On global hunger & food security

I just wrote a two-part series on the changing landscape of international food aid for UN Dispatch – you can read part one here and part two here.

Rice fields in Bong County, Liberia

Only a few hours after I filed my posts on food aid, I found out that Owen Barder’s latest podcast for Development Drums was an hour-long interview with Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, about their new book “Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty“. I was a bit nervous to listen to this after having written for UN Dispatch, but I was relieved that I seemed to have covered some of the main points these experts make in their book.

If the Development Drums podcast and my recent posts aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger on this topic, here are a couple links of interest:

Ending Africa’s Hunger, September 2009, The Nation. This well-researched, in depth article is a searing critique of the Gates Foundation’s work on agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an interesting take on the way in which agricultural development is being pursued by philanthropic and private sector actors, and the implications of current strategies. I frequently refer back to this article, which I find offers a unique perspective on hunger and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to food security, February 2010, Business Daily. Great piece on how smallholder, rural farmers have historically been overlooked by national agricultural and development policies, and how they could be leveraged to increase food security.

The podcast is here. You can also subscribe to it for free in Itunes. These hour long, in-depth discussions led by Owen Barder are highly recommend for anyone interested in development policy.


For people who flee violence and conflict and seek refuge across borders, pain and suffering does not necessarily end once their destination is reached. According to IRIN, as many as 46,000 Somali refugees are living in Kenya with an “unclear legal status.” (The Refugee Consortium of Kenya puts this number around 100,000.) For all intents and purposes, a refugee with an “unclear legal status” translates into “illegal”:

“Urban refugees live largely without material assistance or legal protection, leaving them vulnerable to police arrest at any time, and face high levels of xenophobia from the local population,” Okoro [from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] said. “The challenges faced by urban refugees in Kenya falls within the broader issue of the ‘hidden’ urban humanitarian challenges.

“Confusion over the processing of legal status for urban refugees and fear of deportation is exposing more than 40,000 urban refugees to serious humanitarian challenges with significant protection issues,” she said. “Responding to protection issues for urban refugees is a challenge without a clearer and better plan for implementing legal status for urban refugees.”

“Illegal” refugees – as they are sometimes mistakenly called – cannot avail themselves of their legal rights as refugees, nor can they access educational or employment opportunities without risk of alerting the authorities. Another IRIN report from last week quotes the Kenyan commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration:

“The government has a duty to provide protection to refugees and this involves provision of shelter, food, health and medical care and education,” said Peter Kusimba, commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons. “These, however, are only provided to refugees with legal immigrant status or are mandated by the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] to be in the camps.

“It would, however, be difficult to provide services to unregistered urban refugees because they wouldn’t come out for fear of arrest but we encourage them to come and apply for legal immigrant status so that they receive these services like everybody else,” he added.

Yes, I’m sure that the process of applying for legal immigrant status is simple, straight-forward and focused on protecting individuals…No wonder so many refugees linger in legal limbo.

Weekend Reading

Working from home has its perks: I can enjoy poorly attended yoga classes in the middle of the day, I have time to cook complicated, delicious meals and I can hang out in PJs all day (joking. maybe). But the greatest thing about working from home is that I can indulge in some serious internet browsing, and have the leisure of reading longer pieces that I would have bookmarked for “weekend reading” (yeah right) if I had a 9-5 job. The three links below are not particularly long pieces, but the writers offer complex points of view that deserve the reader’s full attention. So, for your weekend reading, here are my suggestions:

1. Ill Fares the Land (NY Review of Books) In this excerpt from the first chapter of his new book, Tony Judt talks about the need for the political left to retreat from its “irresponsible rhetorical grandstanding of decades past,” and actually tackle the social, political and economic issues that are “corroding” our societies. Judt writes:

“If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: “we” know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?”

Judt’s views don’t appear extreme or shrill. I often read blog posts and articles by American liberals on the left of the political spectrum, and sometimes I find myself uncomfortable with their tone or approach. Judt seems to strike a good balance. He writes about the need to figure out what it is that we want and require from the state; he argues that the American tendency to be fearful of government intervention is a red herring that must be overcome:

“Critics who claim that the European model is too expensive or economically inefficient have been allowed to pass unchallenged. And yet, the welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidized education, or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services.”

He goes on to mention how we are so attuned to the reality of conspicuous wealth, but how we have a hard time understanding poverty. Mentioning the growing inequality gap within the United States and the UK, Judt writes: “the legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed.”

