Encouraging seasonal migration is a useful strategy in some conditions, but not everywhere, a Yale University economics professor told a public lecture at the University of Dhaka yesterday.
“We often think of poverty as a chronic and binary phenomenon – people are poor or not – but many are seasonally deprived. Seasonal poverty is prevalent in agrarian societies,” said academic Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak.
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However, hundreds of millions of the world’s poor theoretically live above the poverty line but regularly go hungry for part of the year, he said.
The public lecture on ‘Innovations for tackling seasonal poverty: a research agenda in Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia’ was organized by the Center for Economic Studies, University of Dhaka.
Mobarak said seasonal poverty was particularly severe for the rural poor, who typically suffer from a so-called lean season in the lead up to harvest.
During such periods, savings from the previous harvest dwindle and the price of staple crops rises, sometimes up to 100 percent in remote areas, he said.
He said seasonal poverty was one of the most pressing issues facing the world’s poor. It is widespread, with around 80% of the world’s poor relying on agriculture for their livelihoods, he said.
Furthermore, despite its temporary nature, seasonal poverty contributes to chronic poverty in long-lasting ways, including by reducing agricultural productivity and permanently harming children’s health and learning, Mobarak said.
This lingering damage can contribute to cyclical poverty, he pointed out.
Mobarak said failing to secure essential nutrition has long-term effects on children that affect their future productivity.
Policies may need to address failures in savings markets, credit markets, remittance technology or spatial integration of markets, he added.
Climate change could make the problem worse, he believes.
Despite its urgency, seasonal poverty is a difficult problem to solve. The most promising approaches use the fact that the lean season only occurs at certain times of the year, and only in certain places and industries during those times, Mobarak said.
The same household may be rich at harvest time and hungry nine months later. Lean season wages may fall in rural areas but remain constant in urban areas. The price of staple crops may rise in one region while falling in another due to an earlier harvest, he said.
“We can imagine that interventions that bridge these gaps – between the same household over time and between markets in different locations – could be promising solutions,” he said.
Indeed, a growing body of literature suggests that interventions such as savings, credit, migration subsidies and infrastructure are effective in reducing seasonal poverty, he added.
However, scaling up these interventions is not always straightforward. The root causes of seasonal poverty vary from place to place, and the cost of sustaining different interventions depends on contextual factors, Mobarak said.
Market equilibrium adjustments or policy reactions can enhance or undermine the benefits of these interventions, he added.