Food for Thought

>> Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The comments thread on this NPR story about aid distribution in Haiti is interesting. Relief organizations have begun distributing food through women on the assumption that it is likelier to trickle down to children that way than if male heads of households are direct recipients. This strategy has been common wisdom in refugee settings for some years. On the other hand, it is a blunt instrument (what about single fathers? a commenter writes) and, like teaching children to seek help from women instead of men when lost in public places, risks reinforcing gender stereotypes about women as altruistic and men as greedy and uncaring.

I'm no veteran of humanitarian settings, so I don't have any applied experience on which to brainstorm better alternatives. However the dynamic described in the news story - and the ethical dilemma articulated by the commenters - brought to my mind the first chapter of Ender's Shadow. For those familiar with the Ender's Game series but not with the shadow novels, the early chapters trace the character Bean's pre-Battle-School life on the streets of Rotterdam. Lines at soup kitchens servicing homeless children were routinely dominated by the strongest and least vulnerable children of the street because there was no mechanism in place to allocate food more equitably. However, once a group of smaller kids attracted a "bully" to get soup on their behalf, the nuns running the soup kitchens had the bright idea of institutionalizing a rule that bigger kids could only eat if they came in with littler kids. At least for a time, in the story, this worked. Nuns running the soup kitchens found a way to reward food-sharing behavior without using proxies like sex as a basis for assuming who would be the appropriate recipients.

Could something similar work in a place like Haiti? Aid agencies' goal is not to exclude men, it's to maximize food distribution - to ensure it's getting into the mouths of children and pregnant women as well. But aid organizations also need to avoid a backlash from men who may feel angry, excluded, hungry and emasculated by the more powerful outsiders.

Could a system be put in place that channeled food not to individuals but to families or groups of families, acknowledging and working within local hierarchies while incentivizing the best rather than the worst behavior among men as well as women? I don't know the answer but it's worth thinking about.


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