To love the “enemy”

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[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

For almost 500 years, Anabaptists have refused to participate in war. After World War I, diverse groups founded MCC as an inter-Anabaptist institution to assist victims of the Great War. Since then, MCC has continued to assist people globally, often in post-conflict situations. MCC initially worked only in areas controlled by the U.S. military and the Saigon government of South Vietnam. However, Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” called some within MCC to assist all Vietnamese people in need—including those in communities “on the other side.” In this article, drawing on my experiences working with MCC in Vietnam in the late 1960s, I examine the risks involved in acting on Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” in a conflict zone and the results that flowed from
answering that call.

In Tam Ky, Quang Nam Province, where I worked in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969, I built friendships and trust with many Vietnamese friends. Together, we developed a literacy program welcomed by parents and children on both sides of the conflict. The literacy program started in displaced person camps in Tam Ky, but soon spread to villages beyond the U.S./Saigon government perimeter. This expansion enabled me to work
and make friends with a broad spectrum of people in both Tam Ky and also communities deemed “unsafe” and “hostile” by the U.S. military. In a letter to my parents in 1968, I wrote: “Tonight Tam Ky is beautiful and peaceful. It is really kind of great to go out at night because at night I own the whole town. The GIs and CIA may use it during the day, but at night it is their enemy. But for me, it is my friend both day and night.” The same span of Vietnamese friendships that enabled me to live and work safely in both Tam Ky and with marginal communities proved threatening to the U.S. military. War is fueled by fear and hatred of the enemy, so for soldiers to see their fellow countrymen making friends and living peacefully with both sides in a combat zone is, as one U.S. official explained, “hard on the morale of the U.S. soldiers.”

The first reaction of American officials in Tam Ky was to ask the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to pressure Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS) leaders to have me transferred out of the war zone. [MCC was the lead organization of VNCS, which also included Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief.] That effort failed, after a chance meeting with a U.S. journalist led to an article in the New York Times pointing out that the U.S. government—which was destroying Vietnam—was attempting to kick out volunteers who were trying to help Vietnamese people. (A worker from International Voluntary Service was also on the list of people the U.S.military wanted removed.) The article further noted that, in a democracy, the government cannot tell non-governmental organizations (NGOs) how to deploy their staff, while the separation of church and state is supposed
to protect religious organizations from government interference.

Several months after the effort to remove me from Tam Ky backfired, a student who taught in our literacy program asked me to meet her father at her aunt’s house. Her father informed me that he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that he had been assigned to spread disinformation about me in the Tam Ky area. He explained that the CIA had informants from rural National Liberation Front (NLF) areas who would come monthly to Tam Ky and report to the CIA about local officials in their area, so that the military could attempt to kill them. The CIA plan was to tell the informants that I was a covert CIA agent. The assumption, he explained, was that when the rumor took hold, the NLF would “solve the Doug Hostetter problem” the next time they infiltrated Tam Ky. When I asked Vietnamese friends how I should respond to the warning, they advised me to pray and trust my friends. If I were to leave Tam Ky just as the rumor was spreading, they said, it would be believed, and MCC could never again send volunteers to Tam Ky. Several months later, my literacy teacher asked me to meet with her father again. He reported that the campaign had been a failure; the informants had spread the rumor, but the people did not believe it and now I was likely safe.

All of the Western NGOs in Vietnam claimed that they were there to love and assist the Vietnamese people. But most of them only assisted Vietnamese who lived in the areas controlled by the Saigon government, protected by U.S. troops. Some Mennonites and Quakers tried hard to expand our work to assist people on both sides of the conflict. In 1975, 130 international NGOs were operating in South Vietnam. When the U.S. troops withdrew, only MCC and the American Friends Service Committee remained as witnesses to a God who is bigger than the United States and who loves all Vietnamese people, regardless of where they live or whose military is in control.

Doug Hostetter is MCC’s United Nations Office director. He also served with MCC in Tam Ky, Vietnam from 1966 to 1969.

Learn more

Hostetter, Doug. The People Make the Peace. Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2015.

Martin, Earl. Reaching the Other Side. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978.

