Food can give us alternative paths to development

Food is often seen as a basic need that needs to be covered before we can address other values ​​in society. But food can also be a bridge that includes marginalized groups in the development process, writes Jamila Haider, doctoral student at Stockholm Resilience Center with experience from Afghanistan.

Our visions of global development are based on our experience and knowledge. Whether it is about nations, societies or individuals, we tend to see modernization as a linear process of poverty reduction. A process in which the first step is to meet basic needs by, for example, assisting with processed seeds and fertilizers, and then turning the focus to things such as gender equality, environmental protection and the preservation of cultural heritage.

Food can change our view of development and how projects are implemented in two ways. First, food can open up completely new spaces where everyone - especially those who are often marginalized - has power and can imagine their own future. Secondly, food is holistic in itself. Through food we can understand well-being, health, environment, spirituality, culture, language and sustainability.

When I worked with development in northern Afghanistan in 2009-2011, I used to hold workshops with the aim of getting marginalized groups, especially women, to develop their own development strategies together. My colleagues and I asked what their hopes were for the future and received the answers we expected; access to markets, better infrastructure and greater production of the easy-to-sell crops. These responses reinforced our perception that the projects we planned or implemented also yielded the results we expected. The answers strengthened our own view of development.

Soup changed my view of development

Then my view of what development can be over a day changed. The landlord of a house we lived in said she was ashamed that the only thing she could serve us was a soup she made from grain and groats that grew in the fields outside her house.

The soup was called "Osh ” and it was delicious and refreshing. It contained noodles made from several different types of legumes and grains. The food was a stark contrast to the oily meat and imported rice that I used to be offered in these mountainous regions. Our host then showed us the fields behind his house where peas, rye, wheat and broad beans grew. The field of mixed crops was called “lashak-makh".

The woman explained to us that by mixing the crops in this way, she knew that at least some crops would survive regardless of whether there would be a drought or an unusual amount of rain. Sowing in this way year after year also meant that she did not have to worry about the soil becoming less fertile. In addition, it was easy to harvest and even grind grain and legumes together to make the flour used in “Osh”Soup.

After we ate the soup, she told us how these mixed fields kept the farmers strong and healthy, and how certain imported food brought with it new diseases. She wanted her children to go to school so that they could later get a job with a secure income. But she also wanted them to know how they live off the earth, to know the spiritual and cultural traditions of cultivation, and to live long, healthy lives.

Her recipe for “OshWas not written down (the languages ​​in these mountain areas lack written language) and since much was changing in the Pamir mountain region, she worried that knowledge would be lost in future generations.

Marginalized women got a vote

The story of "Osh”Opened the door to an alternative story and a vision for the future that I had not heard before - a vision that was rooted in the landscape. Suddenly, marginalized women got a vote. We documented this story and many others in what became the book “With Our Own Hands: A Celebration of Food and Life in The Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan”And after the publication, we distributed a copy to every community in the Pamir.

What can we learn from this story and from using food for development?

Food has a thoughtful function. The flavors and aromas evoke memories of places and people. Food is unpretentious - everyone has knowledge or a perception of food. With this unpretentiousness, food can change traditional power relations. Food can help bring out ideas that would otherwise have been hidden.

Customs that can sometimes seem backward in our own cemented, linear view of development can actually be important solutions. But for these ideas to take root and gain strength, we as academics, practitioners, donors and citizens must give greater recognition to these alternative, marginalized development paths.

Jamila Haider

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

Do you want to respond to the debate article or is there something in the text that is incorrect? Contact us at

Share this: