Friday, October 6, 2017

Research Brief: Regional Supply Chains and the Food Economy of Malawi


We've just published our first research brief from data collected in April in Lilongwe markets. This is but a drop in the bucket of all the wonderful data we have and I'm very excited to continue working with LUANAR to build on this work.

I'm particularly excited about this one because it represents the first time I've used my newly acquired GIS skills to create maps from original data, and that was fun.

*edit 10-10-2017: I inserted a new version of the brief, which contains one more author.


Monday, September 18, 2017

NYTimes Article: How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food

The New York Times published an important article over the weekend on how Nestle is changing the food system in Brazil and the health effects those changes are having on people.  I appreciated the article's framing, which highlights how Nestle has exercised power to achieve its goals.  The focus on power is in contrast to how this issue is often discussed in relation to urbanization and the so-called 'nutrition transition.'  Rarely is the activist role by the food industry mentioned, and the nutrition transition is generally seen as a natural outcome of a developing food system/increasing incomes. As this article points out, however, Nestle used its considerable resources to mount a multi-pronged, all-out effort to crush or discredit any kind of obstacle that would limit its reach to the hearts, minds, and stomachs of the population.

The one complaint I have about the article is that the existing Brazilian food system is invisible. The local, small-scale food system, which is likely where most poor people still get the majority of their food, is not alluded to even once. That system is generally viewed by decision-makers and development economists as an 'under-developed' food system and therefore destined to disappear. People working in it typically receive no support and lots of harassment.  It's not a minor critique because so often the colonialist mindset sees anything 'pre-Western' as either a void, or as chaotic and inefficient. I've never been to Brazil, but I'll bet there's a thriving local food exchange system that employs many, many people, and though those incomes may be small, the work is valuable.

The article is here, and there is a video, too, which I've not yet watched (it may be that local food system makes an appearance there).


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why support the small-scale urban food sector?

On the way to work today, I heard that what's in the news is the single greatest predictor of where people decide to donate their money. So, I thought I'd give you a few newsy facts about why supporting urban food systems is important:
  • The share of Africans living in urban areas is projected to grow from 36 percent in 2010 to 50 percent by 2030. Thus far, not much planning has occurred to deal with an impending worsening of urban food security.
  • Inequality in Africa is rising http://africasacountry.com/2017/…/african-inequality-rising/ People need jobs. The urban food sector is already thriving and the barriers to working in it are low. Supporting it to do better is 'low hanging fruit' in relation to improving city well-being.
  • the urban food sector is a major employer of women and the working poor, two groups of people who often don't have access to additional resources, but who could definitely use them!
  • those who work in the urban food sector are often disenfranchised and harassed by city officials. One major aspect of our program is that we work w/the municipality to bridge this divide: http://mgafrica.com/…/2017-05-01-why-brutalising-food-vendo… (Did you know the Arab Spring was set off by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor that had been brutalized time and time again? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_of_Mohamed_Bouazizi)

Supporting an inclusive and sustainable food system that improves the income margins of the people who work there and maintains access to nutritious food at affordable prices is the goal of the practicum. Help us out by supporting our work!


 FIP Student, Lindsay, interviews a retailer in Lilongwe's Tsoka Market. Credit: Alyssa Cleland
FIP Student, Lindsay, interviews a retailer in Lilongwe's Tsoka Market. Credit: Alyssa Cleland

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Crowdfunding improvements for safe, nutritious, and widely accessible food environments.

The money you donate goes DIRECTLY to retailers in markets who use it to make improvements that benefit both the people who work in markets and the people who shop there. Last year, the money donated was used to upgrade toilets and install water taps, for example. What's more is that the whole process of student engagement has enabled a much broader conversation between the municipality and retailers about how to support safe and accessible food! Please consider a small donation for this work!

Support Innovation in Malawi's Urban Food Markets






To learn more about small-scale retailers and their work, watch "Ruth's Legumes: Small-scale Urban Food Trade in Lilongwe."