MCC and the anti-Vietnam War movement

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[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Many MCC constituents in the United States in the early 1960s were still quite distinct from society, thanks both to the theological principle of separation from the world and to a history of cultural isolation. If not for some of their sons and daughters living and working in Vietnam as MCC workers, and some of their sons resisting cooperation with military conscription, these factors may have prevented any significant engagement
with the anti-Vietnam War movement on the part of Anabaptists in the U.S. The work and witness of these young men and women committed to living out Christ’s way of peace, even in a world at war, pushed Anabaptist churches in the U.S. to greater engagement with public policy issues, including decisions of war and peace. This article will examine how during the Vietnam War MCC slowly learned to address public policy issues raised by the war.

As MCC workers in Vietnam gained a first-hand view of the war and the suffering it caused, their reports began to have a profound impact on the churches that had sent them. An MCC letter to the White House in November 1967 reflected the concerns that arose among MCC workers carrying out relief efforts in a context of war: “we cannot serve the victims of war in Vietnam without seriously questioning those activities of the United States which cause the suffering we seek to alleviate. Our consciences protest against providing clothing and food and medical care for refugees while remaining silent about a policy which generates new refugees each day.”

MCC staff sent numerous letters and delegations to the White House during the course of the war. MCC Executive Secretary William Snyder sent a letter to President Lyndon Johnson dated June 2, 1965, expressing “deep concern over the enlarging of the war in Vietnam with its consequent toll of human suffering.” MCC sent every member of congress special issues of The Mennonite and The Gospel Herald from January 1966 that presented the perspective of Mennonite workers in Vietnam. In 1972, MCC coordinated a delegation of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ leaders to the White House. The leaders’ prepared statement implored the U.S. government to cease all military aid to Vietnam and urged the government to “Repent! Turn about, make a fresh start!” MCC’s Washington Office coordinated this and other visits by MCC workers and denominational leaders to address public policy concerns arising from the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

This type of public policy advocacy was new territory for MCC’s engagement with government, as the focus began to shift from speaking on behalf of conscientious objectors from constituent churches to speaking on behalf of friends and partners halfway around the world who were suffering from our government’s policies. Some members of MCC’s supporting churches viewed this kind of advocacy as inappropriate for a church agency. MCC organized a major consultation with Anabaptist church leaders in December 1966 to discuss concerns about the church’s peace witness in the public arena and MCC’s role in that witness. In the aftermath of the consultation, MCC continued to engage in active resistance to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War through public policy advocacy, even as many of its Mennonite and Brethren in Christ supporters continued to view such advocacy incompatible or at least in tension with traditional nonresistant commitments and practices.

Meanwhile, dozens of young men from Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in the U.S. protested the war by resisting the draft. Society’s deep divisions about the war played out in a Mennonite landscape of theological concerns about allegiance, discipleship and civil disobedience. MCC Peace Section staff member Walton Hackman provided counseling and resources to many young draft resisters. The Mennonite Church
affirmed resistance to the draft as a valid application of its teaching about peace and nonresistance at its national convention in 1969.

MCC workers from Vietnam who returned to the U.S. were widely sought after for speaking engagements in churches, schools and civic organizations. Atlee Beechy estimates that he spoke to 150 different groups in his first year back from MCC service in Vietnam. As people with intimate knowledge about the war in Vietnam, former MCC workers participated in anti-war mobilizations back in the U.S. Following his MCC
Vietnam service, Doug Hostetter worked for the People’s Peace Treaty project and traveled to both South and North Vietnam with the U.S. National Student Association.

The Vietnam War awakened the conscience of many regarding the payment of taxes for war. Delton Franz, the MCC Washington Office’s first director, and his wife Marian joined others in promoting the nation’s first peace tax legislation, known as the World Peace Tax Fund, introduced by Ron Dellums in 1972. MCC created a Taxes for Peace Fund in 1972 in response to the desire of its Anabaptist supporters to send their withheld war tax dollars to support MCC’s peace work.

MCC workers in Vietnam also engaged in behind-the-scenes work that resulted in significant contributions to the anti-war effort in the U.S. In 1973, MCC worker Pat Hostetter Martin introduced a journalist to several persons, including a young Vietnamese woman handcuffed to her hospital bed. This woman, a political prisoner, had been beaten and sexually assaulted by South Vietnamese soldiers. These connections facilitated by Hostetter Martin resulted in a four-part series on political prisoners in the
New York Times highly critical of the war.

