​How to Aid with Food: Start Asking Better Questions to the Right People

Food Aid Frets from Afar: 

The international food aid system is something that I became highly critical of in grad school. Yes, it saves lives and in acute emergencies it can be necessary to give people food. Historically, however, in the US the way it developed was primarily out of our overproduction problem, rather than actually trying to figure out what’s best for the people it appears to help. It is inefficient and often tied to supporting US shippers at the expense of its effectiveness at reaching people. And in the long run, it often contributes to undermining farmers in the regions where it’s distributed, weakening local agricultural systems. (These issues are explained more here.)

But I’ve kind of always felt like a jerk for being able to say these things from my privileges that include a life-long distance from hunger. It’s easy enough to point out flaws from behind my computer screen in the US, reading analyses of PL 480 while snacking on carrots, hummus and chocolate covered raisins. It’s just as easy for someone else in the US to shame people for criticizing how we give food to hungry people, as though we are suggesting we could give starvation a try.  What I’ve felt like I’ve been missing are the voices and perspectives of the people this is supposed to be about.

As I mentioned in my very first post, seeking out such voices was a big factor motivating me to come spend some time with small scale farmers in a place like Zambia. Despite having to stop school pretty early, my baTaata is fluent in English. So, I’m lucky that I don’t have to wait until my Tonga is nuanced enough to be able to interview anyone in the village, which I hope it will be before I leave.

An Impromptu Interview

He is but one individual. I definitely want to talk to more people, including people who actually received food aid. But for now, this is one more perspective than I had before. Here’s a rough version of a chat that we had while walking home from one of his gardens recently. The conversation came up spur of the moment, so I wasn’t able to record. However, I tried to represent his speech as accurately as I could remember. I then showed baTaata the text below here, which he helped edit and approved for me putting on my blog.

MH: Can you tell me a bit about food aid? When was Zambia last receiving it? How was it distributed?
SM: The last time Zambia was receiving  food aid was maybe some time in the early 2000s. In the 1990s and 2000s we received a lot, when farmers had many bad seasons. Basically the government would give sacks of maize to NGOs and government officers who worked in the rural areas. These people would then take the food to rural areas and supervise and inspect the distribution. The amount you received was based on the number of people in your household. Many people around us were receiving this free food, but my family we never received anything, because we already had enough from what we had grown.

MH: How did you feel at that time, when you were not receiving food aid and others were?

: I didn’t feel bad since I was not receiving food. Because even when you are receiving something, even if it helps you, you are still depending on someone, and you don’t know — they can stop giving it to you at any time. And then what? Also I did not like the idea of this food aid because I have seen that it has made people in these communities somewhat lazy, with this dependency syndrome. When you say you’re having a meeting to distribute anything for free, everyone is there, but if you are just having a meeting about an issue that is important in the community, no one will attend.

MH: Instead of food aid, is there anything you can think of that would be more helpful to support you as a farmer, especially if you have a rough season?

I know how to grow food, so it doesn’t feel good to have someone give it to you. If you’re going to give me anything, give me inputs and let me grow the food myself. And so much of our bad seasons is depending on the rain. If instead of food aid someone could be investing in developing irrigation systems, maybe putting in dams, boreholes, that is what would really help us a lot. Many times we even already have a dam or a river or water somehow, but it is just very expensive to turn it into an irrigation facility. Imagine if I had a solar pump for irrigating this garden. But you need some experts to be setting it up properly. After that, however, then my expenditure for it would be very low. You know — sunshine is free. Right now depending on the rains, we are only able to harvest and sell one time in an entire year. But look at how many months there are in a year. It is limiting.

The other thing is some machinery so that we can be processing things we grow here ourselves. I can use sunflower as an example. We grow sunflower, then we sell the seeds to someone who has got an expeller. Then we need to buy cooking oil, but it is so expensive, some people they cannot even afford it. If we could have an expeller here we could be having cooking oil with no problems, we could even be using the leftover cake to be making some livestock feeds too.

MH: Yes, I see what you’re saying. Going back a bit, of course water is important to having a good season, and extending seasons or having multiple harvests. But what about like if there’s a really bad pest problem one year?

BaTaata examines an earworm he has picked off a maize plant in his garden.

SM A pest problem — Maddie, the real problem there is this monocropping. Especially of maize. We need to change that.

MH: OK so what do you think farmers would need to be able to move away from monocropping maize?

We would need to be able to sell other crops for good prices. Right now for most farmers the only reliable thing is selling to the government, and they don’t buy many other crops.


BaTaata Outside the Box

At that point we arrived home and the conversation switched gears. But I know from other conversations with him, he sees a lot that plays into the problem of not being able to sell other crops for good prices. For example poor road networks and difficulty accessing transportation are barriers in our area. But we’ve also identified potential opportunities for things that could be entry points to diversification that might be easier to bring to more distant markets (eg honey, jam, candied citrus, dried produce). And we’ve talked about approaches to making some marketing issues more manageable: using social organization and encouraging the community to spend whatever money it has buying from each other when they can.

And BaTaata has no shortage of dreams for diversifying and strengthening the foodshed and ecosystem around him. He wants to install a biodigester for home cooking fuel that will help prevent future cutting of trees. He is leading writing a grant to hopefully fund building a dairy collection center so that with proper storage people can sell milk they produce. He wants to see a hatchery at the local acquaculture facility to help sustain fish production locally. He hopes to someday start an agricultural training center. He is pondering organizing an independent seed coop business so that the community has affordable, locally adapted open pollinated seeds for a range of vegetables while internally circulating money that currently goes to large seed companies.

All of these ideas inspire me. And it also inspires me seeing him test out the every day techniques that little by little strengthen soil: learning to make compost, trying crop rotations, planting a tree nursery.

It’s true that under the pressure of poverty, few farmers are able to keep sight of the long-term vision that my baTaata has. At the same time, the fact that any of them are is something worth recognizing. I have to believe that he and our neighbors can organize themselves to bit by bit be working towards such goals. But I wonder also how the world around them might better enable these ideas and practices, so that the community would become more thriving and resilient faster.

Questioning Questions

I thanked baTaata for sharing his ideas with me and told him that I think it’s important for people to hear how someone with his perspective would answer these types of questions. I know that there are a lot of people all over the world who care very much about the idea that everyone should have enough food to eat, and that farmers shouldn’t be struggling so much. But I think too much of the time our ideas about how to help come from a distance.

I told him too that I think a lot of the time the problem is really the questions that we ask. If food aid is part of our status quo and the only questions we ask are: “Is food aid good or bad? Does it help people?” Of course in some ways it is good and it does help people in the immediate sense. But these questions limit our field of vision so narrowly. If we start asking “How could it be better? What do people in communities receiving food aid think of this system? How can we best support farmers struggling to make ends meet? What do they think they need?” We begin to include and focus on the people who are really involved, which begins the very process of demarginalizing them. We open ourselves up to actually considering all the possibilities that could better address the underlying issues we all claim to care about.

Who is Listening?

BaTaata seemed encouraged that I took the time to listen and valued his insight on these topics. He told me, ‘I am sure you will get a lot of responses on this message you are writing. People should have a lot to say and I am most eager to hear about it.’

I made no promises about that, but world, if you’ve got any thoughts, send them our way. BaTaata is all ears now.


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