Seeds and Ideas: Food as a method in development practice

Where do ideas come from? is the fundamental question we address in this ‘Thought for Food’ publication by Hivos and Oxfam. We explore how new ideas that exist outside the mainstream discussions about development can be brought into its narrative and influence its course. And how food in general, and agricultural biodiversity in particular, can help facilitate this process.

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Download here:

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Haider & van Oudenhoven 2015.

You can download the pdf here. We hope it’s of interest! And here’s a short summary

1. How do endogenous ideas emerge?

Drawing from an exchange between Nietzsche and Foucault, we argue that norms, behaviours, actions and ideas become established when the serve a certain purpose, when they are useful. The purpose, and therefore the utility, lies in the eye of the beholder. In a development context, problems are defined by external agencies and responses designed as one-liners: poverty alleviation, market development, combatting malnutrition. From this perspective, the utility of field lies in its productive function (to combat malnutrition for example). To a local cook and farmer, the utility of the field is broader still. We draw on the example of lashak mack (rye pea field), and the soup  that is made of it in the Pamir Mountains.

To the Pamiri cook and farmer, the function of lashak-makh is broader still. They use the harvest from these fields to make a flour called hazorza, which means ‘mix of a thousand’. The crops are not separated, but harvested and milled together, and the hazorza flour is used to make bread or a nutritious noodle soup called osh, which is rich in protein and energy and has a cooling quality when working the fields in summer. Many kinds of osh exist, made with different mixed flours that come from different combinations of crops grown at different altitudes, and many songs and poems are recited about Osh. The soup and the cultivation system are interlinked; the agronomic utility of the cultivation system is connected to the nutritional and cultural utility of hazorza and osh, and strengthened by it.

Many (agri)cultural norms and practices have functions that are not readily apparent. Is it possible to know which knowledge, practice or idea that seems irrelevant now will be useful at some future point in time? And if it is possible, who are the people to decide on what practices should remain and which ones could go? Who decides on change?

We bring in a few more examples of how introduced seed varieties can become ends in and of themselves, especially when so much scientific legitimacy stands behind the improved varieties. To move the locus of power from outside organisations to people and communities who receive development assistance means, firstly, to shift the responsibility of who defines problems and solutions to those very people and communities. The ‘inevitable gap’ becomes less inevitable when the perspective on development is derived more from within, becomes more endogenous. Food may be one way to achieve this.

Food as a Method Part 1: Food is intimate and unimposing, it is a common vocabulary and it is simple but not simplistic.

During the course of our work in the Pamirs, ‘food’ proved to be a useful tool to break down or at least circumvent power relationships and help gain a deeper understanding of this place and its culture. With ‘food’ we simply mean the act of cultivating and preparing food, of eating together and speaking and thinking about it. But the experience of working on a book by no means proves that this tool would necessarily be useful in other hands or for the exploration of other questions in different cultures. Would it be something that is useful for development practitioners for their work in agricultural communities? Would redefining and redirecting development efforts around food (in its broadest sense) be meaningful? We will explore a number of qualities of food that suggest it might.

2. In autonomous spaces, where do ideas come from?

Through listening and trying to learn these skills from farmers, mothers and shepherds, our conversations with them created a space where we could speak as equals. Where power relations, if not absent, were less apparent than if we had been there as researchers or development workers. This, we felt, was a space far away from the ‘problems and solutions’ defined by the outside world of development, a relatively endogenous space in which people could speak freely and ideas could emerge. And often they did.

At times, however, we were struck by people’s seeming lack of endogenous ideas about their future; a lack of initiative in changing things that weren’t working, or protecting things people were proud of. Where were those ideas and where had the energy gone? A strange contradiction in a conversation with a wealthy shepherd in the Wakhan valley of Afghanistan suggested we ought to look at power in yet a different, more subtle way.

Food as a Method Part 2: to excavate memories and inspire ideas. Food is evocative, tangible, requires action and is a vessel of values fundamental to identify.

Food is a vessel of many things. It is not by accident that preparing it evokes memories and ideas that are otherwise buried. Using food as a method helps create a space in which novel ideas emerge and can be expressed, and where old ideas can be excavated, dusted off and become part of an endogenous perspective on development. The question that remains is how, once ‘small’ local ideas emerge, they can take root and thrive alongside or in competition with more powerful ones.