MCC did not, to be sure, fully engage with the leaders and tactics of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States. Yet, through support of conscientious objectors to the war, its growing advocacy work, its support for war tax resistance and its on-the-ground witness to the atrocities of the war, MCC developed its own parallel witness against the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War, a witness in keeping with its theological understandings, its relationships and work in Vietnam and a church support base still cautious about advocacy to government.

Titus Peachey worked with MCC for more than thirty years, most recently as peace education coordinator for MCC U.S. He currently serves on the board of Legacies of War, the leading U.S.-based educational and advocacy organization working to address the impact of conflict in Laos during the Vietnam War-era, including removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO).

Learn More

Legacies of War website: legaciesofwar.org

Bush, Perry. “The Political Education of Vietnam Christian Service, 1954-1975.” Peace and Change. 27/2 (April 2002): 198-224.

King, Martin Luther. “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence: Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam.” Sermon delivered at Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967. Available at http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/.

MCC opened its office in Washington, D.C. in 1968 to focus Anabaptist advocacy efforts about conscription and against the Vietnam War. Today, the MCC Washington Office calls on  the U.S. government to assume responsibility for the deadly legacies of Agent Orange/Dioxin. To learn more about the Washington Office’s work, visit washington.mcc.org.

Peace identity in war time

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[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Mennonite Central Committee began its ministries in revolutionary Vietnam in 1954, immediately following the signing of the Geneva Accords that ended the French Indochina War. Partnering with the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN), MCC provided humanitarian assistance and medical services within the
context of Cold War realities. From the beginning, church and mission leaders, as well as top South Vietnam government officials, understood that Mennonites eschewed participation in military service. This article traces how, over the course of the next 20 years, MCC worked to maintain its identity as a peace organization in a country at war, weighing competing interests from North American leadership, North American constituency, other international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), United
States (U.S.) government agents and MCC personnel present in Vietnam.

Military engagement renewed in 1959 as the two major parties in Vietnam failed to pursue a political resolution. Paul Peachey, representing the MCC Peace Section, visited Vietnam in March 1960. By late 1961, Saigon President Ngo Dinh Diem was calling the conflict a “real war.” Early in 1962, the United States formed the Military Assistance-Command Vietnam and began directing military activity against the insurgency in South Vietnam. Unable to control the insurrection in the South, the U.S. prepared to launch bombing raids on North Vietnam. Its naval forces provoked the August 1964 incident in the Tonkin Gulf, which in turn provided the rationalization to begin the massive bombing raids that continued for several years.

Earlier that year, anticipating an expansion of social work ministries, MCC invited Paul Longacre to direct the Vietnam program. Typhoons and catastrophic floods in central Vietnam quickly engaged Longacre’s time. Cooperating with U.S. and Vietnamese government agencies, MCC workers soon realized that military strategy was determining who received relief assistance. Declaring that “MCC must speak out” against such policies, Longacre sent a letter to the deputy prime minister and shared his concerns with other INGOs working in Vietnam.

The first U.S. Marines came ashore in Vietnam in March 1965. As the number of combat troops steadily rose, the MCC Executive Committee asked Executive Secretary William Snyder to write to President Lyndon Johnson expressing “deep concern” about the burgeoning war bringing suffering to the Vietnamese people. Throughout the summer, major American Mennonite church bodies also protested the expanding war, while the missionaries working with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (now Eastern Mennonite Missions) prepared a statement of concern.

The growing American military involvement stirred the American Protestant and Orthodox churches collaborating under the umbrella of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Church World Service (CWS) to respond to the needs of an increasing number of displaced persons, with the NCC proposing that MCC coordinate and lead a joint relief effort with CWS. In January 1966, MCC, CWS and Lutheran World Relief (LWR) signed an agreement to form Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS) “to serve refugees and other people in the emergency situation in Vietnam.” There was strong support for VNCS within MCC, but some supporters began expressing concerns about possible unintended consequences of the VNCS response. These dissenting voices noted that caring for those
displaced by the war seemed to facilitate America’s military escapade and wondered if MCC should even operate in Vietnam.

