Striking the balance: food sovereignty and the question of aid

After running the London Marathon last year, I have to admit I felt smug. 26.2 miles – not everybody can do that. However, I was abruptly removed from my high horse when I spent the next three months living in rural Madagascar. There I met fishermen who thought nothing of running the sixteen miles from town to the sea, and sixteen miles back – carrying their catch! – every morning before lunchtime.

The fish in the seas on the coast of the Anosy region in south-east Madagascar, where I was based, are more than just food. They are livelihoods, a way of life. In a region where 90% of people live below the poverty line, and where over 50% of children in some villages suffer from growth defects caused by malnutrition, the nutritional value of fish is near priceless. However, it is also completely out of the financial reach of most people.

This leaves rice as the staple option for many, but even that is out of the price range of a considerable number of families. The Malagasy eat more rice as a proportion of their diet than any country in the world. This, however, makes recent trends in global food systems especially worrying. Since the liberalisation of their markets, Madagascar has transitioned from a net exporter of rice to a net importer. This has left the already-unstable country extremely vulnerable to global food price fluctuations such as those of 2008 which caused foot riots around the world. This vulnerability affects the poorest regions hardest, and Anosy was no exception: the food security crisis of July 2009 left many on the brink of starvation.

Thankfully, Azafady, the NGO for whom I worked last year, had noticed the signs and moved quickly to divert funds from their community projects into the provision of emergency food supplies to mitigate the situation. This sounds like the sensible option, surely: helping those in the most immediate need. However, their actions were met with opposition from some of their funders, who had funded specific projects that they were unhappy to see halted in order to provide temporary food aid.

Here lies the crux of the problem facing all of us concerned about the current mess that is our global food system. It is hard to see the logic behind constant supplies of food aid; countries that grow food for corporations who export it to the West on unfair trade terms, leaving them unable to purchase food for themselves, are being flooded with donations of food from the very countries to which they owe their situation in the first place. The mess of this situation is self-evident: we need systemic change, we need a complete rethink of our relationship with food, and, in the face of global environmental uncertainty, we need it now.

Grassroots projects and long-term community development, such as the projects Azafady undertake, may seem like a fantastic solution to this situation: empowering citizens without reproducing the structures of colonialism that have lead to this crisis in the first place. However, in the rush to be part of systemic change – which by its very nature is never going to happen overnight – it can be almost too easy to forget that people are suffering in the present, and there is a desperate need for short-term help. Fighting for the reclamation of a food system based on equitable, environmentally-aware principles is incredible important. But action must also be taken in the short term, and a reconsideration of how this is best done, is sorely needed.

It is not enough to invest solely in long-term projects and eschew the need for aid in the present. Whether change comes ten months or ten years from now, people are still suffering today. Fighting for the reclamation of a food system based on equitable, environmentally-aware principles is incredibly important. But action must also be taken in the short term, and a reconsideration of how this is best done is sorely needed.

Inspiration, however, is at hand: around the world, ever-increasing numbers of people are reworking their lives and their communities through the transformation of their relationship with food. Food sovereignty principles, outlined first by the transnational peasant solidarity movement La Vía Campesina, and taken up by local initiatives ranging from community growing schemes near Manchester to seed saving projects throughout India, tell us that a better world is possible, and it is possible today. Food does not have to be commodified: food can be a public good and a source of joy. But present help is still required, even as we work towards future transformation.

Published by

Miriam Dobson

PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Soil, urban food, allotments, ecosystem services.

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