Let them eat Cassava! – Inflation is wrecking the poor

300 years ago (as the tall tale goes) a young and spoilt European royal didn’t understand why the peasants complained so much during a famine. They cried out that they had no bread to eat, so she replied with a tablespoon of disdain, a cup of ignorance and not even a pinch of compassion.

“Let them eat cake”

President Museveni has now written himself into the annals of history with a similar comment, but in the opposite direction. When faced with complaints that Ugandans couldn’t afford bread amidst skyrocketing food prices, Museveni replied…

If there is no bread eat Cassava!”

Cassava is a root vegetable, common fare here in Uganda. Calling it the food of the poor isn’t entirely accurate, as many including myself enjoy cassava, and in some parts of the country its a staple. Cassava in general however the cheapest carbohydrate, so Museveni’s quip was seen by many as a flippant insult to a population struggling to stay afloat in a sea of rapidly rising prices.

Ugandan Ongim Along tweeted “…Last time someone told us to use papaya leaves as soap for washing and bathing. Now another one tells us to eat cassava instead of bread. Next use chilly leaves as toilet paper.”

One thing is for sure, inflation problems in low income countries can’t be solved just by eating Cassava. While the middle class in high income countries feel the pinch of rising prices, a quiet calamity engulfs the poor in low income countries. While high income governments subsidise fuel and food, low income governments do nothing to soften the blow. In high income countries, businesses can reduce their high margins to mask increasing prices, but here margins were already so tiny there was no room to move and prices skyrocket. People already living hand to mouth have to choose between soap and cooking oil.

The Ugandan Beureau of statistics and Bank of Uganda has fabricated “calculated” a laughably inaccurate annual headline inflation of 6.3% at the end of May (You won’t find even one commodity that has increased that little in the last year). This is presumably to reassure the population that everything is fine. Perhaps they are mistaking monthly inflation for annual, who knows? I would conservatively estimate annual inflation as over 20%, as reflected in the above chart.

And  to make things worse salaries aren’t rising like in high income countries, enough at least to soften the inflation blow. Salaries here haven’t moved because the economy can’t handle it. We would love to pay our nurses more, but the money coming in from our patients hasn’t increased – in fact it our revenue dropped as everyone is squeezed for cash and patients de-prioritise healthcare.

During the last 6 months, our OneDay Health centers haves seen less patients coming through the doors. We’ve asked our communities what has changed, why they have stopped coming in when their family is sick. The answers have often been simple, a  two word phrase “cene pe” – “there’s no money

There’s no money”

Thee little money people have is used for other priorities. Even subsistence farmers still need to buy soap (at twice the price) and send their kids to school. Healthcare that was previously seen as essential gets shuffled one rung down the priority list, sometimes with fatal consequences. Many patients are now coming in to our health centers too late, arriving to our health centers in critical condition.

Inflation is wrecking the poor, but we’re not hearing about it

This calamity is not a Global headline. There is plenty of reporting, but it rarely reaches the front pages. Back in Februrary the BBC did a good job of flagging inflation in Kenya. There has also coverage on emerging hyperinflation in the failing state of Sri Lanka. Others blame Putin for “preparing to starve much of the developing world”. But these reports flounder close to the bottom of news pages

And the worst is yet to come with no end in sight to higher prices. As people’s meagre cash reserves disappear there will come a reckoning. There have already been major protests in Peru, Guinea and Kenya and in the coming months we will see the rising discontent expressed in all kinds of ways. We can only hope that interest rate hikes and a rapid resolution to the Ukraine war bring some relief /

Riot police block protests against rising food prices in Lima, Peru – Credit Reuters photographer Daniel Becerril

So what can we do?

Start with your neighbours – We struggle together

Before thinking of those in other places, always start with your own community. Support those around you who are struggling financially and psychologically. Spend 5 minutes considering which of your friends might be doing it toughest at the moment, then give them a call, ask how you can help. A small food gift, a discussion about finances or just a listening ear might make the difference between a good week and a bad one. We struggle together.

Keep a global perspective – We struggle together

Even as you are squeezed by the rising price of food and fuel, consider those in Uganda and around the world who suffer more than you. Read some articles and talk to people you are connected with in low income countries. This may also have the nice effect of cultivating more gratefulness for your own daily bread. Find some solidarity that we are all struggling with inflation together while praying for the global situation to improve, and peace in Ukraine. We struggle together.

Continue to support the poor – We struggle together

Keep donating to things you are already connected to. As your own financial situation worsens, often giving to others might be the first cut you make. It may seem counterintuitive, but hard global times might be the time to increase your giving – of course within the realms of possibility. If you’re not sure what to give to, read my article about how to give money well. Initiatives like Give Directly provide money efficiently for the poor, and our very own OneDay Health provides the only quality healthcare option for many remote rural communities here in Uganda

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue and I appreciate any criticisms and corrections. The great thing about a blog is that I can (and often do) change it when I realise I’ve made mistakes.

So much love to all of you struggling with the current inflation issue. We struggle together.

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1 Response to Let them eat Cassava! – Inflation is wrecking the poor

  1. Pete Hill says:

    Thanks Nick for your thoughtful post. I think everybody here reading it will agree and I personally found it liberating that you had some positive suggestions as to what what could be done to help

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