Atlee Beechy became the first VNCS executive director. Beechy told the head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Vietnam that VNCS senses “a responsibility to work toward peace.” He wrote letters to U.S. congressional representatives and made a point to “preach peace” as he interacted with American officials. In July 1966, Snyder and C.N. Hostetter, Jr., the chair of MCC’s Executive Committee, wrote a letter to President Johnson and led an MCC delegation to the White House, expressing “our opposition to escalation of military efforts which increase the dimensions of human suffering,” and calling for “some bold initiative” to end the bloodshed.

Frank Epp, editor of the weekly Canadian Mennonite, visited Vietnam in March of 1966, bringing with him serious reservations about MCC’s presence, but returned home convinced that MCC belonged in Vietnam. Throughout the war, critics within MCC’s constituency frequently suggested that MCC was too closely associated with the United States’ Vietnam policy and should leave. Defenders of MCC’s Vietnam program countered that for MCC to leave would deprive MCC of a powerful base of legitimacy in speaking against U.S. policy.

VNCS provided food, medical and other assistance to displaced persons in central Vietnam. VNCS workers were committed to helping war victims, but many struggled with feeling like they had become cogs in the massive U.S. war machine. President Johnson’s decision in May 1967 to combine all U.S. agencies, including USAID, into one operational body—Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS)—under
General William Westmoreland’s military command exacerbated these reservations. CORDS viewed VNCS personnel as part of their pacification team.

Pleased with VNCS’s service to displaced persons in central Vietnam, USAID proposed contracting with VNCS to care for affected people in other areas. MCC’s Executive Committee initially gave authorization for the partnership, but before the planned signing in July 1967, MCC asked the VNCS director to desist, in order to “maintain a VNCS identity and integrity to the greatest degree possible in the face of stronger military control of South Vietnam by the United States forces.”

Questions arose within MCC and VNCS more broadly about whether VNCS should continue its already existing programs. There were two schools of thought. One group believed the war and/or the U.S. presence in Vietnam was wrong and immoral. They came to Vietnam believing that the independent, Christian, and church ownership of their agency would be emphasized. They refused to be “on the U.S. team,” did not want to be associated with U.S. efforts and believed it was their Christian duty to express the difference. Others, meanwhile, felt just as strongly that they were in Vietnam to serve the Vietnamese people in any way possible, regardless of the limitations. They wanted to serve the suffering and needy and did not want VNCS personnel engaging in secondary activities that would jeopardize the working relationship of VNCS with ruling authorities, including the U.S. military, in Vietnam. They did not care who received the credit for their help, including the American government.

Saigon-based VNCS administrators believed its personnel could oppose U.S. policies in Vietnam by writing and talking with U.S. citizens involved in policymaking. They asked: Would VNCS not contribute to alleviating suffering in Vietnam if it could influence the policy-makers to de-escalate or withdraw from the country? James MacCracken, the CWS executive director who respected MCC’s peace concerns, said VNCS staff should remain neutral, referencing that the CWS parent body, the National Council of Churches, spoke forthrightly against U.S. escalation and warfare: “It is not in line for Church World Service to become political and associate itself with either a hawk or a dove role. We are endeavoring to minister regardless of the accident of geography, race or religion to acute human need. It is this and this alone in the name and for the sake and for the love of Jesus Christ that we have turned to the Mennonite Central Committee and requested that a ministry of service be undertaken.”

In September 1967, VNCS leader Paul Leatherman and representatives of three other agencies critical of U.S. policy met with the American ambassador in Vietnam, who stated that voluntary agency personnel had no right to oppose U.S. or Vietnamese government policies. When key leaders of International Voluntary Service (including two Mennonites)
resigned a few days later in protest of U.S. policies, the head of CORDS Refugee Division stated that it was against U.S. policy to control the programs or statements of voluntary agencies. MCC Executive Secretary Snyder also pressed the matter in an October 6, 1967 memo to USAID officials in Washington, saying that CORDS put pressure on VNCS to relate its programs “to immediate military objectives.” This led to a USAID directive that CORDS personnel assist the Vietnamese government in coordinating participation in provincial relief programs “in such a way to preclude charges of interference in and control of Volag [voluntary agency] activities.”