3. How do ideas take root?

To cook food with people and to eat together from a shared dish allows us to understand ideas and solutions for rural development practice as springing from the relationship between people, their communities and their landscape. Just as plants and animals are part of an ecological system, and seeds need to be understood in the agricultural system of which they are a part, ideas about food and the development of agricultural landscapes need to be understood in relation to, and as a result of, other ideas and the people who carry them. This way of understanding how ideas interact has been called an ‘ecology of ideas’ (Bateson, 1972).

In such as an ecology, as an idea becomes established, it increasingly connects to other ideas until, eventually, the idea becomes crucial to the survival of the system as a whole. Throughout this paper we have discussed some of the ideas that Pamiri farmers shared with us about their future: raising their children to maintain a connection to their land and traditional livelihoods, growing grains and pulses together in lashak-makh fields, using food and local plants for medicine. In other words seeking and adopting a type of development that does not destroy important local and traditional values. But if these ideas find no soil, no social or institutional network into which they can be incorporated and nourished, they cannot flourish and survive. Ideas are not singular entities and cannot exist as such; they need a support structure, or an ecology of which they become a part.

The reason that, viewed from the perspective of an ‘ecology of ideas’, food has such evocative power, and that phrasing ideas in the language of food may help them spread and gain relevance, is that food touches on most elements that make up daily life: health, livelihood, agriculture, science, spirituality, trade. The more such linkages are allowed to persist, the more these elements remain seen as integral parts of the food system, and the greater the power of food to help new ideas connect to an existing ecology and take root.

3. IMG_4233

Lashak-makh. A field of rye, barley, pea, grass pea, lentil and faba bean. A mess, traditional ecological knowledge, or something else? Photo by F. van Oudenhoven.

Yet unfortunately this is not usually the way development programmes introduce their ideas (or their seeds). The way in which the organisations and donors behind these programmes are organised requires that the building blocks of human life be compartmentalised into sectors that can be managed within the framework of projects: productivity, income generation, health, culture, thereby severing the same linkages that make food such a holistic and overarching concept. Imagine how an improved seed variety, designed for monoculture, would fare in the colourful chaos of a field of lashak-makh? It would not survive its difficult soils without a substantial dose of fertiliser, or competition from other plants without the use of herbicides. The agricultural system must change if the newly introduced seed is to succeed; it must be compartmentalised. And so the seed becomes divorced from the soil and the traditional practices that connect farming and communities, such as seed saving and selection. It will no longer have its place in prayer, in food and in social networks of exchange—the very things that give a local seed its relevance and that enable it to adapt to changes in its environment and culture.

The same risk exists for ideas. Let’s return one last time to the dichotomy between ideas as singular monuments and ideas as networks and interactions. Even though external ideas are part of networks as much as local ideas are, we have in this paper pictured them as more ‘monumental,’ as one-liner solutions to problems whose conception often occurred elsewhere. In many ways they are more monumental—and they take root as a plant’s taproot might: central, singular, and straight. In being monumental and more rigid, they are less able to adapt to a new home, and less sensitive to it.

In contrast, what we have called endogenous, or local ideas, are the ideas that spring from everyday processes of innovation and learning; the way a farmer learns when working her fields. Having no one source or origin, and, perhaps, also no fixed goal or direction, they evolve and adapt when faced with something unknown, drawing on a reservoir of related ideas, whether prayer, technical knowledge or folklore.

We do not argue that all ‘small’ local ideas are good and all external ‘big’ ideas are bad. Both are needed, but they need to be able to interact on a more equal level. It is in facilitating such interactions, through engagement and experimentation, through the collective interrogation of ideas, and through being modest about introduced ideas and judging them against the wisdom of ancestral knowledge present in the places where they work, that we argue development organisations have a very positive role to play.

How worried should we be about the growing population of Afghanistan?

I am not really on top of the latest news, in fact, I’m usually a week behind since I like to slowly digest The Guardian Weekly (which arrives sometime between Monday-Wednesday in Stockholm rather than Saturday)…. But a friend recently introduced me to the idea of slow news, so here is my hand at that.

A trend I’ve picked up in the past months which worries me are the interconnected stories of Afghanistan’s and specifically Kabul’s growing population.

Kabul is one of the world’s 5th fastest growing cities says this article from Dec 11. 

Though exact data is impossible to obtain (the last official census was conducted in 1979), Kabul is estimated to be the fifth fastest growing city in the world, with a population which has ballooned from approximately 1.5 million in 2001 to around 6 million people now. The rapid urbanisation is taking a heavy toll on a city originally designed for around 700,000 people. An estimated 70% of Kabul’s residents live in informal or illegal settlements.

Kabul’s economy is primarily driven by illicit business, such as opium trade, which hit an all time high last year. Having seen slums amidst ‘poppy palaces’ this hits home hard!

