To understand the discussion of hunger and issues of food security, the following preamble is vital: “An entitlement refers to the full range of goods and services that a person can acquire by converting his or her endowments, i.e. assets and resources including labour and power through an exchange” (Sen, 1984, p. 497). Therefore, a production-based entitlement deals with what one gets by arranging production using one’s owned resources such as planting or growing food.
If food is plentiful, then it is usually cheaper and lower prices improve the entitlements of those who are on the demand side of the market, i.e. where vulnerable groups typically belong. At the same time, having an abundance of food tends to occur regardless of 1) the threat to the entitlements of these groups in the first place, and 2) whether or not the threat of famine is accompanied by a general decline in food availability. In regions threatened by famine, an improvement in food availability can be achieved through food aid, private trade (selling food crops for subsistence), greater local production such as foraging, gathering wild foods, growing root crops and slaughtering livestock. In formulating sound policies, it is important to understand the instrumental role that improved food availability can play in protecting entitlements and the various mechanisms that can relate to the supply of food.
The level of food prices is one of the key variables mediating the relationship between aggregate food availability and individual entitlements. One measure of dealing with high prices of provisions is by imposing direct control on food prices. However, if there is no rationing in this market-based economy, certain challenges emerge. First, there is difficulty ensuring an effective enforcement. Second, low prices do not necessarily guarantee that there will be an equitable distribution of food available. Third, if prices are reduced below the level at which total demand is met by supply, then people failing to make a purchase might quite possibly be among those who were most deprived and vulnerable in the first place. Finally, yet importantly, a further necessity will be to provide a minimum amount of food for all, or at least for the more people deprived through some form of direct rationing.
Direct rationing can cause a big, positive impact only if it is prepared adequately; however, it is difficult to overcome the administrative and logistical requirements involved in imposing controls on food prices and extensive rationing. In addition, the operation of rationing need not be conditional on directly controlling free market prices. There can be dual markets with the coexistence of a limited ration food for all as well as ordinary open markets. Other measures of food prices intervention apart from direct controls are through food importation, public sector participation in food distribution and regulation of the activities of private traders. With the introduction of the new agricultural policy, “Planting for Food and Jobs”, it will be interesting to see the control of food prices when there is an oversupply of food in the local market and what it will be done about the plenty leftovers.
The moderation of food prices is not the main objective of food security or famine relief policies; hence, it will be a mistake to perceive it as such. Certainly, in some instances, food price increases can appear as an acceptable side effect of entitlement protection policies themselves. For instance, you can protect entitlements by generating cash incomes for vulnerable groups, and some increase in food prices may result from their greater purchasing power. Therefore, price increases, in this case, will shift food in the direction of the poor.
Sen, Amartya. 1981. “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.” Oxford University Press, pp. 497.
Sen, Amartya., and Jean Dreze. 1989. “Hunger and Public Action.
Article by Kwame Twumasi-Ankrah, a siro360 contributor.