Twenty-two castaways are struggling to maintain hope on Elephant Island, a barren and frozen speck halfway between Cape Horn and Antarctica. It’s taken them 15 months to get this far, after their boat, the Endurance, was trapped in pack ice, ending –before they’d even begun— their aspiration to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent by foot. For several months they await the return of their leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who has made an improbable 800-mile oceanic dash to the inhabited South Georgia Island on an open lifeboat to seek rescue.
Meager rations are doled out as the group ‘saves down’ on what’s left of their stores. Ration sizes are altered from time to time, depending on the availability of locally procured seal meat and blubber and their own sense of how long they’ll have or be able to endure. But that’s not the only subsistence parameter they manage; their ‘financial lives’ are a tad more nuanced than that:
“There was a good deal of bartering in the matter of rations, and several food pools were formed. Typical of these was the ‘sugar pool’ in which each man who belonged passed up one of his three lumps of sugar each day in order to partake of a feast when his turn came around every sixth or seventh day.”
Source: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2007).
It may seem surprising that in a moment of desperate need, they opt for cycles of empty-bellied sacrifice and sugary reward rather than for even distribution of calorific lumps. It is likely that each one of them would be openly disgruntled if the leading officer ordered rations to be doled out weekly rather than daily, and yet that’s what they decide to do themselves. Does this not go against the logic of rationing as a mechanism to assure daily survival?
We can rationalize this in several ways. They may be seeking an element of personal control over the basics of their precarious existence. For once they defer satisfaction because it’s their decision, unforced by circumstance, fate or command, and that thought is comforting. The notion of impending reward may also be a crutch to remain optimistic in very adverse circumstances. There’s got to be a tomorrow, because I still need to get my sugar back. And creating a sense of shared and voluntary sacrifices and rewards through a group setup may serve to increase the bonds of camaraderie. It gives them one more thing to do, to talk about, to supervise, among the oppressive tedium of daily survival.
Is there an ‘optimal’ rationing strategy that would have achieved all that? No: top-down doesn’t go with empowerment. Equally, in terms of financial services for the poor, there can’t be a silver-bullet financial product that will satisfy all customers’ needs. People want a sense of personal choice and control, with all the apparent inefficiencies and contradictions that may bring on. We must remember that when they are addressing their subsistence, people are managing not only their money but also their relationships and outlook.
Ignacio Mas is an independent consultant working on technology-enabled models for financial inclusion (www.ignaciomas.com).