Today is Blog Action Day, a day when bloggers worldwide speak as one voice around a single topic. The topic this year is food. There are many angles from which to write about food – from cuisine to nutrition to farming and more. I’ve experienced firsthand the complexity of food security while in the Peace Corps in Niger. The media portray the famines in Niger and other parts of Africa with images of starving children, distended bellies, and flies swarming around swollen eyes. This imagery produces a heart-wrenching gasp from the viewer, but does little to bridge the cultural gap in understanding how food scarcity and food security are two different yet interconnected issues. If our only response is to descend on famine zones with food aid during times of crisis, we will achieve little success long-term. Food security means preparing for the worst during the best of times and establishing an infrastructure to buffer farmers from the impact of poor crop yields and from each other – specifically the income disparity and power differential that occurs when local merchants have financial reserves to buy large quantities of the harvest when prices are cheap, only to sell grain back to the community during the “hunger season” at many times the original price. The ROI for these merchants is huge, and the loss to society is even greater. This dynamic perpetuates a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger.
From 2007 to 2008, I worked with a women’s cooperative in the village of Tonokossare, in the Dosso region of Niger, to develop a grain bank – a cement structure to house grain contributed by the cooperative and be sold back at a less-than-market-value price when grain is scarce. Through Peace Corps Partnership, I raised the funds from friends and family to build the structure, pay for a skilled mason and a small group of apprentices, train the cooperative in grain bank management, organic fertilizer cultivation and application, and to purchase sacks of grain to match the donations from the women themselves (around one sack of corn per family). All of this took about a year to complete, for building the cement structure and purchasing the grain is the easy part. The hard
part is educating villagers on how to build an organization that has staying power, financial viability, and all the elements of good management, while still being culturally appropriate. In other words, my role as a Peace Corps volunteer was not to be a development agent; rather, I awoke every day as a cross-cultural bridge builder.
One of the key problems with international development, particularly food aid, today is that few organizations create programs for the long haul. Sustainable development means
living at the village level during good times and bad, listening more than talking, and embarking on a project only when you can envision its life cycle. This work is not about building things, nor is it even about teaching. Success depends upon compassionate listening and slow but steady action towards a goal that surpasses a single lifetime: Stewardship and Balance.
From Psalm 104.14:
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
And plants for people to use,
To bring forth food from the earth…