Archive for April, 2011

Considering “The Road to Hell”

“The evil that is in the world always comes out of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding” Albert Camus, The Plague

Michael Maren, in “The Road to Hell” paints a grim picture of aid to Africa by telling the story of US assistance for Somalia a decade before the civil war until the late 1990’s. From the outset, Maren makes it clear that the local Somali citizens whose unknown faces were occasionally splashed across American newspapers with headlines highlighting their suffering from poverty, hunger, lack of capital, and disease would probably have fared better without US intervention preceding the civil war. Many readers will argue that international intervention to prevent mass killings of Somalis under the dictator Siad Barre could not have been denied out of a sheer sense of responsibility. As civil unrest continues, media coverage continues to focus on the shocking images of children with extended bellies. This has helped fuel a uniform image of Africa- the continent is so poor that the millions of people there could use anything and everything. The ugly truth is that “For television, the worst, most despairing picture [are] the best. Famine and horror [have become] a commodity” (Maren, 213). I do not advocate sitting back and watching a massacre take place. However, America’s aid has taken a toll on many livelihoods over the years by supporting and exploiting a destructive structure to ease the ill-will of many Americans and the image of the US on the surface and to dispose of excess agricultural commodities. Let’s be clear, aid has not killed Africa but it has not yielded any long-lasting results either.

Maren quickly dispenses of common misconceptions and mocks those who have unquestioningly donated to bureaucratic relief agencies who are working under the charitable guise of development aid (he most explicitly reveals the distorted budget of his employer, Save the Children). He writes, “…for $20 a month little Pedro can have a hot meal and a place to go to school and new pajamas. Problem solved. If everyone gave money we could dispense with all these unpleasant pictures of dying children once and for all”… “You’re a bunch of mush-minded guilty liberal assholes for believing them, for believing that money and guns can solve the problems of the poor” (28).  Relieving poverty is not a goal in and of itself; it is the result of something much more basic, fundamental, and encompassing. It is structural. Unfortunately in development work today, it is not the Somali who endures the greatest change; it is the white man who must grow accustomed to the lack of urban amenities. Maren succinctly writes that to exercise true development, the American who needs to reflect and change himself before imposing a flawed system that will only further exploit the continent. It is important to realize that since the 1960’s, when aid to Africa began to flow more heavily, the continent has not raised its living standards, decreased the poverty rate (many policies have targeted rural populations to help them resettle in an urban setting but this has resulted in even worse conditions- the sprawling slums), or seen an increase in opportunity.

Maren points out that the failures in development are most transparent in food aid where much of the money is spent on the process rather than the product. Many relief workers in Somalia before and after the Civil War knew full well that their work was endangering those who spoke with them and that their food aid packages stamped with “From the American People” were funding rebels. But each day they woke up to do the same work because of their commitment to the “greater cause” of alleviating poverty and bringing peace (97).  During the war, Oxfam was teaching refugees to grow their own food but the refugees were planning to return to a nomadic lifestyle as soon as possible so this skill set was useless and there was little incentive to learn this (98). CARE was distributing (and continues to do so) surplus US agricultural products (subsidized by the United States1.  Soon it became easier to just live in the refugee camp and receive free food than to work for wages, which no longer covered the expenses of food in the regular market. Rebels could easily steel the food and sell it in local stores where the profit margin would be far greater, crowding out local businesses and allow them to channel this excess liquidity to rebel groups. In the end, food aid has done absolutely nothing for food security; food aid has only fueled further corruption despite the charitable will of so many Americans.

"food aid has done absolutely nothing for food security"

Maren observed many other downsides of relief or development aid from institutions such as US AID, Save the Children, and CARE among many others. Monetary remuneration of labor has been a cornerstone of US aid and has shifted indigenous paradigms. Lucrative structures have been central to development packages and, instead of alleviating the reported suffering, have perpetuated a cycle of unrest, exploitation, dependence on foreign aid, and fed a corrupt bureaucratic system.  At the end of the Civil War Maren writes, “… in Somalia (as in much of Africa), relief and development are the most dynamic growth industries. An African entrepreneur doing a rational analysis of his economic opportunities would likely conclude that the future was in relief and development work” (165). The current system simply lacks a real goal to change and a system of accountability between agencies and their field-workers as well between donator and recipient countries and communities.

