The WFP insults local traditional foods

I just read two recent blog posts by the WFPs new executive director, Ertharin Cousin. She displayed once again a well-recorded side of the World Food Program. One that harms the livelihoods of poor people and that hampers lasting solutions to the Sahel's food deficits.

In a trip to Niger May 2012, Ertharin Cousin visits people she perceives as on the brink of starvation. She wants to illustrate the difference between people getting support from the WFP, and people who don't. The main difference, it turns out, is that the people they support eat cereals, including imported, fortified foods (so called ‘Super Cereal'), whilst the others make use of natural, local wild foods. The natural foods however, are according to Cousin, poison proving an advanced stage of human degradation. On the first day of her trip, she writes:

Our next stop is a place called Tougfini where WFP has no programmes at the moment. [...]

Now there is nothing left. She gathers wild leaves from the trees around the village. It takes her all day to find enough leaves for the family. She then boils the leaves for six hours in plain water. They are boiled for these long hours before they’re edible and even then they are bitter to eat.

Next I meet a mother called Myouna, who is 32 years old. She shows us a small tin can of yellow berries. She said these otherwise toxic berries require cleaning and boiling six or seven times- changing the water between each boil. She feeds this poison to her children because there is simply no other choice! It's her attempt at diet diversity: wild leaves one day, potentially toxic berries the next!

Myouna invites me into her home and, as I peer into her dark mud hut, I see eight pairs of eyes looking at me. She has four children of her own, but because her brother also went to find work she now also cares for his children. Do your children get sick? I ask her. Yes, she says, they have stomach pains. How many times a day they eat? Morning and evening. Do you have anything to sell to buy food? No.

No one should have to live like this, it's just unacceptable.

So Ms. Cousin sees people eating wild leaves and berrys. She does not provide us with precise details as to which leaves the inhabitants of the aid-free village of Tougfini were eating. It could be yadiya, jiga, aduwa, or something else. Although I have not eaten all edible leaves of Niger – there are amazingly many – I have eaten quite a number, from both the most and the least cherished. I do not know any leaf that is badly bitter after proper cooking. I know several that are slightly bitter – but not in an unpleasant way. In fact, in many countries of the world, people eat food with bitter taste components, without the WFP intervening and pleading on their behalf. The populations of Belgium and the Netherlands eat brussel sprouts, 'andijvie' and 'witlof', all of which definitely are bitter. The first time I was served a plate full of witlof, I found it unpleasant due to its bitter taste. Yet after trying it four or five times, I came to appreciate it, and confirm once again that taste is 75% habit. As a child, I had the same experience with green olives. There are pleasant and unpleasant bitter tastes. Those you learn to appreciate and those you don't, those that are mild and noble, and those that are repulsive. The people of Niger are no different: depending on region and ethnic group they have different favourites amongst the edible leaves. But believe me, there are enough edible leaves to harvest – so they cook the ones that they generally appreciate. And the least bitter ones are not always the most cherished. It's a matter of finer taste.

The berries that she mentions are not referred to by name either. But here it is more than likely that she is talking about hanza also called dilo, a small perennial wild tree that usually provides abundant harvests in response to drought. For this reason, it is a very valuable resource to people in difficult times. The seeds are indeed badly bitter when taken from the tree, but after thorough soaking, which Myouna, the woman she visits, appears to be doing well, there is definitely no poison whatsoever left to harm the consumer. It has been eaten by hundreds of thousands of nigeriens on a yearly basis. It has come to suffer from stigmatisation in modern times, but did not in the past: Ancient villages where named after this food because of its importance, it was eaten in times of plenty, stored for consumption long beyond its harvest season and offered as gifts to newly-wedded brides. Today, many people like it – but are ashamed. Stigmatisation over the last century means that eating this food can make you singled out as miserable and poor, and literally laughed at. A stigmatisation that the WFP consistently amplifies.

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Not everyone agrees with the WFP's claim that hanza is poison. Here, a group of men in Niamey are enjoying a meal of this staple food.

As for eating two meals a day: this is neither bad nor abnormal in nigérien culture. Ms. Cousin would notice the same thing were she to visit in a 'normal' or 'good' year.

Day two, Ms. Cousin gathers more impressions:

Next stop is Kagadama village [...].

I am proud to be here, I tell the villagers. “I know the harvest has been bad. But I need to know how you are coping. What are you doing for food? You must tell me your stories, so I can tell the world, so I can get help for you.

Ms. Cousin is making a capital mistake here. Making yourself perceived as bringing aid if conditions are bad enough, encourages people to exaggerate their difficulties and give less accurate pictures of the situation. This is not a myth, but a phenomenon that has been documented several times, that is easily understandable as a part of human nature, and that most people with adequate experience from the country of Niger are aware of. Ms. Cousin does not only give the tacit impression that she might bring aid if the right stories are told – it would anyway be impossible for her to avoid that – she even goes as far as to make a call for the worst stories with a promise of gift packages attached. She then goes on to a new round of local food bashing:

One woman tells us that she earns a little money by going to Maradi to sell the fruit that grows on local trees. Normally it’s only the animals that eat this fruit. But, given the hard times, they have taken to drying it – to make a powder that they can give to their children. They bring a sack of these dried fruit to show me. I take one, its hard and dark brown in colour. It breaks like a biscuit in my hand and has a strong bitter smell. As I look at these fruit I wonder how bad things are that mothers are feeding their children the same food that the animals eat.

