Thursday, December 06, 2007

When Handouts Keep Coming, the Food Line Never Ends

Rethinking how to make a difference

From the Washington Post:

By Mark Winne, former director of Connecticut's Hartford Food System

How can anyone not get caught up in the annual Thanksgiving turkey frenzy? At the food bank I co-founded in Hartford, Conn., November always meant cheering the caravans of fowl-laden trucks that roared into our parking lot. They came on the heels of the public appeals for "A bird in every pot," "No family left without a turkey" and our bank's own version -- "A turkey and a 20 [dollar bill]."

Like pompom girls leading a high school pep rally, we revved up the community's charitable impulse to a fever pitch with radio interviews, newspaper stories and dramatic television footage to extract the last gobbler from the stingiest citizen. After all, our nation's one great day of social equity was upon us. In skid row soup kitchens and the gated communities of hedge-fund billionaires alike, everyone was entitled, indeed expected, to sit down to a meal of turkey with all the fixings.

And here we are, putting on the same play again this year. But come Friday, as most of us stuff more leftovers into our bulging refrigerators, 35 million Americans will take their place in line again at soup kitchens, food banks and food stamp offices nationwide.

The good souls who staff America's tens of thousands of emergency food sites will renew their pleas to donors fatigued by their burst of holiday philanthropy. Food stamp workers will return to their desks and try to convince mothers that they can feed their families on the $3 per person per day that the government allots them. The cycle of need -- always present, rarely sated, never resolved -- will continue. Unless we rethink our devotion to food donation.

Read the full article

The author discusses several key points that are relevant to the larger discussion of addressing socioeconomic issues in general, beyond hunger and poverty.

As sociologist Janet Poppendieck made clear in her book "Sweet Charity," there is something in the food-banking culture and its relationship with donors that dampens the desire to empower the poor and take a more muscular, public stand against hunger... It may have been that a donor-recipient co-dependency had developed. Both parties were trapped in an ever-expanding web of immediate gratification that offered the recipients no long-term hope of eventually achieving independence and self-reliance. As the food bank's director told me later, "The more you provide, the more demand there is."

True we can donate and hand out food to alleviate hunger, but doesn't the Chinese proverb "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" also apply here? What is the risk of the food bank approach? Does it create a form of dependency, whether it be emotional dependency and fulfillment on the part of the donors and volunteers or nourishment for the hungry?

2) Food banks are a dominant institution in this country, and they assert their power at the local and state levels by commanding the attention of people of good will who want to address hunger. Their ability to attract volunteers and to raise money approaches that of major hospitals and universities. While none of this is inherently wrong, it does distract the public and policymakers from the task of harnessing the political will needed to end hunger in the United States. The risk is that the multibillion-dollar system of food banking has become such a pervasive force in the anti-hunger world, and so tied to its donors and its volunteers, that it cannot step back and ask if this is the best way to end hunger, food insecurity and their root cause, poverty.

One theme rings true from my experience in the non-profit world: it is not only about having the ambition and heart to make a positive difference in the world, but knowing how to do so that counts. It is amazing to see the support and resources offered to address issues like hunger and human trafficking, but at the same time it behooves us to take a step back and understand the forces that create the problem so we know that our efforts are truly making a difference and empowering people to improve their lives.

For example, it is great to see that many countries have adopted anti-human trafficking laws in the past few years, but what type of legislation will most effectively support trafficking victims and put offenders behind bars? Do we offer victims services only if they cooperate with law enforcement to pursue a case against the trafficker? If we tighten immigration, does this decrease the flow of migrants or simply increase the number of those who migrate illegally because of the scarce economic opportunities that exist at home (Latin America, Asia, Africa, take your pick...) and are thus susceptible to exploitation? These are questions that need to be addressed. Creating an anti-trafficking law is a good start, but considering the issues involved in trafficking so that the law can best support survivors and prosecute traffickers is something that still needs work.

My point is, simply because something is being done, doesn't necessarily mean that that something will ultimately help defeat the problem. Whether discussing hunger or human trafficking, if it doesn't focus on empowering the vulnerable, we run the risk of
perpetuating a dependence on hand outs and not truly putting an end to the issue.

3) The author comments on watching a food bank van unload cereal and fresh produce in a poor neighborhood: No one made any attempt to determine whether the recipients actually needed the food, nor to encourage the recipients to seek other forms of assistance, such as food stamps. The food distribution was an unequivocal act of faith based on generally accepted knowledge that this was a known area of need. The recipients seemed reasonably grateful, but the staff members and volunteers seemed even happier, having been fortified by the belief that their act of benevolence was at least mildly appreciated.

The author responds:

I often wondered what would happen if the collective energy that went into soliciting and distributing food were put into ending hunger and poverty instead. Surely it would have a sizable impact if 3,000 Hartford-area volunteers, led by some of Connecticut's most privileged and respected citizens, showed up one day at the state legislature, demanding enough resources to end hunger and poverty. Multiply those volunteers by three or four -- the number of volunteers in the state's other food banks and hundreds of emergency food sites -- and you would have enough people to dismantle the Connecticut state capitol brick by brick.

But what we have done instead is to continue down a road that never comes to an end. Like transportation planners who add more lanes to already clogged highways, we add more space to our food banks in the futile hope of relieving the congestion.

My thoughts:

This is a critical point in the context of human trafficking. Trafficking is an issue that touches on economics, politics and culture. It is a product of under achieving economies and the criminal elements that move in to monopolize on the desperation of the vulnerable. It is a product of governments whose laws formerly arrested trafficking victims on charges such as illegal immigration and prostitution. It is the product of a culture of corruption that results from low pay and tempting bribes. It is the product of gender bias and the feminization of migration as a result of the growing demand from industries like domestic work and entertaining where the risk of exploitation runs high.

Anti-trafficking laws are good, but it cannot stop there. Law enforcement task forces are good, but it cannot stop there. Non-governmental organizations' efforts to rehabilitate and reintegrate survivors are good, but it cannot stop there. Trafficking is ultimately an issue of poverty and the lack of opportunities to provide a stable livelihood. People need jobs. This is where the private sector can step in. This is where development of local, stagnant economies becomes key. The presence of human trafficking in a country that is a source for victims is really an indication of economic under achievement.

At the end of the day, I am grateful to have worked with organizations that support survivors of trafficking. Without them, so many victims would be worse off and never have received the help or support they deserve. At the same time, serious consideration needs to be given to the economic situations that create trafficking. In the words of the author Mark Winne, without addressing poverty and unemployment we will ultimately be creating more lanes on an already clogged highway.

It is in our best interests to once in a while take a step back and analyze where our efforts are leading us. The need to understand the context and act accordingly with issues such as poverty and human trafficking is critical. Otherwise we run the risk of acting without truly addressing the issue. Otherwise people will still go hungry. Otherwise people will still be enslaved.

It is not only about having the ambition and heart to make a difference in the world, but knowing how to do so that counts.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:37 AM

    It is not only about having the ambition and heart to make a difference in the world, but knowing how to do so that counts.