There’s an old saying that a rising tide floats all boats. It’s used as a graphic metaphor to suggest that increasing the prosperity of a country increases it for everybody. Conversely, as we face a dramatic cost-of-living squeeze in the UK, you could say that a retreating tide strands all boats. But we know, or at least suspect strongly that’s not true. Food writer and activist Jack Monroe says that the claimed rate of inflation, though it’s mushroomed to over five percent, isn’t the same for people at the bottom of the pile. It’s based on a basket of goods including things like flat screen televisions and holidays, but if your life doesn’t involve shopping for them but for the cheapest possible basics, you might find your own personal inflation index is 100% or more.
‘This time last year, the cheapest pasta in my local supermarket (one of the Big Four), was 29p for 500g. Today it’s 70p. That’s a 141% price increase as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.’ (Jack Monroe, Twitter, Jan 19, 2022)
The tide doesn’t lift all boats when it rises, and some people are much more quickly stranded when it sinks. Nevertheless catchphrases and metaphors can frame policy at national and even international level. I’ve been involved in various ways with international development for over thirty years and I’ve seen how the boat-floating metaphor has justified liberalising economic policy. If the national economy is boosted then everyone will become better off . . . won’t they? In the nineties the neo-conservative free market push from America and the UK justified pressurising already poor countries to wind back their social provision and de-nationalise their industries based on the doctrine that cutting costs and boosting the economy would float all boats. I saw this play out in many countries but particularly in Zambia, which I visited numerous times over the decade. Over that time I met with ordinary struggling Zambian citizens, with aid and development workers, with business leaders, and even with the then president, Frederick Chiluba, who had completely bought into the free market doctrine. On an early visit I saw the first fruits of boat-floating, as rural dispensaries started charging for drugs as part of the free-market liberalisation, which meant villagers in largely cash-free economies couldn’t get even basic pills like paracetamol. Later on I saw how the country’s economic jewel, the copper belt, was sold off to private investors from abroad who promptly slimmed down or even shut the various mines and processing plants to maximise profits. I visited a slum settlement in that region, Chipakuluska (literally ‘broken’), filled with unemployed ex-employees and their families who had been driven into poverty by the changes. Some boats floated, but not theirs. I even met, virtually, with our then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, during a satellite call to poor Zambian villager Elinata Kasanga, which we engineered. He told her he championed the calls of the ‘Drop the Debt’ campaign to cancel the grinding national debts rather than imposing free-market conditions in return for some reduction.
Whose boats floated? Well, President Chiluba’s for example. After he left office he was charged with raking off over $40 million to fund his lavish lifestyle.
That was then and this is now, as countries such as ours reel from the economic impact of the COVID pandemic and energy price hikes, as well as – in our case –from other pressures resulting from Brexit wranglings. Whose boats will float and whose will be stranded? Jack Monroe’s pasta comparison signals the likely answer. The ‘Institute for Global Prosperity’ at University College London (UCL) has taken a more academic approach to the pasta issue. In a recently published study (1) they’ve investigated what is revealed when instead of looking at national and regional indicators of wealth, wellbeing and suchlike – the whole harbour – you zoom in much closer to the boats – the lives of people in different localities. They study ‘Lower local super-output areas’ a term which meant nothing to me. I found out that these areas are a real thing, rather like a council ward but more methodically defined, so that councils can gather data on these areas of around 1500 people. Apparently your personal lower local super-output area is your postcode. By using data at this level the researchers got much closer to individual boats to find out whether they are all affected similarly by the shifting economic tides, which of course they are not.
The researchers looked at more and less prosperous areas of four different regions in the country, and started to show not only that the boats floated differently, but that the ‘Life Outcomes’, ‘Life Opportunities’ and ‘Life together’ experiences for these different localities (their ‘LOOT’ framework) were affected by many interconnected factors which were different between localities, not by just overarching economic policy.
Their message was in essence that the boat floating analogy doesn’t work for peoples’ lives. More importantly they suggested that economic policies based on that view, in other words policies that are measured against national and regional indicators of prosperity, health, wellbeing, happiness and so on don’t equally enhance peoples’ lives. Some boats float better than others. Many are left behind. Their work implies that instead of working from the large scale downwards policy needs to be shaped by that messy, complex, local data coming upwards.
I’ve been here before. I got involved in trying to measure the impacts of disasters around the world, based on the experiences of people exposed to them. Again, as with the UCL researcher’s proposals, this went against the grain. Governments and international bodies depend on large scale databases, satellite mapping and other technical approaches to understand disasters and they shape their policy based on those. The trouble is that even they acknowledge that the greatest cost overall comes from the many, widespread, small scale ‘everyday disasters’ which are ‘under the radar’ of these large scale databases and policies. In the case of disasters, too, not all boats are lifted or stranded equally by the tide.
So we created a monitoring approach, ‘Frontline’, based on many members of our large NGO network going and consulting individuals in villages, towns and cities (2). Not only that, but rather than asking them to tick boxes which we’d defined, we asked them to give their own views on the threats they faced, the consequences of them, the actions they could take and the barriers they faced to taking action. We used statistical methods to analyse what people said and highlight their priorities for change in different localities. I watched a pilot of one of these conversations taking place in a slum settlement in Honduras. We asked the interviewee, Julyssa Reyes, what she thought of it and she said that though many UN and NGO staff came and interviewed them it was the first time she’d been asked what she thought. What would float her boat?
Returning again to the UK, at the time of writing the energy price cap has just been dramatically increased, leading to households facing a hike of £693 on average in their annual bill. The government responded with a £150 rebate for people in lower value houses, and a universal £200 rebate which will be repaid over the following years – a loan in effect. The outcry has been instant. Why isn’t financial help targeted to those already close to the breadline for which this hike will be devastating? Will people even in the modest middle classes really feel a fraction of their pain? All boats don’t rise or sink equally, I hope that message has come through clearly. The UCL work hints at what might be done differently and I described the Frontline experiment trying to provide information on what actually affects people’s lives in different localities. At the heart of all this is what the UCL researchers call an ‘Economy of Belonging’ or what the ‘Small is Beautiful’ author E.F. Schumacher described as ‘Economics as if People Mattered’. How would that work? I don’t know, but I think it’s clear it has to be built up from people’s experience, rather than downwards from grand theory and policy based on large scale data. At least that’s what’s needed if you really want to float everybody’s boat.