I really recommend you check it out – it’s not often that a writer transcends day-to-day politics to discuss the deeper questions. It’s risky, because often these pieces are boring. But, at least in this excerpt, Judt’s engaging and dynamic style made for a pleasant, thought-provoking read.

2. What the ICC Review Conference Can’t Fix (African Arguments) In this piece, Adam Branch offers a rather scathing critique of the International Criminal Court and what he views as its shortcomings. He argues that the ICC’s “accommodation” of political power diminishes its value as an instrument of global justice. Branch mentions several examples of how the ICC is bending to politics; by only investigating (select) cases in Africa and ignoring severe breaches in international law elsewhere (particularly when perpetrated by the U.S.).

Branch writes:

“For those who argue that some justice is better than no justice, the ICC’s accommodation to power is not a bad thing but rather simply the constitutive condition for the partial but genuine justice of the ICC. In the same way, according to those espousing the evolutionary narrative, Allied victory in WWII provided the constitutive condition for the partial but genuine justice of the Nuremburg trials.”

I suppose I am one of those who “espouses the evolutionary narrative,” because I do believe that the ICC’s current accommodation of political power is part of the court’s “coming of age.” I’m currently reading a book entitled “The Sun Climbs Slow“, by Erna Paris, in which the history and the politics of the ICC are examined from an “evolutionary” perspective. I can understand that supporters of international justice feel that the ICC isn’t going far enough, that it isn’t fulfilling its mandate in its current form. As a firm believer in a strong international legal system, I agree that the ICC’s limited scope and its political wranglings take away from the institution as a whole.

However, I think that we are quick to forget that the very concept of human rights didn’t exist in international law until after World War II, and that subsequent treaties defining the laws of war, prohibiting torture and human trafficking, giving specific rights to women, children, refugees, etc — are all relatively new. It will take time for these concepts to really take hold, and it will take time for the ICC to become the instrument of global justice it purports to be.

I understand where Branch is coming from, and I share a lot of his frustrations. However, I think that we shouldn’t be further undermining the status of the ICC by criticizing it for things it cannot avoid; like having to give in to power politics. The fact that the U.S. has been actively undermining the ICC and its mandate is also an issue which Branch doesn’t address, but that most ICC supporters know is a serious hurdle and restricts the Court’s ability.

Another issue which Branch raises is the “monopolization of the language of global justice in Africa”. He makes valid, interesting points on the subject, noting that the ICC’s restrictive understanding and definition of justice/injustice contributes to the impoverishment “the radical and emancipatory language of global justice.” Here again, I think that we must take an evolutionary perspective – the court has only existed for less than a decade, has been dealing with serious political hurdles, and has been endowed with a very unpopular chief prosecutor.

Branch’s article is nonetheless a great read. The fact that these criticisms come from someone who clearly believes in the need for strong institutions of global justice makes the piece very compelling.

3. Of Men and Monsters (New Statesman) Another book excerpt, this time from Terry Eagleton’s upcoming book, “On Evil”. @MsAmaka recommended this piece, asking if some people were really born evil. I thought “Of Men and Monsters” was interesting because it gives the reader the opportunity to question our own beliefs about good and evil. Eagleton offers some theories and ideas, but does not home in on one point of view, allowing us to use his piece as a starting point for reflection.

Drawing from the example of the murder of a toddler by two ten-year-olds who were subsequently described as “evil” by a police officer involved in the case, Eagleton explores the complex notion of “evil” in the modern world. He argues that by detaching evil from human nature, and making it into something incomprehensible that human beings have no agency over, we are actually letting evil-doers “off the hook.” If evil is a condition that afflicts, as opposed to a fundamental part of our nature, then people who do terrible things are not responsible for their actions. He writes:

“The word “evil” is generally a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist in the solar plexus. Either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them.”

On the other hand, though, if evil is an intrinsic part of human nature, Eagleton argues that we can wrap our minds around the concept:

“Maybe [evil-doers] are somehow opting for what they already are, like Sartre’s waiter playing at being a waiter. Maybe they are simply coming out of the moral closet, rather than assuming an entirely new identity.”

Eagleton also tackles the notion that evil suggests a lack of socialization, and that evil people are not bound by the morality that the rest of us are – “Better a monster than a machine.” He continues, though, explaining that being responsible and being influenced by the world around us is not a property of being or doing good.

He argues that human beings are a product of the social influences they are exposed to, but that this doesn’t mean we are irresponsible for our behavior: “To be responsible is not to be bereft of social influences, but to relate to such influences in a particular way. It is to be more than just a puppet of them. “Monster” in some ancient thought meant, among other things, a creature that was wholly independent of others.”