And following the Peshawar massacre, Afghans have taken some of the blame and are being driven out from homes they’ve lived in for decades, as described in this Feb 7 article.

Pakistan is home to at least 1 million Afghans without official documents, who are exposed to the risk of sudden eviction. Another 1.7 million Afghans are registered refugees in Pakistan. The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has announced plans to expel all undocumented Afghans from the province. The authorities did the same in 2012, but backed down after international pressure.

More recently, this has been fuelled by the outcry against Sharbat Gula, the woman behind the iconic National Geographic photograph, who illegally obtained a highly sought after Pakistani ID card.

I worry about what this means for the safety and security of the 5 million people living in Kabul beyond its capacity (population of 6 million in a city designed for 700,000, with an estimated growth to 8 million in coming years), with a strengthening insurgency in many of the rural areas, and growing hostility from Pakistani neighbours. I worry what discontented and poverty stricken homeless million in Kabul means for ISIS recruitment which is on the rise in Afghanistan. 

Most of all, I wonder why our governments spent billions of dollars on the war without thinking of its effects. Like ensuring that a few urban planners were hired?

But to end with some encouraging news following women’s day: Afghan men wearing Burqa’s in solidarity for women’s rights in the streets of Kabul.

Food Futures: Correction to my blog on SIANI

A few weeks ago I wrote this blog for SIANI about food. It’s a story of how our book “With our hands: A celebration of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs” came to be, and why we think it’s important both for the preservation of beautiful cultural traditions in the Pamir Mountains, and also globally important for social-ecological response diversity.

Link to SIANI blog

Link to SIANI blog

The point if this current blog is to make a correction: A Pamiri friend who read the SIANI blog quickly pointed out that Pamiri people are not ashamed of their food, but that it is a much more complex story than that. Of course she is absolutely right and the last thing I would ever want is to misrepresent that. The blog has now been corrected, and here is a more detailed explanation of my own interpretation of ‘ashamed’ as an outsider to the Pamirs.

This Pamiri friend explained that she loves Osh, it’s her favourite food. But that her mother made it only occasionally because it takes a long time to prepare. Many women in the Pamirs work full time jobs, are more than full time mothers, often supporting their parents, or the parents of their husbands, and very often other extended family. Pamiri women are truly superwomen. And it’s very to me to not misrepresent this.

So, using the word “ashamed”, was absolutely the wrong one! However, I think the original rationale behind it is important. Pamiri people, we found, did not like to prepare traditional food for foreigners. They rather prepared modern Russian dishes, with meat preferably, which is a sign of wealth. This is of course not at all unique to the Pamirs. My own grandmother in Austria would never dream of serving a guest a meal without meat, even if she prepares ‘simple’ local vegetarian food regularly for herself. A second anecdote which informed my use of the word ashamed includes Pamiri peoples “second flour.” Many Pamiri households have at least two kinds of flour. The first flour, is (now usually bought) white flour usually from Kazakhstan. The second flour, is a locally milled mixed flour which is much darker in colour and much more nutritious (as it’s often mixed with legumes). Again as a guest, we would only ever be served the bread of the first flour, unless explicitly asking for the second, when it was only brought out with confused and shy manners. No restaurant in the main Pamiri city of Khorog sells local food (with the exception of one seasonal summer dish, and one thermos full of Osh at the local market!), because it is presumed that people will not buy it.

As a final note, an outsider’s perspective will never be complete or wholly representative, no matter how thorough we have tried to be. After three years of work and constant conservation with Pamiris themselves, I am hoping we are not doing the Pamirs a disservice! Dialogue is the way to get through this, so I am extremely grateful for the correction!

What would you do with this rock?

We recently had a ‘Stockholm Resilience Centre’ Marathon, where we spent a day learning about each others’ research. It was an incredible day, at the ethnographic museum in Stockholm. Our instruction was to NOT use powerpoint. So we had role plays, songs and videos… and our group, the Landscapes Theme (because our centre is based around cross-cutting research themes) presented objects. Mine was a rock. And here is my 1 minute blurb:

What would you do with this rock? What productive function would this rock have to you?

In the high desert steppe Pamir mountains of Central Asia,  people make soil from rocks. With their own hands, they break the rocks with hammers, dynamite or other, bigger rocks, until they can throw them off their land and build a stone wall with them.  They then flood this field, once, twice, three times, usually over three seasons with the silt-laden water of the Amu Darya. After three years, they may have a mulch that is just good enough to grow some fruit trees, or if the silty flood is particularly rich, perhaps even some grains.

