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16 Oct 2011

Food for Thought

I am proud to take part in Blog Action Day Oct 16, 2011

As the logo above suggests, today is 'Blog Action Day', the topic is food, so here's my action in the form of a blog.

First, to set the scene, an event from a North London primary school in the mid 1980s:
Dinner lady: Finish your dinner before you leave the table.
Pupil: But I'm full Miss.
Dinner lady: Don't you know there are starving children in Africa?
Pupil: Why don't you send it to them then?
Second, a disclaimer:
George Orwell once wrote of "the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers" The following blog is underpinned by my own ignorance, but written from my bias that this issue is important and worthy of discussion and action.  I would welcome your views in the comments section.
Third, and finally, the blog:

Food and our VSO in Cambodia

Gilly enjoys a traditional Khmer breakfast

Regular readers will have spotted food appearing with some frequency on this blog: the indulgence on our last holiday; reflections on my recent return visit to the UK; Gordon Ramsey in Cambodia; our first Christmas in Kratie; and some of our favourite things from when we first arrived.

A common theme has been our change in diet and craving things we miss, notably dairy (both of us) and chocolate (me).  One simple reason that these aren't common features of the Cambodian diet is the lack of widespread and affordable refrigeration.  We have a fridge but it is most definitely a luxury here.

Despite these longings for foods from our previous life in London, we are certainly not hungry.  VSO provides us with a living allowance (based on an annual 'basket of goods' survey) which is more than adequate for buying all sorts of local produce at the market.  We mostly cook at home but can afford to eat out occasionally, and sometimes even splash out on a pizza or burger when we're in Phnom Penh.

Food (in)security
This lack of worry or concern about where our next meal is coming from is something that differentiates us from many Cambodians.  Before I came here I'd never heard the term 'food security' (and its evil twin 'food insecurity') but it captures well my own relationship with food.  I cannot truly say that I have ever felt painfully hungry, but there is no doubt that many Cambodians can and have: this is a country where almost 40% of children are chronically malnourished.

When we arrived last year there was a lot of talk about the lack of rain; it had come late and was much lighter than usual.  This had an impact on the rice crop, Cambodia's staple, that needs large quantities of water to grow.  This year the situation is the exact opposite with an early start to the wet season and very heavy rains leading to widespread flooding.  As I write, 17 of Cambodia's 24 provinces are in a state of emergency and the rain continues to fall.  As a result, up to 13% of this year's rice crop is at risk of destruction.  This is troubling as it threatens the lives of those who live on the precarious knife-edge that is subsistence existence.  Even very small alterations to food availability or price can have a huge impact on their diet, and place lives at risk.  This, and lack of funds to purchase food, is where the insecurity comes from.

Cambodian floods 2011 (Photograph: Samrang Pring/Reuters)

These issues can be scaled up to a national or regional level when considering the risks associated with natural disasters and more extreme patterns of weather resulting from climate change.  These come from the likelihood of exposure to extreme weather, but also the economic ability to manage disaster.  This blog with links to useful reports highlights this issue by comparing the impact of the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, one country having far more capacity to manage than the other.  The recent heavy rains in Cambodia therefore have a double impact because of the country's lack of economic strength to minimise the impact and respond effectively.

The 'poverty trap'
Nature (and extreme weather) is just one of a number of causes of hunger in the world.  The World Food Programme also identifies War, Poverty Trap, Agricultural Infrastructure, and Over-exploitation of the Environment as the other major causes.  'Poverty Trap' in this list expresses a multitude of complex factors, rather than a single cause. In Cambodia these frequently include lack of access to land (often after losing it to land concessions), poor income earning opportunities, and barriers to meaningful engagement with food markets.

In addressing this Poverty Trap cause there are different approaches that those involved with 'development' work adopt.  In my current role I am working with CRDT who equip families with the skills to raise animals, grow vegetable gardens, farm fish and improve access to water for irrigation purposes.  This increase in local food production provides greater food security for those involved.  However, they are still at risk from extreme weather such as the recent rains, and so only partial food security can be assured in this way.

Home gardening with CRDT

Another approach is to facilitate greater access to food and other markets in an attempt to improve the incomes of those with low food security.  When we lived in London we did not suffer from food insecurity for two main reasons: sufficient income to purchase all of our dietary needs; and reliable access to many varieties of food for sale.  Both of these factors come from our advantageous position in terms of access to both labour and food markets, which reduce our exposure to risks associated with crop failures and increases in food prices.  As a result we found ourselves practically immune to food insecurity.

The project I am involved with through VSO, and sponsored by Accenture, attempts to use market-based approaches to address issues of poverty such as food insecurity.  The rationale for this is that poverty can be reduced by facilitating increased meaningful participation by the poorest people in markets: product; service; labour; and financial.  Much of this focuses on local markets and requires identifying the way they are currently structured and operate, with a view to planning and implementing interventions to improve the position of the poorest people.  Doing so can increase incomes which serves as a more flexible form of food security because it allows the purchase of food rather than reliance on one's own production.  (There is then an obvious corollary which is that greater income also increases participation in markets in the role of consumer, in addition to that of producer or employee.)

