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.

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!

Sedative consumption of science

Limits, boundaries & thresholds. Real or constructed. Motive for action, or a power grab by elite scientists? The concept of planetary boundaries has become a somewhat heated polarized debate, which you can read more about from Victor Galaz on the Resilience Science blog,or Robert Pielke Jr’s blog, or Melissa Leach in the Huffington Post.

Erle C. Ellis wrote in the New York Times this week that ‘Overpopulation is Not the Problem.’ I am part of a global sustainability group, called the Balaton Group set up by Donella and Dennis Meadows (authors of Limits to Growth) in 1982 to discuss planetary issues in one of the few places where ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ scientists could meet in the 1980s, on the shores of lake Balaton. The op-ed by Ellis has sparked a lively debate amongst this heterogeneous group of scientists. We have our annual meeting later this week to discuss “Technology and Transformation—Meeting human and planetary needs.” I will present on Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability: Equity and sustainability in the governance of science, technology and innovation.

Many, on the planetary boundaries side, might say that this debate distracts from actually doing something about the challenges we face. On the other side, there is great discomfort about the top-down science that the concept of nonnegotiable boundaries promote.  I think the interesting challenge here is how can critical pluralism, as Andy Stirling calls it, lead to positive action? This seems to be the challenge we face: to maintain a diversity of alternative options in a democratic open space. We seem to be all too willing to give into the seduction of clean, clear boundaries that call for the change we ultimately all wish to see.

Ellis: “The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.”

Stirling: As knowledge can be power, so power tries to shape knowledge – including green knowledge. And few oppressions are more forceful than closure of imaginations. So, for all their seductive appeal; concentrated power, expert certainty and fallacies of control remain the oldest enemies. Despite pressing constraints, the great strength of green politics lies in its critical pluralism. This means hope-inspired democratic choice, not fear-driven technical compliance.

At a local scale, this is how I, with Frederik van Oudenhoven proposed igniting local imaginations for alternative futures:

We propose to “abandon the professed neutrality of pseudo-scientific paradigms in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

In a development context, in one that I know well, have a read of our article on how development organizations erode the very pathways they try to build, and the subjects of development become exactly that, subjected to development. So the real challenge in creating a sustainable future is to maintain diversity in imagination.

Afghanistan faces economic crisis following military withdrawal (Congressional Report)

As foreign governments prepare their exit from Afghanistan (as early as next month, with total withdrawal expected in 2014), the question is how Afghanistan’s government, its nearly non-existent economy and fragile social disposition could possibly persist… if that is even desirable.  Were US $ 18.8 bn sunk into development projects in vain?

“We’ve created a… wartime economy” that is a “huge distortion” of Afghanistan’s revenue production, US Senator John Kerry told The Washington Post.

The main issues highlighted in the Report (as summarized in this Financial Times Article) are:

  • Inflated local wages

The single most important thing the US could do, the report said, was to stop paying “inflated salaries” to Afghans working for foreign governments or international organisations, which were up to 10 times the market rate. This had “drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan government and created a culture of aid dependency”.

  • Dependence on foreign contractors

The two-year study described how misspent foreign aid fuels corruption and actually contributes to insecurity. It also criticised the excessive use and poor oversight of contractors. And although it provided examples of successful projects, it slammed the way that a measure of success is how quickly projects spend their funds.

  • Conflict areas are rewarded (to the point that some communities stage conflict to attract aid…)

One of the biggest criticisms of such spending is that it penalises peaceful districts and rewards violent ones. “The evidence that stabilisation programmes promote stability in Afghanistan is limited. Some research suggests the opposite,” the report said.

  • Development projects have  been largely counter productive

foreign aid – which accounts for 97 per cent of Afghanistan’s economy – could “fuel corruption, distort labour and goods markets” and undermine Kabul’s control over resources.

It seems major foreign powers are stuck in a Catch 22. To withdraw now, means handing over the country to terrorists.

… Ryan Crocker, the Obama administration’s nominee to become the new ambassador in Kabul, said the US could not afford to abandon Afghanistan and let it fall back into the hands of terrorists (FT).

But  according to the Congressional Report published yesterday, foreign military and aid efforts are doing a lot more damage than good. So if the US and others are here to stay, how can they modify their aid to actually contribute to the long term sustainable development of the country?

Development efforts in Afghanistan are not doomed to fail. There are plenty of successful examples of community-driven development in Afghanistan which have been operating for over a decade. Let’s focus on those, and rethink handing over bags of cash to provincial governors.

Conservation vs. Development

The age-old adage. Had an interesting discussion with a co-working about conservation in a development context. We were both frustratingly wondering how to promote the idea of conservation in a community struggling to survive. Obviously I don’t have the answer to this question, but from what I’ve observed, there aren’t too many options.
The bridge between policy and conservation science is key. No matter what the communities attitudes are towards conservation, without a solid policy framework, not much conservation can take place. My observation in Madagascar was that communities made the link between conservation and their livelihood on their own. The intrinsic value of the forest to them was not only a cultural one, but they expressed their need of external help to preserve their watershed. Under a strong national conservation strategy, the community worked to preserve their forest according to national restriction. Within that context, environmental education was relatively simple.
Take away the government, take away the conservation policy and the community, no matter what their feelings are towards the forest, are vulnerable to external exploitation—a more lucrative endeavor than the free boots and jackets forest wardens used to get for protecting the forest.
This isn’t quite so simple. Under Ravalomanana’s rule, there was a lot of state-supported illegal exploitation. However, this was rather indirect, and not compromising the conservation attitudes of the individual farmers.

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