Thursday, June 1, 2017

New Book on Global Urban Agriculture

CABI just published an edited volume entitled "Global Urban Agriculture: Convergence of Theory and Practice between North and South" in which I have two chapters. One is a chapter co-authored with Michael W. Hamm entitled A View from the South: Bringing Critical Planning Theory to Urban Agriculture.  In this chapter, we discuss urban agriculture as an urban practice, rather than a rural practice misplaced, that might be regarded as one dimension of a diverse food system. We argue that studies of urban agriculture can be 'put to work' to,

  1. develop more accurate, locally-grounded understandings of how people provision their households,
  2. shed light on city processes that make people vulnerable to food insecurity,
  3. provide instructional case-studies that challenge conventional notions of what cities are and how they are put together.
The chapter encourages food and urban scholars to take a more systemic approach to understanding urban agriculture, which goes beyond judging it solely in relation to the absolute quantities of food it produces.

The second is entitled Urban Agriculture as Adaptive Capacity: An Example from Senegal. This chapter was based on my dissertation research carried out in M'Bour, Senegal. I argue that different frames yield different understandings of various social phenomenon, and that resilience theory can help us to better qualify and situate urban agriculture in relation to city food systems and household food provisioning strategies. I did a webinar for this chapter about a year ago.

The book's overall argument is that better theorizing of the practice of UA has implications not only for enabling more sustainable food systems, but also for urban social and economic justice.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Reblog: Why technology alone will never provide sanitation for the poor

The original post is here, authored by Riley Mulhern.

The author writes about technology in relation to sanitation, but similar things can be said about 'food system innovation' where 'innovation' is a stand-in for 'technology.'  I've written from a similar perspective in the past; here and here, for example.

The author gets to the crux of the issue:
Can we yet admit that no technology can solve inequality? That, in fact, our faith in it as savior distracts us from the real underlying problem? Until we do, we may be perpetuating history’s pattern and pulling modern development dangerously close to the imperialism from which we claim to be free.
A developmentalist ideology, in general, locates poverty and impoverished conditions in relation to the absence of modernity, which is construed not only as a technological project, but as a western project. Most conversations and resources in the realm of food system innovation remain fixed around productivist technologies and the need to 'modernize' food systems (where modernization is just another word for westernization). Whether in matters of sanitation or food security, 'development' is always seen in relation to progress along a pre-defined and universal trajectory, with western countries out in front, leading the way. As a project that the 'experts' think they've already figured out, the creative space for technological innovation is quite constrained. Mulhern's allusion to 'imperialism' is right on.

Developmentalist ideology may animate slightly differently in the different sectors, but it never draws attention to or addresses the values that produce and perpetuate inequality unless they can be framed as the absence of western practices or institutions. Having such predefined conceptualizations of what development looks like and how it happens tends to cause people to think of development as a project where A follows B follows C, rather than as an unpredictable, locally-situated process of engagement that is primarily led by broad notions of well-being that includes justice, whether environmental or cognitive. As a project where all the pieces exist, technology just serves the role of enacting progress and the deeper questions about justice, and whom the technology serves, can be ignored.

I'm gratified to see that these concerns are being raised more and more by the students I work with and by organizations such as Engineers Without Borders.

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Why technology alone will never provide sanitation for the poor, by Riley Mulhern