This landscape, is barren, difficult and desolate. One might even ask why anyone decided to live here. Increasing population and severe food production restrictions indeed beg the question why anyone still lives here at all. And it’s true, living here is difficult. But the life that does grow, is unique and astoundingly resilient. Drought resistant crop varieties, endemic fruit varieties prosper in micro-niches and the food tastes so much better.


Afghan farmer in the Wakhan Corridor clearing his land of large rocks. 3 seasons from now he may use this field of rocky mulch to grow fruit trees, or even grains. August 2011 (r) Jamila Haider

A scientist might look at this landscape and see only limits that must be overcome with technocratic solutions. But let’s take for a moment the perspective of the people who live in this valley; who have co-evolved with this landscape for thousands of years. This spirit and courage is ever present in the Afghan farmers who work hard on their land, as in this photo here where rocks are cleared before being smashed to mulch.

Just on the other side of the river, this spirit of ingenuity has been all but lost. Replaced by modernization schemes, Tajik farmers will tell us that they have forgotten how to work the land.

Monumental efforts have been made to overcome these barriers, first the Soviets, and then development organisations have tried: fertilizer inputs, massive irrigation schemes, riparian stabilization, improved crop varieties.

But most do not work. The fields are too high, the soil to difficult. People are incredibly poor with some of the worst human well-being indicators in the world. Traditional development has failed. Efforts to increase food production have in fact done the opposite. Improved wheat varieties have failed after 1 or 2 seasons, depleting the soils which cannot fallow, or not withstanding drought. These interventions have done little more than create new traps, dependency on a state (the Soviets were for a while flying in fodder), or development organizations introducing seeds that requires fertilizers. How can we regain the resilience of this landscape based on the ingenuity of the farmers and break the dependency trap?

Beyond the Arab Spring: Public protest in authoritarian states

Central Asian countries do not generally attract much attention in the global media. So when minorities in Tajikistan stand up against military occupation, or miners strike in Kazakstan, or Kyrgyz stage their characteristic political protests, the global media generally fails to take notice.  Partially because nobody seems to care enough to listen, but also because the protests themselves are often so suppressed they hardly bear significance to report. In general, Central Asia espouses a sense of stability.

I would certainly not go so far as to say Central Asia is ‘stable,’ as seen in previous posts, Central Asian states have been names among the least free, and recent events indicate growing civil unrest. Rightfully, some people have begun to question what kind of resistance civil society in Central Asia puts up against their autocratic leaders. Can the events of the Arab Spring, for example, be used to relate, or even predict protest dynamics in Central Asia? This was the central question at an event held October 26 by the Eurasia Forum in Stockholm, entitled: Beyond the Arab Spring- Public protest in authoritarian states.  The ‘timeliness’ of this discussion might be an indicator of how long it sometimes takes for Central Asia to creep up on any agenda.

Henrik Hallgren, chairman of the Eurasia Forum opened the discussion by drawing on demographic similarities between the regions: a highly educated (and relatively large) youth with few job prospects. In addition to authoritarian governments, a sense of nomenclature-suppression lingers. In Central Asia the focus has been on economic liberalization (marginally successful in the richer states such as Kazakhstan), but what about political liberalization?

There are strong impediments to social protest argues Andrea Schmitz of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs:

  1. Violence; the expectation of violence as a protest tool.
  2. Repression; by (often) illegitimate and patrimonial government authority.
  3. Fragmentation; geographical, social and cultural between and within countries.

Two interrelated aspects to look at here: first, the effects of decades of past and current suppression and second, the lack of common narratives. Visions remain sporadic, and ad-hoc. What role might social media play in developing such narratives? The 2011 protests in Kyrgyzstan were afterall known as the ‘Twitter revolution.’  If the Arab Spring was an ICT (information and communications technology) revolution, then what can we expect from Central Asia asks Schmitz’ colleague, Alexander Wolters.

Central Asia has among the lowest broadband subscribers in the world (less than 1/100 people). Even with this low coverage, the first thing the government do when a protest breaks out is clamp down on social media. News networks, facebook, youtube are periodically shut down. Internet coverage in Khorog was out for nearly a month this summer during the protests.

This brings up the question for me: where is the tipping point, and is it identifiable? Are there such things as ‘early warning’ signals? When do ad-hoc discussions become forces for change? Which match might ignite a revolution? Along with many friends and colleagues over the summer I participated actively in an information campaign in Tajikistan which aimed to a) uphold basic human rights of Tajik citizens isolated in Gorno Badakshan through military means, and b) to help make news available other than what the government was reporting. Hundreds of people spent days sharing information about loved ones and decrying the actions of the government on facebook and twitter. Many of us who had access to internet were reporting what we could from limited contact over satellite phones or other means. What makes one ICT protest tip into a movement so large in overthrows governments, while the other remains unknown to most of the world? Is it the number of deaths?  The number of tweets?