The coordinated attacks on Tet in 1968 proved to be a game-changer, precipitating a change of U.S. military commanders and President Johnson’s readiness to pursue “peace through negotiations.” Shortly before the Tet military offensive, Mennonite missionaries in Vietnam had released their “Letter to American Christians” calling for an end to U.S. military activity in Vietnam. That summer, Beechy contacted the diplomatic missions of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, commonly referred to as North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front (NLF, or the Viet Cong, a political organization and army operating in South Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War), introducing Mennonites and their concerns for peace and proposing possible relief programs. Following Richard Nixon’s inauguration as president in January 1969, the war continued with the Saigon government’s military forces expanding as U.S. troops withdrew. MCC personnel in Vietnam signed statements calling on the U.S. to withdraw its military forces.

In January 1970, MCC transferred VNCS administration to CWS. That summer, Beechy began a nine-month-long peacebuilding role on behalf of MCC to DRV and Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) emissaries in Europe and Asia. [The PRG was an underground government established in 1969 in opposition to the South Vietnamese regime.] Beechy’s final report in 1971 to MCC emphasized the urgency of ending the fighting in the “deeply fragmented, fearful, and hostile” climate of South Vietnam. “All MCC personnel should be reconcilers,” Beechy urged. “We must remain in the midst of the suffering and division as long as we can work effectively and with a sense of integrity. A second imperative is that we do everything possible to stop U.S. military participation in this manmade hell.”

MCC separated from VNCS in January 1973 and returned to its pre-1966 status of administering its own programs. On January 27, the U.S. and the DRV signed the Paris Accords, an Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace to Vietnam. While this enabled the U.S to withdraw its military forces, the war continued at a lower intensity.

Leaders of the ECVN claimed an apolitical stance, though most identified with the policies of the Saigon government. MCC personnel working with the church’s medical programs chafed at the ECVN’s position. The ongoing MCC Vietnam program placed more emphasis on ability to communicate with and engage Vietnamese people than on the development of specific programs, encouraging MCC workers to “find ways to express Christian love and concern to help bring about real reconciliation and peace.” In the spring of 1974, MCC Vietnam defined “peace and reconciliation” as its main objective in Vietnam. While continuing to support ECVN medical programs, MCC personnel also assisted released political prisoners, prepared written materials for North American churches and directed attention to the problem of unexploded ordnance. In May of the same year, 16 MCC personnel and several Mennonite missionaries signed a letter to U.S. Congressional leaders urging a reduction of U.S. armaments to Vietnam and a political resolution to the conflict.

The war ended in April 1975. Four MCC men stayed for a time. An MCC delegation visiting Vietnam in November of that year negotiated for an ongoing MCC program with the Vietnamese people. MCC’s strong commitment to peace and reconciliation throughout the war has enabled MCC to continue working in Vietnam with the blessing of the Vietnamese
government.

Luke Martin worked in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975 with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (now Eastern Mennonite Missions). He works as an author, pastor and Vietnamese interpreter.

Learn More

Martin, Luke. A Vietnam Presence: Mennonites in Vietnam During the American
War. Morgantown, PA: Masthof Press, 2016.

Ediger, Max. A Vietnamese Pilgrimage. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1978.

MCC, Vietnam and Legacies of War (Spring 2017)

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[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

On November 1, 1955, the American War in Vietnam began. On April 30, 1975, the last of the U.S. troops evacuated the country. Evidence of the war is everywhere in today’s Vietnam. Museums and memorials marking the war are scattered across the country. Both former soldiers and civilians, along with their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, continue to be affected by a chemical defoliant sprayed during the war. The environment may never recover fully.

The governments of the United States and Vietnam have begun to hold 40-, 50-, and 60-year memorials of various events related to the war. Such commemorations of the war naturally attempt to grapple with atrocities endured, seek to honor notable acts of bravery and strive to draw conclusions about lessons learned. Most of these commemorations (American and Vietnamese) will focus on the impact of the war in terms that evoke an emotional response of nationalistic support of one side, while vilifying or ignoring the other. The Vietnamese will celebrate the heroic triumph of an outnumbered and ill-equipped military over the American imperialist invaders. The Americans will honor the service and sacrifice of the American veterans who fought in the war.

