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Food aid must go local to do good

Aid groups have a responsibility to consider the impact of their programs on local culture.

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Nestled amid the lush hills and sugar cane fields north of Durban, South Africa, Lindiwe, a local community worker, assists in preparing food parcels for delivery. Nearby, more than 100 women and a sprinkling of men, most diagnosed as HIV positive, are packed in a community center learning how to properly prepare vlugkokend (macaroni), sperziebonen gebroken (green beans), and hollandse bruine bonen (brown beans).

The food parcels, upon which the women and their families have come to depend, are provided by a Dutch nongovernmental organization (NGO) and only contain products from the Netherlands. Because many of the products are not part of the average South African's diet, recipients must first learn how to prepare the food. "They're not used to this type of food, so we have to teach them how to cook it. They haven't eaten macaroni before," explained a community worker from a local municipality.

In a state where 40 percent of the population is unemployed and more than 16 million people live on less than $2 per day, food assistance is essential. The need is even more pressing among communities affected by HIV/AIDS. The Dutch food parcels are therefore a welcome form of assistance, but their composition and potential effect on the South African diet is problematic.

While it is next to impossible to say how the Dutch program has affected people's eating habits in Shakaskraal, it is clear that many families are now consuming more instant soups and pastas and less cornmeal porridge, the local staple. This raises the question: What responsibility do international NGOs and governments have in considering the impact of their programs on local culture and heritage?

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