Thoughts about shopping, and short-term vs long-term thinking

Have you ever thought about how you shop, and why you shop that way? Do you go to the supermarket once a week, list in hand, credit or debit card at the ready, fill up a shopping cart, load up your car, and then only visit local stores for an odd item here or there? That is how many people live in North America.

But in the much of the rest of the world, many people shop daily for meat, bread, milk and vegetables, at local corner stores that also will extend credit between pay days. In fact, that is how my grandmother shopped in Belfast in the 1920s and 1930s.

Being able to shop weekly, or in bulk, is possible because of many things that are often taken for granted. Firstly, it usually depends on having a car – you couldn’t lug all those goods home if you had to take the bus, or walk. Those big stores are usually located in the suburbs. Secondly, it depends on having a big fridge, and cupboards, to store all those goods so they don’t go bad. Thirdly, it depends on having a regular source of income, a bank account, and a credit or debit card, so you can buy in bulk, and that normally means you have a job.

In other words, you have an infrastructure that supports you in operating on a longer-term basis. But what if you don’t have a fridge, or storage room? What if there are no big stores? What if your income comes only on a daily basis or sporadically, when you can find work? What if you don’t have a car, and must walk? Even if there is a big store somewhere near you, you won’t be able to get there, you won’t have money to buy a lot at one time, and you won’t have anywhere to put it even if you could overcome those other two barriers.

Why does this matter?

In international development terms, I think it matters greatly. It took me quite some time to realize that many aid strategies make a lot of assumptions about how people live, and many of those assumptions are (as is normal) based on our own experience. Our strategies often focus on long-term (or at least medium-term) planning, in societies where people do their planning day to day – for a lot of very good reasons.

In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for example, inflation ran so rampant that the cost of a cup of coffee might effectively double in the course of a day. In this case, acting short term was the only sensible strategy for most people. The same thing happens in a society that is experiencing conflict. If you might have to flee your village tomorrow because an armed group comes down from the hills, you will grow different crops or cultivate differently than if you can count on being allowed to plant and harvest in peace.

Sometimes the changes in society leave people no practical choice but to live short term. A few years ago, I was observing the special presidential elections in Georgia. Our area extended up into the mountains near the Russian border. We visited even the most remote villages, despite the challenges of getting there, and in order to do so, we stayed overnight in one village. There was no hotel, of course, but there were lots of large houses – like the one we stayed in – which had radiators and indoor bathrooms and once had been heated when energy was cheap.

Now that energy was very expensive, and people no longer had an income because the economy had collapsed. Our hostess and her daughter were effectively living in the kitchen, which they could heat with a wood stove. They were using an outdoor toilet, and they got their water from the well. So, too, public offices were heated with tiny woodstoves vented out through windows, and we would often find the election workers huddled around the stove. The small amounts of money we paid our hosts for our overnight stay represented the equivalent of six months income for them.

Coping with collapsed infrastructure

One women’s group said that they had submitted a grant proposal to a North American organization. It included the cost of electricity for a small heater (and from our experience, that would barely keep them warm when huddled around it, let alone heat the whole room). The North American organization said that wasn’t a necessary expenditure.

Yugoslavia once had a brilliant health care system that was publicly funded. Regular checkups were done at factories and schools, and dentists visited schools regularly – in fact, most schools had a dentist’s chair somewhere in the building. When the country collapsed, the public health care system also was a casualty. Many doctors, in order to make a living, started private clinics and private pharmacies developed. It is a sobering thing to hear a mother tell you that she lives in fear that her child will become ill because she can’t afford the private clinic and pharmacy, and the public system has only the most basic drugs, equipment and services. I experienced this personally when I became sick while doing election observation in Ukraine and had to visit a local hospital. In order to treat me, the doctor first had to send my friend downstairs to the hospital pharmacy to buy the necessary items, with cash.

Yet, in situations where entire infrastructure systems have collapsed or almost collapsed and people have had to adopt short-term action as a way to cope, many international projects are focused on long-term planning – without recognizing that it takes some considerable time, and confidence, and a lot of coordinated economic and social activity before long-term planning can become a sensible choice for most local people.