There wasn’t much by way of conclusion as to what we might expect with regards to protests in authoritarian Central Asian states, other than that there are a number of demographic similarities.  What is clear however, is that there is a space to be claimed in an ICT revolution. The question for me remains, how do we know where that representative civil society is? Technocratic middle class in Kazakhstan? Grassroots Islamic groups? Ethnic minorities?

Who will claim the ‘new public space’?

The Plastic Road

The Pamirs are a conflicting place to write about. In the midst of writing Bo dastoni khud – With our hands” A book of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs, we are constantly challenged with juxtapositions, cyclical arguments of market capitalism vs. traditional barter/trade and what Pamiri autonomy looks like.

Myrto Papadopoulos’s photo/film project “The New Plastic Road” portrays the Pamirs as a melancholic place. Her photos tell a story of isolation, despair and vulnerability. This is, certainly, one side of the Pamiri story. A people whose dependency on external input was only strengthened during the Soviet era, now depends almost solely on remittances from Russia, while still trying to rebuild after a violent civil war. Perhaps as scarce as the landscape, is imagination and motivation to pursue a common vision for the future.

But there is another story; one which I think is more representative of the rich nature and culture of the region. The semi-arid steppe ecosystem is a place of scarcity, no doubt, but it is also the very scarcity of the place, which has shaped the rich culture and diversity, with hundreds of apricot and apple varieties, endemic pears, a beautiful mixture of grains, and of course mulberries, a Pamiri staple. Below are a few images which I think tell a story of richness and community, rather than scarcity and isolation. Perhaps through building on hope and pride in Pamiri Culture, we imagine a road other that a Plastic one.

Our new economy (22 years ago); and a look to the future through food

“There is a principle specific to environmental ecology which states that everything is possible–the worst catastrophes, or the smoothest developments.”

I just returned from a self-imposed ‘writing recluse’ with my co-author for the little book Bo dastoni khud – With our hands: A book of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs.  There, in a lovely Swedish summerhouse on the Baltic Sea, I found the space to read a few long- overdue classics– including The Three Ecologies, by Guattari.

Guattari wrote this paper in 1989. This week, as I found myself in tightening thought circles writing about the apparent ingenuity gap of the Pamir people after the fall of the Soviet Union, I found myself in an even tighter circle thinking that Guattari wrote these words when I was two years old. And well, it was one of those slightly disconcerting moments where I was reminded that I’ve been spending my entire life trying to articulate thoughts which have already been succinctly and firmly stated before I could even speak.

Many of the discussions we have on the recession and economic growth are spent questioning alternative growth mechanisms within the current economic paradigm when Guattari stated 22 years ago that we should use “our expanded understanding of the whole range of ecological components to set in place new systems of value.” Guattari told us that Capitalism could be challenged, or at least made to incorporate methods of valorization based on existential production. He called for an active offensive, rather than a mere defence of nature. A future in which we fashion ethics appropriate to a future which is at once fascinating and terrifying. (Thank you to David Barry and others, who have recently opened a socially equitable, environmental community bank (E3 bank in the US) against all odds.)

Guattari blames much of the inaction on reductionism that necessarily accompanies the privileging of information which supplants story-telling. So, now, I am going on a bit of limb from my otherwise overly pragmatic self, and am writing a book based foremost on story-telling through which we hope to detract from the abstract, and focus on a memory with a strong sense of self and to form an identity to form a base from which to look forward to the future. The culture of food is a link from the past to the present and beyond. The question is how to maintain that culture—that sense of Pamiri-self—and move forwards. We hope our book creates such a bridge. To invoke memories of the past, record the present, and help provide a rich context for the future.

The question I’m currently tangled up in, is what the future of this region looks like to Pamiris? And what is their ability  to imagine the future, because perhaps even more severely than most, their memories have been eroded by history. In a time of transforming lifestyles and landscapes, our book presents food as a powerful lens through which to invoke visions of the future rooted in memories.

In a recent post in the Resilience Science Blog a quote from Andreas Hussyen’s book states

“At stake in the current history/memory debate is not only a disturbance of our notions of the past, but a fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures.”

Over the coming weeks, and months, I’ll be posting recipes, stories and photos here to give a taste of the coming book!

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