Field Notes from the Development Industry 2/28/2013

1) A reader wrote in to ask for advice on an NGO that packages and sends rice and beans to “starving people.” I though my answer might be useful for others:

It’s a lot better for the local economy to procure the food there. The reason hungry people need food is not because it isn’t present in their country, but because they can’t afford it. If you buy food in country then you are supporting the (generally poor) farmers who grow the food as well as the people who can’t afford to buy it and you are also saving shipping cost.

You want to look very closely at the cultural acceptability of the food you’re shipping. A lot of cultures don’t understand or consume many kinds of beans.

Finally, I really dislike the way their website doesn’t talk about how the meal shipping actually works.

2) Today on twitter, someone asked why all aid workers are rich and white. My answer: they’re not. Most aid workers are nationals of the country the project is in. The reason we think otherwise is because we have racist ideas about who “counts” as an aid worker and because the media focuses on rich white people. Cough, cough, Nick Kristof.

3) I haven’t forgotten the M&E series, but I wanted to get this up while it was topical.

Nutrition and Malnutrition


This one’s for Glenna.

There are lots of ways you can prevent or cure malnutrition. They come down to emergency feeding, supplementation, fortification, and changing food behaviors. Here’s a high-speed tour, in order of speed of impact and sexiness to donors.

Therapeutic foods come in two forms: powders that are mixed with clean water to become nutritional formulas, and ready-to-use therapeutic foods. Both are used as emergency measures, the tools of last resort to prevent death. You need to target them in a very specific way to use them well. Formulas are starting to be supplanted by the very trendy plumpy’nut, which can be used without a doctor’s attention once distributed. Some malnourished people are still so bad off that they need formula, though.

When you need therapeutic foods, something has already gone wrong. They are a patch for a broken system. A clear example of a downstream solution. Quick to get started, rapid results, no real long term impact. Very very sexy to donors, since feeding starving children is exactly the thing people think about when they picture aid work and projects get going fast.

Vitamin supplements don’t need to be heavily targeted, but you can’t just give them out to everyone. Different categories of people – children, pregnant women, and so on – need different nutritional supplements. Not a ton of supervision is needed, but some. In addition to targeting, someone has to physically give them out. Supplements need a health system, or at least a logistical system, behind them. Somewhat exciting for donors, since programs gear up fast and little children line up adorably to get their vitamins.

Food fortification doesn’t need a logistical system or medical support. If you get iron and folic acid into the flour, iodine into the salt, and vitamin E into the oil, you can improve the nutritional status of an entire population. But you end up supplementing a whole lot of people who don’t need it. It’s effective, but it’s not efficient. You also need a government capable of enforcing fortification, so it’s an upstream solution. And we’re starting to see some evidence that some kinds of fortification, like folic acid, can increase some kinds of cancer, so they are not an unqualified good. Fortification is boring for donors. They details and politics of fortification are honestly pretty boring for nutrition experts, let alone people trying to decide where to give their twenty bucks or overworked government types.

Lastly, changing food behavior involves teaching people how to eat in a way that meets their nutritional needs. The classic examples are not selling home-grown vegetables and using the money to buy processed foods, and increasing the consumption of legumes, especially in combination with leafy greens. So many things affect individual eating behavior that this is an upstream and a downstream solution. It’s about what is available to eat, and what people choose from that. Changing nutrition behaviors is very, very hard. It takes a long time and shows its impact slowly. It’s downright repulsive to donors, because it reminds everyone of all the vegetables they ought to be eating themselves.


Photo credit: mashnicaragua

Chosen for reasons I hope are obvious.

Jargon of the Day: Food Aid

Jargon: Food Aid

Translation: This isn’t exactly jargon, because food aid is exactly what it sounds like. Food, given away to people who need it. It may be given in a food-for-work scheme, where the donor has people do work for the common good such as digging latrines or rebuilding schools in return for the food. It may just be distributed according to some criteria about who is sufficiently in need (very often female-headed households).

The thing about food aid, though, is it is almost never locally purchased. It is generally produced in the donor country, and purchased from those domestic farmers, then shipped abroad as food aid. This supports a domestic market and farmers in the donor country. If food is purchased in the recipient country from local markets, we usually don’t call it food aid. We just call it hunger relief, or “an effort to improve food security.”

Jargon of the day: Monetization

Jargon of the Day: Monetization

Meaning: Monetization means something slightly different in a humanitarian and development context than it does in social media. In this case, it means selling food aid commodities in order to take the money and fund non-food projects. Many, perhaps most, food aid projects are actually monetization projects. It’s often the most useful thing to do with donated rice or flour.

I hate this word because it keeps you from thinking about what a convoluted process selling commodities actually is. It’s a tidy, professional-sounding word that covers up the fact that we are taking American-grown commodities, selling them in foreign countries, and then using the money for projects. Perhaps we should just donate money in the first place?

Jargon of the day 7/8/08

This is a new daily feature: each day I’ll give you a jargony word or phrase I heard that day, along with my unscientific translation.

So, today’s jargon: Private sector distribution system

Translation: This was in the context of distributing food aid, so what it means is trucking companies. Businesses – not government or donor agencies – who can carry food around the country.

Blog round-up

Ethan Zuckerman is talking about Carl Bernstein and the “The best obtainable version of the truth.”

Kevin’s got some links to the international food aid conference coming up.

Leo Africanus would like to point out that the Masai do not belong in zoos.

And Naamen Gobert Tilahum posted about some Hanes underwear ads that are just so breathtakingly mean that I can’t even find words for them.