The word “still” carries a subtle indictment. We see it in the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme’s 2015 report on global progress in sanitation, which reminds us that “2.4 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation facilities.” Still. We’ve gone to the moon, developed nuclear warheads, and can communicate wirelessly anywhere on the planet—shouldn’t everyone have a toilet by now?
It is tempting to believe that the level of our technology defines the level of our human progress, that our advancements will inevitably lead to something profound and hopeful. How can we not hope that broadband and smartphones will put out the fires of global poverty? Or that solar biochar toilets and infrared sludge pasteurization machines will reduce the burden of disease in urban slums?
How can we not hope that broadband and smartphones will put out the fires of global poverty?
But when we measure human progress by the increasing sophistication of technology, we live in the shadow of a convenient myth—that our direction is the right one; that, in E.F. Schumacher’s words, “there is nothing wrong with modern technology except that it is as yet incomplete; let us complete it.”
The word “still” tells us that despite our technical prowess, there is something wrong with modern technology in our relationship to it. It has failed to deliver on its promises for a world free from poverty and disease not because the hardware is incomplete, but because our systems of access remain inequitable and unjust. To reduce that number in the JMP’s next report, we need to abandon the idea of boundless technological solutions and reorient our understanding of progress in terms of justice.
The promises that science could solve our thorniest quandaries were planted in the wake of the scientific achievements of the 19thcentury. Men like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer doubled down on Darwinian ideas in the social and philosophical realms. They developed a justification to solve the problems of the lower classes through the superior science of white men, even when those problems were not related to scientific or technological obstacles. When Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” in 1864, a concept fraught with undeniably racist implications, he confidently prophesied the eventual, ultimate perfection of the human race.
Despite our technical prowess, there is something wrong with modern technology in our relationship to it.
The modern development agenda is a contemporary embodiment of this illusory human exceptionalism. But this time around it has a humanitarian twist. “Survival of the fittest” has gradually morphed into “survival by the fittest.” Technology is offered to the poor and the slums as a golden ticket. The field of urban sanitation, specifically, has been especially fertile ground for the promise of new technologies to save the masses, having roots in the same thinking as Darwin and Spencer.
Said to be the architect of public health in England, Sir Edwin Chadwick transformed the field of sanitation in 1842 with the release of his Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain in which he developed a scientific link between disease and environmental conditions. In a time when disease ravaged the urban poor and was best understood in fatalistic terms, Chadwick’s premise became known as the “sanitary idea.” It opened a door to radically new scientific approaches to public health.
The problem with Chadwick’s idea was that it was laced with the same racist, imperialistic views that his contemporaries held. Chadwick associated the poor with prehistoric cave-dwellers and implicated them in their own suffering. On October 8, 1889, Chadwick addressed the national Sanitary Institute saying, “The first knowledge we have of man is in a condition that is solitary and unsanitary… earliest remains found in cave dwellings…strangely beastlike and squalidly poor… yet found continuing in tribes in South America and Central Africa.” The backward state of humanity “has been augmented with the progress of civilization,” he continued, and the “superior classes with intelligence and power…guided by…science, cannot fail to be in the highest degree beneficial to the masses…[where] populations are allowed to be crowded, whole families in single rooms.”
We fail to see that regardless of the technological height of past civilizations, the same fault lines of health and sanitation have always existed between the haves and have-nots.
Chadwick painted the history of sanitation in homogeneous strokes, claiming that before his moment in time, all civilizations were foul, putrid, and unhygienic. They were, in his view, characterized by a universal lack of sanitation and health paralleled by a lack of technology. Such a conception of history blinds us to the reality of social inequalities and emboldens our preening sense of technological superiority. We, along with Chadwick, fail to see that regardless of the technological height of past civilizations, the same fault lines of health and sanitation have always existed between the haves and have-nots.
In Ancient Rome, for example, the simple technologies available—cesspits, flushing latrines, gravity-flow aqueducts and sewers—were enough to create basic sanitary conditions for those in power. The empire’s aqueduct system supplied the elite with an abundant water supply for bathing and hygiene. They relieved themselves in marble-floored latrines, which were either cleaned by slaves or emptied into the famous Cloaca Maxima sewer.
