The Politics of Stigma: Starving in a Land of Plenty

Vol. 37 No. 1

By

Kristof Nordin is currently a community educator in Malawi, Africa, along with his wife, Stacia Nordin, who is a technical advisor to the Malawian Ministry of Education on issues of school health and nutrition.

At one time or another, we have probably all had our heartstrings tugged by the effective marketing strategies of international development, relief, and aid efforts. Maybe you remember the advertisements—pictures of children in developing countries with distended stomachs, surrounded by flies, with a voice-over saying that “for the price of a cup of coffee” you can save these children’s lives. These seemingly innocent pleas are actually quite symbolic of the problems that have arisen with international assistance efforts since the end of World War II. The problem is that these advertisements tend to put the world’s problems into an overly simplified dualistic scenario with malnutrition, poverty, and death on one side, and the simplest cure of all—money—on the other.

Understandably, in this complicated world simplicity has its merits, but there is another reason that these emotional appeals resound so loudly within our subconscious—the guilt that arises when we feel that we are not fulfilling a moral obligation. What do we do when problems arise outside of our physical reach, in another city, in another country, or in another continent? We give . We have been taught that to give is the ultimate act of generosity. Over the centuries, all of the major religions have taught that we should take the plight of the poor, hungry, and disadvantaged as our own. The Bible and the Torah teach that “If there is a poor man among you . . . you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks” (Deut.15:7). The Koran says, “Do not turn away a poor man . . . even if all you can give is half a date” (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1376). There is even an ancient Buddhist canon that states, “Life is sustained by food and food is life, thus, to give food to others is like giving life to them” (Mahabharata: 13.63.26).

Unfortunately, many of us have come to equate the concepts of generosity and giving with that of simply giving money. Over time, this idea has embedded itself so deeply that the connection between happiness, spirituality, and money has almost become synonymous. For international development work, then, it becomes comforting to know that for the price of a cup of coffee we can right the wrongs of the world.

For the last twelve years, my wife and I have been working in the areas of sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and health in the small southern African country known as Malawi. The entirety of our work could be considered to fall within the parameters of “international development and assistance,” but we have made a conscious effort to keep it out of the realm of “international funding and donations.” All of our work within Malawian society, from our grassroots individual efforts to our work at the governmental policy level, is approached with the same philosophy—“the people with the problem are the people with the solution.” Myles Horton, The Highlander Center. The mantra of sustainability is one that is repeated over and over within the realm of developmental programs, but to truly achieve this ideal one must put it into action beginning with local people using locally available resources.

Our work has confirmed that many of these world problems boil down to a stagnation or obstruction in the realization of human potential. The psychologically based “humanist” movement tends to view individuals and societies in terms of this potential. It has been theorized, by psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, that if people are able to meet their basic needs, they will be able to gradually progress to more advanced stages of self-actualization. Maslow ranked these needs into a hierarchy that builds upon one another. Without actualization at one level it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to advance to the next. Maslow outlined five levels: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Most development work falls into the first two tiers. Physiological needs include basic biological necessities such as food, air, water, and shelter. Safety includes basic human rights and stability within organized social structures.

As physiological needs are not met, or if they are undermined, the impact on a society’s stability and security are direct and immediate. As access to safe drinking water has become limited, we have seen “water wars” erupting, diplomatic threats being traded, and social unrest arising. Shelter is another issue that often enters into the political area as we are currently seeing in the conflict between Israel and Palestine surrounding the West Bank settlements.

Since the end of World War II, however, food has had a unique history of being manipulated as a political tool. It has long been known that food is an extremely powerful motivator of nations’ actions. Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionist, once stated that “Any society is only three meals away from a revolution.” In the United States, the idea of food being used as a political weapon became the topic of general discussion by the end of the 1970s, when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, stated in a Time magazine article that “Food is a weapon. It is now one of the principal tools in our negotiating kit.” What to Do: Costly Choices , Time, Nov. 11, 1974.