The oxymoronic 'pro-poor markets'
These approaches to tackling poverty and food insecurity are all well meaning attempts to create change and improve the lives of some of Cambodia's (and the world's) poorest people.  The VSO/Accenture programme ('Making Markets Work for the Poor') promotes the notion of 'pro-poor markets', that is markets that are geared towards supporting the poorest actors within them and tackling poverty.  A blog by IDE chief executive Al Doerksen succinctly summed up my feelings towards this concept by saying that "the notion of 'pro-poor markets' is probably oxymoronic" (link to blog).  A recent email exchange with a colleague on this topic led me to write the following summary of my thoughts:
"My trouble is with the tendency for market forces and structures to develop in ways which benefit those who are already better off.  (And then this becomes self-reinforcing as more power and wealth concentrates into fewer hands.)  If 'Pro' is taken to mean 'in favour of' then there is clearly an overwhelming body of evidence that market systems favour the rich over the poor. This lies at the heart of the contradiction I see in the terminology for our work. 
However, we can only operate within the system that we find ourselves a part of.   If we played a game of Monopoly and I started with $100 and you with $10,000 we know who would win.   Knowing the rules doesn't always mean you can win the game.   Increasing the poorest people's ability to to engage with markets more effectively doesn't overcome the fact that the rules of the game are working against them.   Further, their role in shaping the rules is minimal, if it exists in any meaningful way at all. 
I believe in the work we're doing but it does sometimes feel like the proverbial piss in the ocean when we consider the more systemic factors that influence the position of the world's poorest in national and global markets.   Our own process of making change operates in increments, but the radical in me believes that more substantial impact must be possible by other, more immediate, means."
Markets are (increasingly global)
The impact that me and other development workers can make on the ground is always necessarily small.  It will only affect small numbers of people in small ways. However, as noted by Al Doerksen again, increasing someone's income from $1 per day to $2-3 makes a substantial difference to them.  It is important to bear this in mind in order to stay sane in the face of the enormity of the problems we're involved with, as espoused by the authors of Poor Economics.  However, I do think it is important to consider the bigger picture, the global context in which this work is happening.  It is only on this bigger stage that more radical change can be effected, and, sadly, it is not the poor of the developing world who have the power to make that change.

One cause of hunger that isn't identified in the World Food Programme list is speculation on global food markets by big finance.  It is argued that the disconnection of global trading of food commodities from the 'real' market forces of supply and demand has resulted in large profits for hedge funds at the cost of increasing food insecurity for many of the world's poorest.  If true, this is further evidence that markets are anything but 'pro-poor' and that the profit motive pays no heed to those which it exploits for its own gain.  This and other aspects of global food production and trade must be challenged in order to arrive at the required solutions to this problem that should not even exist.

The incongruence of the world's diet

The F-word

This video from One International promotes their campaign to raise awareness of the 'man-made' causes of famine.  As efforts continue to relieve the suffering of those on the horn of Africa, we in the developed world must accept our complicity in causing this problem in the first place.  Like the primary school scene earlier, it simply isn't good enough to send food and other aid once people start dying.  We must address the political and economic causes that lead to these situations, rather than allowing them to repeat.  The famine of the mid-1980s moved the world but here we are again with history repeating.  I can only assume that the lessons haven't been learned, that there is a lack of political will, or probably some combination of both.

I offer up, by way of contrast, the exact opposite problem faced by the USA.  In this presentation by Dr. Eenfeldt he tackles the subject of obesity, including the following slides that show the relative recency of the problem, and how it has accelerated since the African famine of the mid-1980s (1985 being the year of Live Aid):

It is staggering that this trend can continue while, once again, millions face starvation in Africa. "Eradicate extreme hunger" is the first Millennium Development Goal, but this won't be achieved before the 2015 deadline by providing yet another handout.  It will only happen if fundamental changes are made to the world economic system which currently protects the obese lifestyles of the privileged few at the expense of many others'.  This can only happen if those benefiting from the current situation question their own actions and make their own changes in support of this necessary shift.  That could and should include you.

Time for some action
The scale of these problems is bewildering and it is easy to fall into a position of paralysis: 'what difference can I make?'.  However, there are many things you can do, such as voting for people who support a more radical, progressive agenda on development issues, buying products which protect the interests of poor producers (e.g. Fair Trade) and raising awareness of these issues by talking about them with others.  (For example, this post is part of Blog Action Day, aimed at spreading the word about these issues.)

You can also support organisations involved in taking action, either financially, through volunteering, or assisting with raising their profile.  Here are some referenced in this post, feel free to link to others in the comments:
Einstein said, "the world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking". I hope this post has affected your thinking in some way, pass it on and take some action. Thank you for reading.


  1. Wonderful read, Sam.

    "the world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking"

    Yes, it is time to think. Think hard.

  2. This is a nice blog which i really, could you please write more about Kratie, i am someone from there.