Today we are left with a chicken and egg story where local African governments blame colonialism for the poverty on the continent and US and international agencies blame laziness and the general lack of education of the people.  Maren’s main conclusion, after having worked in Somalia in the 1980’s and 90’s, is “that doing relief and development work in the context of oppression is counterproductive. Any real commitment to development requires political action, speaking out against the power that keeps populations from developing themselves” (88). Development aid must focus on the structure rather than the symptoms- on the underlying causes of poverty, malnourishment, child mortality, and disease. This is an ongoing debate in the international community and consequently Maren’s expose has been met with much critique because many organizations are in fact questioning the status quo. But the next time you see an image of a malnourished child and feel that sense of guilt, think twice before sending those few dollars through the organization and pick up the Road to Hell- it’s a quick and informational read. I also feel that sense of responsibility; I cannot sit idly as a bystander.  But let’s engage in a form of aid that is sustainable, research oriented, tailored to indigenous communities, and constantly questions the state of affairs.


After several years of providing food aid under the Marshall Plan in the late 1940’s and early 50’s, Europe bounced back and was able to satisfy its own agricultural needs. American farmers were producing a surplus and so needed new markets quickly to prevent destitution. “In a normal world, the rising surplus would lower prices — and profits– driving people out of the grain market until supply and demand  would settle into some sort of harmony” (192). But this was not the case because the US government agreed to set a price floor. “It required tariffs and quotas to keep foreign commodities out” (193) and implemented a food “Cargo preference, which requires that 75 percent of certain foreign food aid be shipped on privately owned U.S.-flag vessels” (189). The real cost of production far outweighs the real benefit (therefore not representing free market competition, which is the idea that the US has been exporting). The cost of storing even sometimes outweighed cost of production. “With Europe’s markets satisfied by their own domestic production, there was only one place to go: U.S. grain would have to be sent to the Third World” (193). These underdeveloped countries had little foreign exchange but “needed a benefactor, someone to buy the food for them, or at least accept their rupees, cidis, and shillings…. “The answer was obvious: The U.S. government would have to be the middleman and absorb the foreign currencies” (193). The US recently tripled its aid to the African continent as revealed in the Washington post in 2006. One can hope for a change in policy…

Maren, Michael. The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. The Free Press: New York. 1997

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Monday April 11th- Red Tent!!!

Note: Deep Dialogues will be extended 1/2 hour this week, beginning at 4:45 and going until 7:00 in the Landis House

The red tent is a safe place for women to talk about taboo topics, get vulnerable about their current problems, laugh, sing, dance, eat, tell stories, drink tea, create artwork, meditate, journal, etc. The Rent Tent movement is changing the way that women interact, support each other, and think about their bodies. The Red Tent was a space and a practice partially inspired by the menstrual hut that the women thousands of years ago used. Jacque Hanson, a modern day priestess in Carlisle, will be explaining the history of the red tent and guiding us through the two hours together. Everyone should bring a friend, a blanket, a picture of a loved one or missed ancestor, and food. It will be a great time together, and wear something red!

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Back to Earthbodies

“We come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh…It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth” –Wendell Berry

This quote sums up much of what I am trying to convey in talking about earthbodies. Despite the uniqueness of the human mind, the inventiveness of humans, the “wonders” of technological advancement and the alleged productivity that a competitive capitalist economy creates, our bodies are intricately connected to the earth and we, as humans, must recognize the importance of this basic foundation of our being if we are to be able to nurture and take care of our earthbodies.

The importance of thoughtful consumption: “The household that prepares its own meals in its own kitchen with some intelligent regard for nutritional value, and thus depends on the  grocer only for selected raw materials, exercises an influence on the food industry that reaches from the store all the way back to the seedsman” -Wendell Berry. One of the most important ways to think about ecofeminism is through food. One of the most basic and vital connections between our bodies and the earth is nourishment. At base, humans need shelter, food and water to live (as it turns out, these are seemingly not enough and for many, hard to come by). We take all of these things from the earth; each one deserves thoughtful consideration, and I would like to focus on food. The far-reaching impact made by individual thoughtfulness in relation to food can be abstract, but it is momentous.