The uniqueness of food’s role in politics may be, in part, due to our acquisition of knowledge since the end of the 1940s that food may also be physically manipulated. Advances that were made toward the end of World War II in agricultural sciences gave us a radically altered perspective of the concept of food security. No longer were we to be held captive by the unpredictable outcomes of crops, seeds, soil fertility, or weather patterns. Now we were in control. Scientists set about converting many of the wartime weapons-making factories into synthetic fertilizer and agro-chemical facilities. New advances in hybridization led to “super-varieties” of staple crops that had what geneticists refer to as “hybrid vigor.” These crops grow very robustly the first year and carry with them the traits of their parent stock. One of the most significant drawbacks to these hybrids, however, is that the offspring seed tends to be unproductive or sterile and therefore cannot be saved by the farmer for replanting in successive growing seasons. These new hybrid varieties, along with the synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals, were touted at that time as being the answer to the world’s hunger problems. In a movement that became known as the Green Revolution, industrialized countries began exporting and aggressively advocating for the use of these new technologies in developing countries. This was also the period that marked the advent of a vast majority of international development efforts.

At the time of this Green Revolution, Malawi was still under colonial rule by the British. Despite its small size and relative lack of high-value resources such as the oil, diamonds, and gold that have been both a blessing and a curse for other African countries, Malawi is extremely rich in other natural resources. It sits on the shores of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes and is located in the semi-arid tropics, which allows for crops to be grown throughout the year. With all of this natural agricultural potential, it may be surprising to find that Malawi also suffers from a “hungry season.” This is the label that has been given to the period of time when the stored crops from the previous growing season run out and people are waiting to reap the next harvest. Ironically, this is also the time of year that coincides with Malawi’s rainy season, which runs from about December to March. This means that the most productive time of Malawi’s agricultural year is also the time when Malawians are hungriest because they are waiting for one crop to mature—maize (corn). It is interesting to note that in all of Malawi’s history, the first year that food insecurity was reported to be a problem was 1949. Since that time, the hungry season has become an annual event.

There are several reasons for this rapid agricultural degeneration. First, the colonial government helped to promote the adoption of hybridized maize as a staple crop. But along with the introduction of these new seeds and chemicals came an entirely new way of implementing agriculture, known as “monocropping.” When the Green Revolution was initiated in countries like Malawi, traditional agriculture faced a rapid transformation. Almost overnight, countries moved away from a “no-input” agriculture in which, apart from human labor, all the financial requirements for food production were free, to a “high-input” agriculture that required money to obtain the high-cost inputs like seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers. These countries also moved away from having year-round access to a diverse food supply. They now had to try to grow all of the food that they needed for an entire year in a short four-month rainy season. Then they had to try to store all of this food for the remainder of the year. Food and nutrition security, which used to be achieved through the utilization of hundreds of indigenous food plants, now became dependent upon the growing and eating of only a handful of introduced crops. The resulting malnutrition, combined with the country’s chronic hungry season and the ravaging effects of HIV, has meant a significant decrease in Malawian lifespan. Malawians commonly used to live into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s; they now die on average between 38 and 40.

In 1964, colonialism came to an end in Malawi and the dictator, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, took power and declared himself “President for Life.” Dr. Banda wanted Malawi to be known for its agricultural capabilities, especially in the area of maize production. He pressured local farmers into converting large portions of their fields to the production of the crop by holding annual field days and crop inspections throughout the country to ensure that people were adhering to the government’s agriculture policies. With this type of pressure from the government, maize quickly gained a tremendous foothold in Malawi’s agricultural sector, eventually replacing traditional staple crops such as millet and sorghum almost completely.