The stories that the Vietnamese and U.S. governments will tell are not the only stories. Soldiers were not the only people affected. In 1954, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) sent personnel to support suffering Vietnamese people following the French Indochina War. MCC maintained a presence in Vietnam until 1976, when the government of newly reunited Vietnam required that all non-Vietnamese citizens leave the country. At that time, MCC continued to coordinate humanitarian assistance to Vietnam from Thailand. In 1990, when Vietnam reopened its doors, MCC was among the first international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to establish an office in Hanoi.

Over the decades, MCC workers in Vietnam have sought to engage Vietnamese neighbors, colleagues, and partners on a personal and human level. This engagement has yielded important stories to remember and share. This issue of Intersections shows how the commitment to continue seeing people’s humanity can affect not only relationships in the present, but also lay groundwork for how partnerships develop into the future.

When people are reduced to being seen only as “the enemy,” their humanity is stripped; in a heated conflict, almost anything can seem excusable in trying to overcome this “other.” Reducing people to enemy status provided justification for the U.S. military to pummel the Vietnamese landscape with bombs and spray dioxin-contaminated Agent
Orange that withered foliage, crippled livestock and sickened both soldiers and civilians who breathed its stifling fog. More than one million people died in the course of the American war in Vietnam (some estimates are as high as 3.6 million); millions more have suffered the ongoing impact of Agent Orange. Even today, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who lived through the war are born with severe disabilities and
other health problems due to dioxin exposure from Agent Orange. Another legacy of the war simultaneously developed amid the atrocities. This legacy maintained a determination to see humans as human—as fellow image-bearers of the great Creator, equally deserving of life and love, even amid conflict. Those who remained faithful to peaceful conflict resolution and to the principle of providing assistance to anyone in need not only helped to preserve life at the time, but also began to defoliate the cover of protection that exists when labeling someone as “enemy.”

Before the war began, throughout the conflict, in its aftermath and continuing today, MCC has sought to come to the aid of people affected by the American War in Vietnam. Sixty years from the onset of the war and forty years from its conclusion, this issue of Intersections offers the opportunity to reflect on the importance of direct engagement with the Vietnamese people. There are important stories to remember and to tell. While there is intrinsic value in the practice of remembering and storytelling, we hope that the reflections in this issue can be relevant to MCC and other humanitarian organizations operating in pre-conflict, active conflict and post-conflict settings.

Karen and Major Treadway are MCC representatives in Vietnam.

Learn More

Vietnam Full Disclosure: http://vietnamfulldisclosure.org/. Website with a wide range
of advocacy and educational resources related to the Vietnam War and its legacies.

The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration website: http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/. Official website connected to U.S. commemorations of the Vietnam War.

Gender- and culture-sensitive nutrition programming

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Nutrition programs often target groups most visibly linked to desired nutrition outcomes. For example, since nutrition is key to children’s development during their ‘1000 golden days’, mothers with young children or women of childbearing age tend to be targeted to promote good nutrition for infants. As other articles in this issue contend, though, a narrow participant focus may limit the impact of nutrition programs and ignore the role that other family members play. At the same time, looking only at broad, household-level indicators of nutrition may miss different household members’ unique vulnerabilities. Nutrition programs are more effective and relevant when they are sensitive to family power dynamics, local practices and culture. This article offers ideas for integrating gender and cultural context into planning, monitoring and evaluating nutrition programs. While these ideas are not exhaustive, they offer a starting point for thinking through gender and cultural issues that affect nutrition.

Look within the household

Sufficient, nutritious food available at the household level does not ensure that all members will have access to enough food to meet their dietary needs. Intra-household distribution of food, family decision-making systems and cultural practices and taboos mean that the nutritional status of family members within one household may be widely different. As Gurung and Ghimire observe in their article, women in some households in Nepal eat after other family members have had their fill, which can limit their access to preferred foods like meat or vegetables. Looking simply at whether the household unit has enough food would miss this kind of variation in access to nutritious food within the household.

Collecting gender- and age-disaggregated data on diets for each member of the household using tools such as the Household Dietary Diversity Score provides insight into the unique nutrition status of different family members. Alternatively, Lee and Hembroom in their article describe a project in Nepal that has started to collect data on the number of times women in participant households skip meals. Since women eat last in this cultural context, the number of meals skipped by this population will be a more sensitive indicator than the number of times the entire household skips meals.

