SNAPSHOT GLOBAL ECONOMICS
7 June 2008 By Dr Andy Marks
Global pressures compound local woes
ommenting on one of many potential local impacts of emerging global economic pressures, Professor Julian Cribb of the University of Technology predicts, â€œWe could easily see food prices doubling in Australia in the next few yearsâ€?. The St Vincent de Paul Society is already seeing the effects of rising food prices on disadvantaged families and individuals. For people on meagre incomes, even the smallest flux in weekly spending levels can have devastating consequences. Were food prices to double, as Professor Cribb suggests, we may have a real crisis on our hands. Many families struggling to cope with essentials such as rent, bills and medical costs are simply unable to absorb the additional demands a rise in food prices presents. If the problem was limited to an isolated issue, such as food costs alone, then the ability of governments and social services to respond effectively would be significantly enhanced. The current situation reminds us of the fact that problems rarely come in neat packages. Pressures felt by disadvantaged families and individuals are typically multiple and complex in nature, requiring a reciprocally diverse response.
The second truism apparent in the issue of rising food costs is the fact that the Australian socio-economic climate is, to a significant extent, dependent on the whim of global markets. The well-known adage, “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold”, springs to mind, yet no longer is the scenario this one-dimensional. With China and India emerging as global economic powers, the economic climate is increasingly volatile, and Australia is now subject to a greater array of forces beyond our control.
How do these global developments impact on our ability to respond to disadvantage? Quite simply, we need to get smarter. This doesn’t mean organisations like the St Vincent de Paul Society need become economic forecasters, but it does mean we must be aware we will increasingly be confronted by more complex and challenging forms of disadvantage.
These changes needn’t be a source of apprehension for the community nor for the Society. Indeed, the Society was founded upon the notion of change and renewal. In fact, The Rule of the St Vincent de Paul Society – the Society’s guiding tome, calls on Vincentians to “ever aware of the changes that occur in human society and the new types of poverty that may be identified or anticipated.” Returning to the issue of rising global food prices, it is beholden on the Society to examine the broader causes of this problem to assist in determining the manner in which it is best placed to provide assistance.
Professor Cribb points to a range of local and global issues that influence food prices in Australia. For example, the drought has resulted in the worst Australian rice crop in 80 years. Wheat and corn prices have also doubled in the past two years as a consequence of the drought. The Society is working closely with drought affected farmers
We must be aware we will increasingly be confronted by more complex and challenging forms of disadvantage. through our Rural Task Force initiative, set up in July 2006. By assisting struggling rural communities to remain viable, the Society is indirectly a part of broad coalition of support services helping to ease the flow of local food production.
SNAPSHOT GLOBAL ECONOMICS Fuel prices, which for Australia are based on crude oil prices set by the Singaporean exchange, have also contributed to rising food production costs. Jock Laurie of the NSW Farmers Federation explains, “at least 46 per cent of a crop producer’s cost is fuel or fuel related.” Combine this cost, with the expense of transporting food across a vast nation like Australia and it is easy to see how the price we pay for food at the supermarket is rising so dramatically. In addition to helping rural communities, the Society also works with struggling families and individuals striving to stay afloat in the midst of rising fuel costs, the housing affordability crisis and the upsurge in the cost of other essentials. The material assistance the Society provides is also tempered by important initiatives such as budget counseling. Improving the financial literacy of people on limited incomes is crucial if they are to attain the long-term independence they seek. These initiatives also help to break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage, ensuring that deprivation does not become the unwelcome inheritance of disadvantaged Australian children.
Advocacy is an additional facet of the Society’s role. While material and lifeskills assistance are fundamental in rebuilding lives, Catholic social teaching also compels the Society to speak out wherever it sees injustice.
The global economic climate is increasingly volatile, and Australia is now subject to a greater array of forces beyond our control. The Society is a regular contributor to government inquiries of relevance to the quality of life of marginalised Australians. Equally, through an array of intensive research activities, the Society seeks to bring issues related to poverty and disadvantage to the national agenda. Often, these social justice issues are anticipatory in nature, attempting to
SNAPSHOT GLOBAL ECONOMICS
raise awareness and encourage action on potential causes of disadvantage before they become entrenched within the community.
It is only by prioritising the needs of the most disadvantaged members of our community that we can truly comprehend the full local impact of global developments. When issues such as the rising cost of food and other essentials begin to creep on to the media and political agendas, it is the Societyâ€™s task to ensure that the social dimension of such issues is at the forefront of discussion. It is only by prioritising the needs of the most disadvantaged members of our community that we can truly comprehend the full local impact of global developments. Dr Andy Marks is Senior Researcher with the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW email@example.com