8 March 2023

Food, Fuel, and Fiat

“Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up”

What do the Collapse of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the Warring States Period, and the UK Cost of Living Crisis all have in common? Political instability, environmental issues, and economic mismanagement. Although the specific contexts and causes differ, issues such as excessive government spending, natural disasters, and social unrest have led to the collapse of pharaonic power and the adoption of new systems.

Imagine a brick wall. It is possible to dismantle it brick by brick, dent it with a sledgehammer, or use a masonry chisel. However, it may also be necessary to dispose of old bricks, arrange for a ladder, and take precautions to protect the floor around the wall. Similarly, societal change requires grantmaking trusts and foundations act by providing immediate support and fund the future.

Tipping point

Grain shortages in Ancient Egypt due to a rising population, exploitation of underprivileged farmers, poor harvests, and droughts caused widespread famine and inflation which led to social unrest and periods of political instability. Although grain shortages were not the sole reason for the collapse of the Old Kingdom, they certainly played a significant role in it. Wealth was concentrated with a ruling elite, which slowly disintegrated and the rise of localised power in the hands of ‘Nomarchs’ (district governors) steered the region into a new era called the Middle Kingdom. When faced with food poverty, Nomarchs worked together to distribute grain from a region with surplus foods to the region with shortages. The transfer of supplies was one of the several government interventions that allowed famine to be brought under control.

The time for central government intervention at a national level has passed its tipping point

Food security is fundamental to maintaining a stable society, yet we find ourselves in a time where around 13.4 million people were living in poverty in the UK in 2020/2021, of which 3.9 million were children. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and of the Greater London Authority, recently announced a £130m scheme to give every London primary school pupil free school meals for the next academic year. The use of one-off local funding from additional business rates income will provide relief for many who are facing the worst of austerity in the capital. Similar decisions by other London councils have been initiated to offer universal primary school free school meals. This won’t address the underlying cause of the food crisis; however, it is a model other local governments can adapt to provide immediate relief. On a more systemic level, the Food Foundation’s latest report ‘The State of The Nation’s Food Industry’ recommended corporations support and collaborate with the government to implement mandatory reporting and establish a ‘Food Data Transparency Partnership’ in order to promote more sustainable and healthy diets in the UK. 

Venturing through

The 16th century Sengoku period, also known as the Warring States Period, was a turbulent time in history when rival warlords fought for control of Japan. The political and social upheaval led to a shortage of wood. At the time, this was the primary source of fuel for cooking and heating. As alternatives were less efficient and more expensive, the government implemented measures to encourage the planting of new trees and conservation and established laws to regulate the use of wood. Reforestation not only led to the development of new technologies for resource management, but also compelled the state to look outside its own society – which spurred innovation in alternative fuel sources. Furthermore, during the fuel crisis, wealthy merchants supported the growth of social welfare systems such as public granaries to alleviate poverty and promoted communal aid.  

Collective bold investments can lead to a sustainable future

Crises can be used as opportunities to change the way the wind blows and transform lives through a combination of technological innovation, government policies, and social partnerships. Funders should invest in research and development for renewable energy projects and implement programs to promote energy conservation and efficiency. The City of London Corporation – the municipal governing body of the Square Mile – has adopted a radical Climate Action Strategy which sets out how it will achieve net zero, build climate resilience, and champion sustainable growth. The City is investing in improving energy efficiency at its investment and corporate properties, aligning its investment portfolio with the Paris Agreement, enhancing carbon removal in open spaces, and has committed itself to reporting and transparency by developing a public progress tracking dashboard.

Opportunity cost

It is no secret that purchasing power of currencies has dwindled over the last few decades as the cost of goods and services has increased. NCVO recently warned that as the cost of running a voluntary organisation rises due to increasing demand from service users, voluntary and public sector income is also at risk. London Funders reported that although some funders had discussed or implemented measures to support grantees, the tension between balancing immediate action and longer-term strategy was high.

It’s about more than just the money

In a response similar to when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, City Bridge Trust (CBT) – London’s largest independent funder and funding arm of Bridge House Estates – awarded more than £1m in one-off unrestricted uplift grants to over 350 grant-holders to help ease pressures caused by high inflation. Additionally, CBT contributed £1million towards the Together for London Winter Appeal – an emergency grants programme run by London Community Foundation to support disadvantaged Londoners. Non-financial support has also been a priority which has included the giving of skills, time, and talent leveraged using people, networks, and experience.

Philanthropic organisations are not a substitute for government, however, they must increase their efforts in the short and long term, as their cost of inaction is greater than the cost of the living crisis itself.


Hannan Ali
Organising Member, Grant Givers' Movement (GGM)