Many people have reflected on the atrocities of the 20th century, and attempted to make sense of “evil” that characterized the unspeakable acts committed during violent conflict. Much has been written about how regular people perpetrated horror under “evil” regimes: the Nazis, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc. What is most salient for me, though, are the efforts at understanding what happened during the Rwandan genocide, when neighbors and co-workers became indiscriminate killers. What “triggered” (if anything) the capacity of thousands of otherwise normal people to kill on such a large scale?

These are really difficult questions, and I don’t believe that Eagleton (or anyone else, for that matter) can really, truly, get to the bottom of it. Personally, I think that human nature is made up of both good and evil forces, and that part of being human is to contend with these two contradictory forces. I don’t believe that we are either intrinsically “good” or “evil;” both of these forces exist within each person, and as autonomous agents, we are able to control and nurture these instincts.

The German Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, wrote about the “banality of evil.” Referring to the Holocaust, Arendt defends the idea that atrocities are committed by regular people, not psychopathic evil-doers. Perhaps what’s most disturbing in thinking about evil is that we all know we have the capacity to consciously take part in malevolent actions…

E-Z charity

In the last month since the earthquake struck the capital of Haiti, we’ve been bearing witness to an incredible outpouring of generosity: from individuals to corporations, from governments to celebrities, the world has been falling over itself in an attempt to lend a hand to Haiti. I’ve found some African examples interesting: for instance, Liberia – apparently – is giving $50,000 to Haiti, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has donated $2.5 million. Senegal, meanwhile, has offered to give land to Haitians wishing to resettle there.

As of February 3rd, the Chronicles of Philanthropy reported that contributions from Americans had already reached $644 million. Canadians contributed $113 million (CAD), with their federal government matching funds for every donation made until February 12th. Private contributions in France were less significant (64 million euros donated to charity in the last month), but given the fact that French people are typically reluctant to donate to charity because of the lack of tax incentive, it’s still relatively impressive (note that French people gave 95 million euros in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.) Check out this table, courtesy of @MoogieJo, for a breakdown of donations by country and a comprehensive overview of who gave to which organization and for what purpose.

The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has thus far raised $30 million, which is a really impressive number, especially given the slump that all charitable organizations went through since the financial crisis began in earnest in September 2008. A person who works very closely with the Clinton Bush Fund told me recently that these funds were being donated to 23 reputable organizations in Haiti, including Partners in Health, Save the Children or Habitat for Humanity. He noted, however, that they were hoping to save a lot of these funds for long-term investments in health, education, and economic empowerment, and not allocate all $30 million to emergency needs. Indeed, while Haiti needs a lot of help right now, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, as many, many have observed, the real challenge will be to assist Haitians in (re)building their country’s infrastructure, improving social and basic services and expanding access to jobs and economic opportunities.

Going back to the spreadsheet linked above, it is easy to see that the more long-term concerns are the most difficult to fund. If we rank categories by amount of funding available, we see that food is by far the m0st-well endowed, with $117 million. (By comparison, human rights/rule of law activities only garnered $6 million.)

Meanwhile, however, some emerging trends in giving have caught my attention, and have caused wincing among many a development blogger. Or, more accurately, trends in giving that don’t always reach the MSM or the public consciousness have been given attention as of late. First, is all of the efforts to send used things to Haiti: used shoes, used yoga mats, breast milk, infant formula, blankets, used shoes, and more used shoes. I don’t understand why so many (well-intentioned, surely) people think that shoes are what people in Haiti need… I think part of the answer lies in the fact that people are far more likely to give when they can see (or think they see) a causal relationship between their donation and the need on the ground. So, for instance, giving a pair of shoes to someone who undoubtedly lost at least a pair of shoes seems like a good idea. Given that a huge majority of people do not work for humanitarian agencies, development organizations or aren’t privy to the intricacies of appropriate, relevant aid, it’s not very surprising to see so many misguided good intentions.

Also worth noting here is the desire to help Haiti’s “orphans”. I’m using quotation marks, because our concept of what an orphan is does not necessarily match the reality of what it means when a child loses his or her parents in other countries. From experience working with Liberian abandoned children and “orphans”, I know that determining who the best care taker is for a (seemingly) parentless child is no easy task. The story of the 10 American baptists charged with accusations of child trafficking in Haiti is a seething example of good intentions gone wrong. I really believe that this group – similarly to people donating shoes, blankets or breast milk – had the best of intentions.

