The Politics of Stigma: Starving in a Land of Plenty
by Kristof Nordin
"Much of the financial aid that is currently spent on food-related humanitarian relief is often a Band-Aid approach used to cover up the symptoms of a much greater problem. As we have moved away from diversified agriculture, development organizations that are concerned about malnutrition and nutrition-related deficiencies are now spending millions of dollars each year on supplementation and fortification programs. Throughout the world we now fortify foods in the same way that we apply chemical fertilizers to our soil—as a recurring treatment to a self-inflicted ailment. One example is vitamin A. Malawi is a country that could be overrun with vitamin A–rich foods, and yet local mothers routinely take their children to health centers to receive capsules of imported vitamin A supplements. Other items, such as cooking oils, are now fortified with vitamin A. These fortification and supplementation programs do very little to move countries forward in a sustainable way. If, on the other hand, people were to be taught about locally available foods that have high-nutrient values, and how to grow and use them in a sustainable way, then within a matter of months these countries could be on the path to breaking their dependency on outside assistance.
We can, and should, all continue to reach out to those in need, but in so doing we need to remember that the word give can mean much more than just providing monetary assistance; it is also a term that is used to convey the idea that something empowering will result, such as when food is able to give life-sustaining nourishment. The world can no longer afford to tackle its problems of undernutrition and overnutrition without beginning to embrace the diverse natural systems that sustain it—just as development agencies can no longer afford to view their responses to humanitarian needs simply in the context of financial aid. These systems, too, need to be replaced by holistic approaches that offer solutions to problems in harmony with the traditional wisdom, knowledge, resources, and cultures of the countries in which these organizations work.
My wife and I have learned that when development work is conducted sincerely within this realm of mutual respect, the natural consequences become a true exchange of ideas, learning, and progress, as well as a deeper appreciation for each other’s cultures. As we have worked to bring back a sense of pride regarding Malawi’s traditional resources, the country has begun to have a resurgence in the use of these resources. Villagers, farmers, teachers, students, extension workers, health workers, and even government officials have all begun to unite to build on the knowledge of the country’s ancestors and incorporate this knowledge back into the building of a sustainable future. This low-to-no-input approach quickly achieves sustainability because it is not dependent upon outside funding, foreign interventions, start-up costs, or administrative overhead. It is a person-to-person initiative that continually strives to break the mental poverty that has now convinced so many people that their quality of life is directly proportionate to their quantity of money. When people begin to acknowledge that they truly are the ones with the solutions, they also begin to realize that many of these solutions lie no farther than their own front yard."
Winter 2010 - The Global Hunger for Food and Justice