Until very recently, I never put a lot of thought into the food that I ate. Food was as simple as knowing to eat when you’re hungry, trying to make sure to balance nutrition and delicious taste for a healthy diet. Last semester I read a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. As I learned more and more about factory farming, meat consumption, treatment of workers in the meat industry, calamitous environmental impacts, and the silence that surrounds all of these issues, I began to realize that I was a complicit perpetrator of these acts of violence. “Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerlless, to the most distant, to the voiceless–it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one oway or another. Consistency is not required, but engagement with the problem is” (Foer 267). My first reaction was to cut meat out of my diet entirely, which I did. As I continued learning more about food and agriculture, I was again forced to think critically about the food choices I made. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver beautifully illustrates the importance of thoughtful, local eating. She and her family commit to eating only food that is grown or purchased locally. Slowly I began to realize that the reasons I had for not eating meat had further implications. If I resolved to simply stop eating meat entirely, but I put little or no thought into other products I consumed, I would not be upholding the values that sparked me to stop eating meat in the first place. Foer says,  “When we lift our forks, we hang our hats somewhere. We set ourselves in one relationsihp or another to farmed animals, farm workers, national economies, and global markets” (Foer 261).

My point can’t be said more eloquently. If we are fortunate enough, we interact with and consume food every day; this food comes from the earth and is cycled through our bodies and back to the earth. If we stop to think about it, this is an intensely intimate interaction between our bodies and the earth. Thus, this interaction deserves thoughtfulness. If our food industry was more thoughtfully organized, the benefits would be monumental. Imagine a world in which food was grown by passionate individuals who have a stake in the continued nourishment of the earth, where every animal slaughtered was appreciated for its sacrifice, where instead of being expected at every meal in great quantity for little cost, meat consumption required thought and thankfulness, where instead of demanding, expecting and consuming vegetables that are not in season or fruits that come from half-way around the world we ate locally and seasonally, where we made it a priority to make sure every mouth is fed rather than make sure we have an incredulous amount of meat being sold in every store and restaurant. If this were the case, workers that grow food would have a better quality of life, animals would have a better quality of life, there would be less chemicals in our food, in our bodies, in the earth, there would be less death caused by starvation, we would be healthier, there would be less pollution, and the practice of thoughtfulness would spread to other areas of our lives. “We eat as sons and daugthers, as families, as communities, as generations, as nations, and increasingly as a globe. We can’t stop our eating from radiating influence even if we want to” (Foer 261).

It takes time, commitment, energy, and even privilege to make thoughtful food choices. But if we have the means, we must challenge and demand better from ourselves. Willful ignorance cannot be the standard once we know the powerful influence food choices have. One vegetarian, one farmer’s market, one farm cannot fix everything, but that is not a reason to say individual food choices needn’t be thoughtful. Thoughtful eating can change the world.

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After developing a working plant list for the medicinal plants I plan to research and cultivate as part of a garden that suits the needs of my community, I began looking into the historical and cultural uses of the plants beyond their contemporary and well-known uses.  From here, I researched ethnobotany; the study of the relationship between plants and people. Ethnobotany focuses on how the plants available to a group of people shape their culture, and how a culture of people maintains their relationship to the earth around them with plants. Ehtnobotany plays a particular role in researching the historical uses of native plants in my bioregion because it reflects how the people who previously inhabited this land utilized their resources and the relationship that they had with these plants.


The Iroquois relationship to medicinal plants (and uses of the plants) reflects how the uses of native plants have changed over time in my bioregion and how the use of these plants and cultural value originated. Though Pennsylvania was not historically the origin or primary location of the Iroquois, many Native American trading trails go through Pennsylvania, especially central Pennsylvania, and these trading routes serve as an opportunity for material and cultural exchanges.  Researching the historical origin of native medicinal plant use; such as bergamot, black cohosh, and dandelion, demonstrates how the relationship of one culture to its plants has passed to other cultures. Specifically, the plant use and relationship to plants of the Iroquois was passed on to many of the early European settlers and then developed into the contemporary uses we associate the plants with today. Though the uses of the plants have remained the same over time in many cases, the relationships that different cultures maintain with plants (and the earth around them) changed greatly over time.


Ethnobotany connects to ecofeminist ideals because it describes how a culture interacts with its plant resources and how a culture develops based on nature.  In regards to medicinal herbs, people developed a relationship to nature as they utilized the plants available locally to remedy the health needs of their communities.


“History of Susquehannock Indians”.

“Ethnobotany from a Native American Perspective”.

Herrick, James W. Iroquois Medical Botany. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse NY, 1995.

Balick, Michael J. and Paul Alan Cox. Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. Scientific American Library: New York, 1996.