Third, natural disasters are conducive to mobilizing public and private resources and generate sympathy, empathy or pity. As I mentioned above, when the need seems obvious (medicine, food, blankets, medicine, shoes (?)), people have an easier time loosening their purse strings than when they are asked to contribute to an effort which has a subjective dimension. Haiti is not a newly poor country – it’s been lagging behind every country in the Western hemisphere for decades, and the plight of its people is nothing new. However, prior to the earthquake, no one seemed to care too much about the future of Haiti. What’s interesting to me is that people across the world all of a sudden paid attention to Haitians – the same people they probably knew nothing about, or simply didn’t think about, until January 12th 2010.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, mud slides, hurricanes: these events have an objective quality about them which makes giving much easier than say, giving to an organization that works to help small holder farmers access new markets. To a certain extent, donors need to “buy in” to the notion that a) small holder farmers are a sector of the economy worth supporting, that b) assisting them in accessing new markets is the most effective way of helping them and that c) the organization they are donating to knows what they’re doing. That’s a far, far cry from the need for antibiotics and morphine for people wounded in the earthquake: there is no philosophical question here, just a very objective need for a very specific item.

The other dimension to this is that donors are much more likely to give after a natural disaster than after the end of a civil conflict, for example. In speaking with both aid and development professionals and non-industry people about this, it seems that it’s much more difficult to encourage generosity when the cause of a disaster is not natural. It’s very uncomfortable – for me, at least – to think that outside of natural disasters, there is a (seldom acknowledged but existing) belief that poor people brought poverty upon themselves, that they are guilty of their circumstances, while natural disasters are indiscriminate and are – truly – nobody’s fault. This means that contributing to emergency relief efforts in the aftermath of an earthquake is much easier, much less political of an issue than contributing to the same efforts in the aftermath of a violent conflict.

I like to think of these instances of “good intentions gone bad” as issues of “E-Z charity” – at the heart of the problem, is the well-meaning donor’s lack of understanding of people’s needs and the implicit notion that giving to a survivors of natural disasters are somehow more worthy of our resources than survivors of violence or conflict.

One of the reasons I was moved to blog about the issue of E-Z charity was after a trip to the grocery store the other day. At the check-out counter, while waiting for my transaction to process, I saw that there were two transparent plastic donation boxes, where people could drop loose change. One was for Haiti relief operations, and the other for an organization taking care of children with disabilities in Ontario. The former was full – to the brim – and the other stood with about three coins, or approximately 50 cents in change. I jokingly told the cashier: “I guess no one cares about the disabled kids anymore!”, and she told me that she put the three coins in there, because she felt badly that no one (not.a.single.person) gave to that cause. I mentioned survivors of violence and conflict above, as well as more subjective causes such as supporting small-holder farmers or other economic empowerment initiatives – however, I found it truly unsettling that a local organization working with children with disabilities (not a particularly controversial cause!)  didn’t generate as much empathy or generosity as Haiti.

It’s difficult to blame individuals, however, given that the mainstream media coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake was a 24/7 mishmash of confused, sensationalized images and stories. We rarely see 20 minute segments about disabled children on the evening news, and CNN’s Situation Room wonks usually don’t spend their time discussing the issues associated with  the world’s leading fatal illnesses for children: diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria.

People’s willingness to give and their generosity is, objectively, a good thing. It reminds me that we do care about one another, to a certain extent, that we do feel empathy for those less fortunate – if we only we could use this opportunity to create a new culture of giving. But as my two donation box example mentioned above shows, we’re a long way away from making text message donations and adding a dollar to your grocery bill mainstream, regular activities.

Final thoughts on Vice

Not that I mean to dwell on this, because it’s not worth indulging their sense of grandeur, but the “Vice Guide to Liberia” received a couple more responses that I think are worth sharing here.

First is Myles Estey’s response – he was the co-producer/fixer/field producer for the documentary. He blogs over at Esteyonage – check out his latest post and his reaction.

Second is Sean’s hilarious “letter of admiration” on his blog Journey without Maps. I’m loving the snark and utter sarcasm – really, a perfectly crafted response to Shane Smith and his Vice-rs.

A lot of people commented on my previous post – an open letter to Shane Smith – and the only negative comments were those of people who are very clearly Vice fans and who claim that my childlike reaction proved that I didn’t “get the point”. Well, fair enough. Perhaps this isn’t meant to be a serious investigative documentary about Liberia, and perhaps all of us who care about Liberia overreacted. But when you work day in and day out with people who are trying to shed years of violence and war and move forward, it feels like a huge set back when a widely-viewed documentary portrays the worst aspects, the most vile of situations and attempts to frame it as “reality”. Anyway — enough disgruntlement. Moving right along….