihood security is defined as adequate and sustainable access to income and resources to meet basic needs (including adequate access to food, potable water, health facilities, educational opportunities, housing, time for community participation and social integration). Livelihoods can be made up of a range of on-farm and off-farm activities which together provide a variety of procurement strategies for food and cash. Thus, each household can have several possible sources of entitlement which constitute its livelihood. These entitlements are based on the household's endowments and its position in the legal, political and social fabric of society (Drinkwater and McEwan, 1992). The risk of livelihood failure determines the level of vulnerability of a household to income, food, health and nutritional insecurity. Therefore, livelihoods are secure when households have secure ownership of, or access to, resources and income earning activities, including reserves and assets, to offset risks, ease shocks and meet contingencies (Chambers, 1989).
The ironic thing is that aid organisations are developing programs to improve livelihood security in third world regions, but right here in the first world we are beginning to see cracks appearing that indicate that we have very little in the way of livelihood security, or even an understanding of how to go about getting some.

From WSJ - More Utility Bills Go Unpaid we read that more and more people are having their essential services disconnected, leaving them without many of the elements of "household livelihood security" as the economic crisis deepens. Whilst talking about the situation in the US, no first world country is immune.

State regulators say they have noticed that power shutoffs have moved up the economic chain. "We're seeing an uptick in middle-class people who have never been in this situation before," said Eric Hartsfield, director of the customer-service division of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
As the situation gets worse, many in the first world will be faced with a reality very similar to, or worse than, that of people within the third world, entirely due to a total lack of livelihood security.

Security implies a measure of resilience and adaptability in the face of changing conditions. Your average suburban shop assistant has a very small base of non-practical skills to fall back on, and you could pretty safely put money on the guess that food production or wildfood harvesting aren't in that repertoire.

This is yet another argument for people to begin learning to be generalists and to stop outsourcing so many of the essentials of their existence. Everyone needs to take stock of their livelihood security and work at improving it. More of the market economy needs to be recaptured and withdrawn back into the household economy to ensure survival during tough times.


Anonymous said...

It's probably too late for any top down solutions - there is no sign of governments taking food or energy security seriously - so it is up to the individual - being debt free is a prerequisite, having land and shelter another - skills you can acquire!

I also think it makes sense to make the potato the neo-peasants staple - spuds and cows milk together will feed a family especially with a few greens thrown in. The need for seed potatoes is a furphy - just keep the biggest and best for seed and plant in new ground - or after three years break!

Peas and beans are another easily grown staple - but don't produce as well as spuds per square metre!


Geoff said...

I think that even if we had heaps of time for a top down solution it would still be wasted. Governments and advanced knowledge of crises don't seem to go together too well, there's always something more important with better potential for votes that needs to be done.

The biggest question is, how much time do individuals have available to them in which to prepare? I personally believe that we don't really have enough time to get debt free and so we're better off being in debt and being set up than being stuck somewhere untenable, still with debt. Even if people could put 75% of their income into paying off debt it would still take 5 - 10 years for most people, and I doubt there's that much time left.

I could live on spuds and dairy, so I'm set :-)