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Existence Precedes Essence

As I read books and watch movies about thoughts and ideas that relate to Ecofeminism, I continue to come across words and concepts that overlap everywhere. This is one of the beauties of Ecofeminism-it points to overlap between different forms of oppression, similarities between all living beings and connection between the earth and everyone/thing that is a part of it. As I read books ranging from Eating Animals to Living Downstream to The Miracle of Mindfulness, to Days of War, Nights of Love, I scribble down words and concepts over and over: Silence, Objectification, Power, Mindfulness, Commoditization, Abstraction etc. By the end of the semester I hope to provide an introductory guide to Ecofeminism that incorporates in an understandable fashion, how all these concepts are related and integral to understanding Ecofeminist thought. This post will be an attempt to map the connections I have made so far.

I started this map of connection by writing down words that I have found in different texts that all relate back to Ecofeminism. As I read about the injustice of spraying chemicals over fields or hydro-fracking the earth without concern for the long-term damage it will cause, the continued silence that perpetuates a violent culture, a rape culture, and a culture that condones factory farming, the destructive binaries that are used to understand differences between people, animals, plants and nature, the belief that vegetables sprayed with chemicals and wrapped in plastic are more clean than the ones that come out from the soil, and the willingness to make a profit at any expense, I sometimes ask myself how things can continue to be so backwards. It seems so simple to me, stop the silence, stop the violence, find the compassion, promote accountability. But, because I have faith in humanity and in all existence (I don’t exclude this to just humans), I know it can’t be that simple. I am not an expert at anything- psychology, biology, sociology or even philosophy. So the observations and conclusions I have made thus far cannot be said to be the fact of the matter. However, I happen to believe that there is no fact of the matter and that believing there is, is a problem.

Essentialism is the belief that things are essentially the way they are. Every human, plant, animal, object has an innate essence and existence comes forth from that essence. In Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference, Diana Fuss points out that essentialism is inherently an opposition to difference; “Essentialism is classically defined as a belief in true essence—that which is most irreducible, unchanging, and therefore constitutive of a given person or thing” (Fuss, 2). This belief categorizes maleness and femaleness as an essential base from which existence proceeds. This understanding makes essence constitutive of a given person or thing and it thus creates a strict notion of identity that provides little fluidity. If we hold onto strict classifications of people and animals, it becomes easy to objectify and subsequently commoditize them or to marginalize them. Classification based on fixed identities leads to hierarchies and dualisms that establish norm vs. other; human/animal, man/woman, white/colored, etc. Once these dualisms are established, one is dominant over the other and the struggle becomes endless. I am not claiming that essentialism is the root cause of everything, because there is no one and only cause. But understanding existence as coming out of a fixed essence makes it difficult to understand difference, connection and complexity.

As long as we operate with absolutes in our understanding, we don’t have to be responsible or accountable; instead we can appeal to higher structures or experts. In her Keynote address at the CPC Gender and Violence conference this weekend, Andrea Smith spoke about reaching out across communities rather than reaching up towards structures (or absolutes). We have the power to heal ourselves and to hold ourselves accountable; we need not only seek experts for healing or judicial systems for justice.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a book called Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which he describes that there is no Absolute Morality or Absolute Truth. He believes we must determine our own values and morals, and we must do it continuously, with integrity. There is no moral law. At every moment, we must decide what is right for ourselves. Another philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, believes that existence precedes essence. In other words, there is no essential nature from which our existence and identity are determined. There is only existence, and through existence we are continuously determining our essence; identity is fluid.  This philosophy illustrates two notions that I believe are integral to Ecofeminist thought: mindfulness and existence. At any moment of existence, limitless possibilities are open to us, and because everything is interconnected, how we choose to act affects the rest of existence. If I live in each moment with this belief that I am shaping my essence and existence around me, then the things that are most important to me are community and compassion. I can make no choices without knowing they have effects everywhere, so I make choices with the hope of nourishing myself and others—I balance my anxieties about abstract problems that I cannot fix by affecting change in every moment of every day. Because maybe its not possible to touch a thousand people as deeply or as powerfully as one person or ten people. And maybe it’s not really so revolutionary after all to have one person or group telling everybody else what’s right. Wouldn’t it be better to try a decentralized approach where everyone works closely with those around them, instead of a few people leading an anonymous mass? I don’t want to find a way to make it impossible for anyone to eat meat ever, even though that would solve the problems of factory farming. I would rather get 10 people to think more thoughtfully about what they consume. I truly believe that the best thing I can do determine my own values and pursue them with integrity.

To conclude a post that doesn’t tie neatly back together, the message I am trying to convey is that I believe part of the Ecofeminist thought is that existence precedes essence. Everything is connected and nothing is fixed and when I live with this mindset, I am more likely to be thoughtful about how my choices and actions affect the rest of existence. I am accountable to myself and to my community.

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