Meanwhile, archaeological evidence suggests that in poor, urban neighborhoods the Cloaca-Maxima was choked with mud, human waste, and corpses. The average lifespan in ancient Rome is thought to be around 25 years due to egregious infant mortality rates, likely disproportionately affecting the poor due to a lack of sanitation.
When we can finally realize that the solutions are not new, we can stop reinventing the hardware and begin looking for ways to reinvent the systems.
Two-thousand years later, sanitation technologies have advanced, but the divide in access still lingers. Superior sanitation investments and services are funneled into the neighborhoods of the privileged, while 2.4 billion still lack basic access.
Each wave of new technology breaks, but access never changes. Now, others are coming to the same conclusion. Remi Kaupp, a sanitation adviser at WaterAid writes, “There isn’t much that needs improvement about having a tap connected to mains water and using a toilet that flushes into a sewer…The main ingredients needed to achieve universal water and sanitation coverage are well known, and…they are not glamourous.”
When we can finally realize that the solutions are not new, we can stop reinventing the hardware and begin looking for ways to reinvent the systems. This requires seeing the social dimensions at work.
We find an advocate for this approach in another 19th-century public health reformer, Sir Henry Littlejohn. While Chadwick was preaching the intelligence of the superior classes, Littlejohn was changing the way neighboring Scotland understood the nature of poverty. As the Police Surgeon of Edinburgh, Littlejohn published a study that was similar to Chadwick’s in 1865. The Report on the Sanitary Condition of Edinburgh explored the relationship between disease and poverty during years of mapping mortality rates across city divisions. Littlejohn, however, came to strikingly different conclusions than Chadwick.
Can we yet admit that no technology can solve inequality? That, in fact, our faith in it as savior distracts us from the real underlying problem?
“The rich do not greatly feel the evil,” Littlejohn explained. “Their wants are supplied after a fashion, and they allow a large poor population to grow up in a state of neglect and helplessness as regards one of the first necessities of a healthy life… In Edinburgh we are deeply to blame in respect to the water-supply of the poor, and are largely responsible for the filthy and neglected state in which they live.”
Littlejohn had little confidence that Chadwick’s myth of progress would change the conditions of the poor. Rather, Littlejohn saw the “sanitary idea” through the true compounding inequalities long at work. But well-intentioned researchers, policy-makers, and philanthropists in today’s institutions continue to go the way of Chadwick, led on by the shimmering hope that we can fix this by our intelligence, by funding new inventions and tinkering in the laboratory.
Can we yet admit that no technology can solve inequality? That, in fact, our faith in it as savior distracts us from the real underlying problem? Until we do, we may be perpetuating history’s pattern and pulling modern development dangerously close to the imperialism from which we claim to be free.
Littlejohn exposes the fundamental problem of sanitation as one of environmental justice, more than a century before the term became mainstream. That is, that urban poverty, disease, and lack of sanitation are the products of a societal irresponsibility to equitably bear the environmental risks of cities. That is, not all members receive the same level of services, since it is service provision, not advanced technology, that protects public health in privileged neighborhoods and its lack that spreads disease in slums. Thus, what we may call “sanitation justice” implies cities that provide equitable sanitation services to all its members, regardless of race or class so that the burden of disease does not disproportionately fall on the poor.
It is service provision, not advanced technology, that protects public health in privileged neighborhoods and its lack that spreads disease in slums.
Several start-ups—such as Sanergy in Kenya, SOIL in Haiti, and x-runner in Peru—have started down this path. They have created successful businesses that hygienically collect human waste in urban slums while also creating jobs, using no more sophisticated technology than sealable buckets and composting. Emptying of pit-latrines is also a viable and growing business in slums across Africa (although it is still fraught with problems of worker safety and waste disposal). This is harder work than inventing technological stopgaps, because it requires creating sustainable systems of service provision where none existed before and committing to serving these communities over the long haul.
When we establish these downward-oriented systems of service delivery, systems that actively and intentionally serve the poor first, then we can truly reap the promised benefits of technology because we will have returned it to its proper place as a tool within systems of justice, not as an all-encompassing promise. Then technology may serve justice, not replace it, and we can say we’ve made real progress. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Paradigm as Prison