Again, Ms. Cousin, be it out of ignorance or interest, is twisting the truth. Firstly, I don't know of bitter plants that smell bitter – usually you don't notice until you taste them. But more importantly: A woman selling wild produce to the city dwellers of Maradi should be commended and encouraged. She has found a trade that brings her revenue, and that brings food to the city people otherwise dependent on imports. Ms. Cousin does not mention which fruit is being used, so again, it is more difficult to argue her post. It could be goriba, it could be something else. But Non-Wood Forest Products, which is what we are talking about here, are well-known and well-documented around the world for being critical assets both in providing livelihoods for the poor, combatting malnutrition, and for providing incentives for taking better care of our environment. Considering that the city dwellers of Maradi wish to buy these products, it is most likely to be respected food. Like goriba.

In fact, back in the 80:s, aid workers generally looked at food from the nigerien bush as inedible and useless. This image had endured since the time of colonization – French colonists did not know, understand nor wish to understand strange indigenous foods that they were not used to at home. Instead of consuming local leaves, they imported the french leaf lettuce, with all the health risks that it adds and the need for washing this food with chemicals to make it pathogenically safe. But since the 90:s onwards, an important number of nutritional studies have been made on many of the local plants. And they turn out to be rich foods providing very important nutrients. The hanza mentioned earlier is a good source of protein and energy. Wild leaves are rich in protein and minerals such as iron. Wild fruits contain plenty of vitamins. Old people in the late 20th century were clear about it too: those who ate these wild plants lived longer and stayed healthier than those who moved on to modern diets consisting of overdoses of cereals and products with chemical taste additives. So why, if these local, natural and wild plants are nutritious and good, is there such a need to bash them?

Well, the answer is probably that the aid community needs arguments for its humanitarian aid. Ms. Cousin mentions malnutrition statistics: emergency levels of 10-14% in Ouallam, 12% in Aguié. But these numbers are not strong indicators for a disaster story. They are very consistent with the steady numbers that have been in Niger at least since the early 1980:s, and probably further back in time. Last year, says Ms. Cousin, they revealed 21% accute malnutrition for the ages 6-23 months in one area. That was in a good year. In fact, good years, bad years, these numbers have not changed much, but basically always stayed around the emergency line. Their cause is more complex than a plain lack of food. Reports from the 80:s already identified the symptom: starting between the age 6 and 12 months, children stop putting on weight for some time. When they start gaining weight again, they have fallen dramatically behind on their development curve and do not easily catch up. A short illness will be enough to drop them down into a serious state. Even in 2005, when MSF claimed to have discovered a secret and hidden famine, the situation was the same: practically all 'famine-struck' persons were children between 6 months and three years, with accompanying health complications like malaria or parasites from unclean drinking water. They came from all social classes, including their own, well-paid health worker employees. And the amazingly high malnutrition rates that they uncovered, turned out at the peak of the 'famine' to be basically the same rates as in the preceding non-famine years... Emergency levels, yes. Disparate from the preceding and succeeding years? No.

I believe that a person without means of providing for himself should be helped, both short-term and long-term. But I also believe that a person who has options for obtaining adequate quantities of nutritious food in his own surroundings should be encouraged to use those options rather than try to turn him into a beggar. Ms. Cousin ends her post with:

WFP is desperately needed here, that much is clear. Like yesterday, where the mothers were forced to feed their children toxic berries, here they are forced to feed them the food the animals eat.

It is painful to take in, and completely unacceptable.

As a Niger insider, I feel, that what is clear from Ms. Cousin's stories is not the need for the WFP, but the WFP's need for making itself needed. Should Ms. Cousin take the courageous step of recognising the nutritional importance of the wild foods, she knows that the need for the WFP might be instantly reduced by three quarters or more. This does not provide for big budget calls, nor for impressive stories on how many people her organisation has saved from certain starvation. She would rather see african mothers eat 'Super Cereal', artificially fortified and made from foreign corn. Perhaps american GMO corn? Rather than trying to make sure Niger's people has enough nutritious food to eat, the WFP's goal is to make sure that they have enough WFP products and services to consume. And this hurts livelihoods in Niger, as well as long-term health.

Like a worrying number of top humanitarian figures, Ms. Cousin is a politician that is jumping chairs back and forth between her political career, prestigious UN positions, and her mission of saving the world. I assume that it is easy in such a context to be tempted to exaggerations, and sometimes even plain lies, in order to win points for having saved more people. In fact, it's a common practice. She follows in the footsteps of Bernard Kouchner (France), Jean Ziegler (Switzerland), Jan Egeland (Norway) and many more. But it's time to stop hurting Africans for the purpose of political points. It's time to stop scorning nutritious local foods that have been eaten for centuries, and probably millenias, whether it be due to ignorance or bad intent. Putting local foods to good use is one of the best ways, both economically, nutritionally and environmentally, to improving the food situation in a country like Niger. Let us encourage the farmers who do so.

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About the authour:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"default","fid":"1","attributes":{"alt":"Photo of Josef Garvi","class":"media-element media-element media-element media-element media-element media-element media-element media-image","src":"","style":"float:left; height:75px; margin-left:5px; margin-right:5px; width:75px","title":"Josef Garvi"}}]]Josef Garvi is a Dryland Food Production Specialist. He is originally from Sweden and Norway, but has lived in Niger since childhood, and done extensive work with people in remote parts of the nigerien countryside.