This is a guest post by Aaron Buchsbaum.
I am on the outskirts of the city of Jessore, in Bangladesh, surrounded by fourteen women, an equal number of babies, and one very tired translator.
We sit together on a tarp, spread under a thatched overhang that adjoins a small cement house. Some of the women are quiet, some talkative, all are dressed in beautiful bright patterns, and all are either pregnant or nursing.
Although I have a thousand things I’d like to ask, I only have time to ask them about one.
At the household level, gardens are an obvious way to increase access to good food for women and children, and the world of International Development (ID) often promotes them as a sure-fire fix – but without considering the broader picture. This type of ‘empowerment’ could negatively effect pregnancy or childcare due to the demands of manual labor, or fail to account for household dynamics that leave resources still firmly in the hands of other family members.
I’d like to lay out some of the very reasonable logic and momentum behind household gardening targeted towards ‘Pregnant and Lactating Women’ (PLW), but at the same time explain why ID needs to approach this ‘magic bullet’ with caution and careful analysis.
1- MAIN IDEA:
Pregnant and lactating women have long been in the ID limelight. Their health and well-being can be easily advocated for by including the word ‘vulnerable’ in grant applications, they play unparalleled roles in the well-being of both current and future generations, and many community-driven efforts to work with PLW can incorporate empowerment and gender rights activities at the same time.
2- SUPPORTING EVIDENCE:
In the States we might rely on lactation counselors, doulas, and a menagerie of mommy/daddy books to support healthy mothers and babies. In the ID world, we aspire in some similar fashion to a strong evidence base for actions. And over the past five years a lot of the relevant global evidence has been discussed in a British health and medical journal, called The Lancet.
In 2008, The Lancet published a series of articles demonstrating the following: kids are irrevocably harmed if their mothers are poorly fed during pregnancy, and if the kids themselves are poorly fed (or sick) in the first 2 years of life. Such harm includes permanent limits on cognition, growth, food absorption, productivity, income… all sorts of wonderful outcomes that fetuses and toddlers have no control over.
While “malnutrition = bad” is hardly a new idea, the series did manage to focus the critical time frame for nutrition on the first 2 years, and renewed international attention on Essential Nutrition Actions (ENA) that are universally (or near enough as global data can make them) important to maternal and child health.
Institutions took the series to heart, and here I am analyzing projects worth $20 – $40 million over 3-5 years, and which are trying very hard to graft ENA onto agriculture, gardening, and the lives of PLW.
3- COMPLICATED THINGS THAT WE WISH WEREN’T:
In 2010, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – THE force behind US-government foreign aid activities – released a fancy new strategy called ‘Feed the Future’ (FTF) that strives to link agriculture more closely with nutrition. From a logical standpoint this seems obvious – growing good food and then eating it. (Like in gardens…)
However, from an operational standpoint for USAID, it is mind-blowing. Why, you might ask? Because historically, agriculture in the ID context is about growing things. Period. And then about selling them for money. Nutrition has been about breastfeeding and ‘fixing’ severe acute malnutrition with specialized foods brought in from outside the country (not that UNICEF hasn’t long espoused nutrition as structurally complex).
In general, the worlds of agriculture and nutrition, of growing and eating, have been kept sadly separate. As a local foods advocate, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see the worlds separated – but now, how theoretically exciting its is to have FTF in place to make the connection.
4- THE WIDE WORLD OF ‘SYNERGY’:
They say timing is everything, and in this case Feed The Future (agriculture) happens to coincide neatly with the Lancet articles (nutrition). Thus everyday when I go to my ID work, write my ID analyses, and formulate my ID briefs, I’m staring at this phenomenal double ID whammy – the opportunity to focus on growing nutritious local foods specifically geared for consumption by vulnerable PLW to support the growth of healthy children, all centered at the community and even household level.
So. Much. Potential. Please once again feel my theoretical excitement.
5- THE WIDE WORLD OF ‘REALITY’:
As noted above, projects that target PLW are proving themselves prone to some untested assumptions, which is making FTF + Lancet less than a perfect coupling.
After trolling hundreds of documents, conducting interviews and visiting areas of Senegal and Bangladesh in person, I think the combination of agriculture, nutrition, and PLW is actually a double-edged sword – and best encapsulated by this emphasis on female-controlled vegetables gardens.
Most times I read about gardens in a project report or proposal, the approach sounds like a practical knowledge and skills transfer, with direct individual and family impact on access to nutritious foods during a critical period of nutritional need. But instead, gardens can double an already significant workload filled with crop-farming, childcare, food preparation, pumping water, cleaning, etc.
In addition, other family members (husbands, brothers-in-law, and in many cases mothers-in-law) often retain control over selling and/or eating what is grown, which could mean a PLW’s effort results in someone else’s gain.
And finally, an issue that plagues ID work in general, there may be no support system left to encourage gardening once the initial skills-transfer of a project finishes. In short, simply making a project ‘help’ women is only a start to actually improving lives.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
Sometimes interviewing the women in Bangladesh felt forced and intrusive – it’s no easy thing on either side to expect calm, legitimate communication when conversation is based in a ‘project-participant’ relationship. But I was still able to get what I think is an honest story from our interactions, that while the gardens were helping feed families, they also required a lot of work and not everyone could rely on other family members to keep things going.
The fundamental issue in the ID world is, and always has been, the appropriate translation of intentions into outcomes.
Moving nutrition into the realm of agriculture has the potential to provide direct and increased access to quality foods that are of immense physiological benefit during pregnancy and lactation. The outcome can be reductions in anemia, maternal death, and low-birthweight, alongside increases in the numbers of children with ideal physical and cognitive development.
However, there are also new or newly prominent gender-specific challenges, most especially around ‘empowerment’ and equitable labor in the context of agriculture and home food production.
The Lancet tells us how and when to address PLW nutrition, but moving forward, projects under Feed The Future need to find ways to better emphasize that the responsibility can be shared across families and communities. The result can be win-win-win – women and children in better health, struggling families with more resources, and people in ID using their power wisely.
And just in case you thought I’m being super original here…
 Welcome to the world of de-personalized ID nouns. I’m deliberately putting this term here, because ID documents delineate between different groups of people that a given project is attempting to ‘target’. However, the construction of the term PLW is de-humanizing since the status (pregnant / lactating) comes before the person-noun (women). Having an autistic brother, I’m aware of the same difference in the terms “disabled person” vs. “person with disabilities”. A slightly better term is Women of Reproductive Age (WRA).