No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. 
~Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 

There is a trend in academia to put together teams of researchers in ways that are described as interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, (and sometimes the more inscrutable and maybe even more aspirational 'transdisciplinary'). In general, I see this as a positive development because I think it reflects a basic understanding that a disciplinary approach to problem-solving is insufficient, and that contemporary wicked problems require new ways of seeing and doing. But, to advance scientific methodology and praxis in paradigm-changing ways, I think it is incumbent upon researchers to be precise about how they will frame problems differently and how they are able to rise above disciplinarity and/or evolve new paradigms that grapple with the past and reinvent the imagined future. This is no easy task, and my suspicion is that most of these au courant collaborations are multi-disciplinary in that they are bringing together researchers from different disciplines, but they are not truly transdisciplinary. As such, we are not breaking free from the paradigms that have become more our prison than our salvation.

Most academics become proficient in a particular discipline, or paradigm, and engage in what Thomas Kuhn called 'normal science' (1). Adherents to particular disciplines draw on that discipline's established and accepted laws, theoretical frameworks, instruments, and practices in order to carry out their research, to draw conclusions, and to frame new research questions.  As Kuhn notes (p. 10-11),
The study of paradigms...is what mainly prepares the student for membership in the particular scientific community with which he will later practice. Because he there joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke over disagreement over fundamentals. Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition.(2)
The edifice of western science and its attendant tradition of making sense of the world through discrete paradigms is upheld in many ways, e.g. journals, awards, conferences. In addition, academic incentives are structured in such a way as to actively dissuade academics from moving beyond their disciplines. For the academic, a discipline acts like a security blanket. It's what allows them to advance themselves in their career, and enables both increased stature and salary. However, it can also act like a prison or a dark cave, and it's not hard to see how such a set-up might serve to perpetuate the paradigm more than solving complex problems. It's also becoming increasingly clear how such a set-up has actually caused and exacerbated the most complex problems facing humanity today (3).

That's where the push towards multi- or inter-disciplinarity comes in. The academic community knows there is a problem and that traditional disciplinary approaches are not sufficient. That is, we are at a crisis point, and this is, according to Kuhn, the necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories. But, what seems to be happening in many cases is that there is an assumption that bringing researchers from different disciplines together in multi-disciplinary teams is enough to transcend disciplines. There may be some research papers out there that discuss this in more scientific ways, but from my perspective, having people from multiple disciplines work together in teams doesn't usually do anything to promote seeing problems through new theoretical frameworks or developing solutions differently. For example, teams may divide up the work, and figure out some research questions that they can answer by putting their disciplines together, but the research doesn't do anything to actually generate novel ways of understanding or seeing the problem.  In other words, across disciplines, the same world view generates the problem's construction as well as the inquiry for addressing that problem. So, while there is a sense that things must change, there is not a full understanding that the problem goes way beyond bringing disciplines together and hoping that mixing scientific traditions together can somehow result in a better pot of soup.

Again, Thomas Kuhn (p. 92):
Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, again often restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution.
With a Trump presidency, I have seen scientists adopting more of a political awareness, but I think it is more defensive than reflective. Unfortunately, I think we're in a moment of self-preservation where scientists feel the need to protect the paradigms, not reject them in favor of theories that would render the "wickedness" of wicked problems impotent. So, though there is a sense that things need to change as evidenced by the trend of multi- and inter-disciplinarity, I think that the political environment is not conducive to a scientific revolution. Perhaps we can make the jump with a future administration.



(1) Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, vol. 2, no. 2.
(2) Yes, I also noticed all the "hims," "hises," and "hes."  It's annoying, but I've learned to read past it.
(3) There is a lot of good writing on the limitations of paradigmatic problem solving. Lately, I particularly enjoy the critiques of Economics. A recent article: "What if sociologists had as much influence as economists?"