But Dr. Banda’s legacy may not lie as much in his forced production of maize as it does in what he was able to achieve psychologically in the country. The president had an almost fanatical passion for all things English. To him, the English model was the ideal that all Malawians should strive for. In 1968 he made English an official language of the country and forced schools to send home any student who was heard to be speaking a local vernacular. He also created Kamuzu Academy, a secondary school for the best and the brightest students in the country, in which students were taught subjects such as Shakespeare and Latin. This aspiration was admirable, but the problem was that he forbade Malawians to teach at their own school and imported all of the teachers directly from England. As this overemphasis on all things western took hold, the country found itself facing a national identity crisis. Malawian traditions and practices came to symbolize “backwardness” in many people’s eyes. Traditional knowledge that had sustained generations of Malawians, without the need for foreign donors and relief programs, gradually became something to be disdained. The oral tradition of passing on essential life-knowledge from generation to generation began to crumble as younger generations came to view this knowledge as outdated and as a hindrance to development. Traditional food crops that had been enjoyed for hundreds of years became stigmatized by all levels of society and came to embody a form of “mental poverty” that swept over the country. Instead of viewing the country as a place that had been blessed with an abundance of natural resources and the potential to provide its people with everything they needed, people now became convinced that Malawi was one of the poorest countries in the world, with little to no access to resources of any kind.

This stigma that has been placed on local resources manifests itself in many ways. A look at the current diet shows that almost everything that is eaten now has been introduced from a foreign country. If you are a guest at a person’s house, Malawians will go out of their way to spend money to provide foreign foods, because to serve local foods is now seen as a sign of disrespect. A walk through a local grocery store will highlight many imported items that are draining the country’s financial reserves: fruits, vegetables, herbal teas, dried goods, spices, seeds, and even basics like chickens and eggs—all of which could easily be produced in the country. Overreliance on maize as a staple food has become so widespread that it is now seen as the “only” food. A person can literally eat a large meal of other foods, but if maize isn’t served that person will go away saying that they haven’t eaten and that the host has been rude. These are all changes that have taken place within the last few decades, and unfortunately they are changes that have come about far too quickly and easily in a nation that bows to westernized ideals and holds their own culture in contempt.

Dr. Banda left power in 1994, but the government continues to push his maize-based agenda. The majority of agricultural policies revolve around the production of ever larger harvests of maize throughout the country. This promotion of high-input maize production is often accomplished through the establishment of revolving loan funds, subsidy programs, starter packs, fertilizer coupons, the introduction of new varieties of hybrid seeds, agricultural extension services, and even through the teaching of these issues within the national school agriculture curriculum. The ironic thing is that for the last three consecutive growing seasons, beginning in 2006–07, the country has actually managed to produce a significant surplus of maize—almost one million metric tons each year. In order to obtain these higher yields, however, the government has had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on agricultural subsidies. The 2009–10 budget alone allocated US$127 million solely for the subsidization of synthetic fertilizers. But despite these higher yields of maize being exactly what the government has been striving for, it has done nothing to alleviate the fact that almost half of the country’s children continue to suffer from malnutrition-related stunting. In the nation’s push for food security , they have managed to sacrifice nutrition security . An even greater irony is that with all of this surplus maize in the country, the hungry seasons continue to persist.

Each year, usually at the request of the government, development agencies rush in to provide food aid in the form of more maize—the analogical equivalent of administering alcohol to treat alcoholism. For instance, an official government
report from the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee clearly states that “Cereal production for the 2009–10 consumption year shows that Malawi produced 3.6 million MT [metric tons] of maize against a national requirement of 2.4 million MT. This means that it has 1.2m MT surplus. For a third year running Malawi will get all its cereal requirements from its own production and there will be no need for formal staple imports.” The State of Food Security and Vulnerability in Malawi for 200910 . In September of this year, the international news agency AFP issued a report stating that “The UN’s World Food Programme launched an international appeal for 5.2 million US dollars (3.5 million euros) Thursday to help feed more than half a million Malawians until the end of next year.” See www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iUKH3J_4xi_oVL-pcdtaUC5Sl3Ug.

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.

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