Disaggregated data may also reveal needs among populations who are not always targeted in nutrition interventions. While pregnant and lactating women and young children are generally known to be vulnerable to malnutrition, other household members, like elderly members or adolescent girls, might also be receiving insufficient food or nutrients for their needs. For example, after the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, MCC worked with partner organization Shanti Nepal to distribute rations of ready-to-eat food that included nutritious and locally-sourced chiura (beaten rice flakes) and roasted lentils. However, while distributing these rations to highly-affected rural households in Dhading district, Shanti Nepal staff realized that young children and elderly people may lack the teeth necessary to eat such hard and crunchy food. They adapted the ration to include easier to eat instant noodles. For subsequent disaster responses, MCC and partners in Nepal have included a nutritious porridge flour mix in the emergency rations intended for young children and elderly people.

Identify decision-makers and agents of change

When planning projects, analyzing family systems and power dynamics within a household can help identify gatekeepers and potential agents of change. Nutrition programs often focus on health and agriculture activities, but addressing household power dynamics within family relationships and organizing anti-domestic violence activities can also lead to better nutrition outcomes. In Nepal, newly married women traditionally move into their husband’s family home and often take on a large portion of household duties. Mothers-in-law make decisions about their daughters-in-law’s work and also often have strong ideas about food taboos in pregnancy or for young children.

An MCC-supported project run through partner organization Sansthagat Bikas Sanjal and implemented by Interdependent Society in Surkhet district facilitates discussions between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law and between husbands and wives. These discussions encourage shared understandings about good nutrition practices and provide opportunities to discuss family relationships. By encouraging shared knowledge about nutrition and by improving communication, the family members who make household decisions about money, household duties and food can work together toward improving nutrition for all family members. This project has reported that after these discussions mothers-in-law and husbands have started providing support to pregnant and lactating women by recognizing their specific nutrition needs, encouraging health check-ups and reducing their household workload. As noted in the article by Gurung and Ghimire, other projects in Nepal have also successfully engaged male family members to encourage better household nutrition practices.

Some family members may be better able to promote changed household practices than others. As Rahaman and Rahman point out in their article, identifying agents of change within a household, like students in Bangladesh, smoothes the process of change. In this case, project implementers found that parents who were reluctant to try new agricultural techniques themselves were willing to support and learn from their children, which led to diversified livelihoods and diets for participant households. Similarly, Climenhage notes that in Labrador, Canada, the Community Food Hub’s children’s garden is one of its most successful programs, working through students to promote healthy eating at home. Meanwhile Sarker and Rahman examine in their article how women’s heavy investment in the long-term good of the household led the monga mitigation project to select women as primary participants in asset transfers and project trainings.

Decide what to accept

Identifying cultural practices that affect nutrition also requires analysis of when to encourage different practices and when to simply offer alternatives that achieve the same nutrition outcomes. It may be a slow process to change the cultural perception in Nepal that pregnant women should not eat Vitamin A-rich papaya because of fears that it will cause miscarriage. Ultimately it may be more effective to promote carrots or eggs as alternate sources of Vitamin A that do not come with cultural taboos attached. Perhaps a comparable example is the idea that North Americans could consume less red meat if they started eating insects as a healthier and more sustainable protein option. In many cultures, insects are commonly eaten as snack foods. However, because of many North Americans’ revulsion at the thought of eating insects, a nutrition project that promotes beans and legumes as a substitute for red meat is likely to be more successful. Similarly, Wade and Yameogo observe in their article that the success of integrating moringa into diets in rural Burkina Faso links with the traditional practice of consuming moringa as a healthful medicinal plant and with the project’s demonstrations of how it can be adapted into traditional foods.

Gender- and culture-sensitive nutrition programing requires intensive analysis of family systems, intra-household power dynamics and awareness of taboos and cultural practices related to food consumption. Food insecurity affects communities, households and family members in diverse ways, requiring project approaches that recognize and build on the local context in order to address malnutrition successfully. Deep knowledge of the local community’s culture, traditions, eating habits and practices is essential and requires careful attention at all stages of a project. Such knowledge is often most accessible to those with close community ties. A community-driven approach that builds on the existing knowledge of local organizations and their relationships with community members can help navigate societal and cultural complexities and ultimately lead to better nutrition outcomes for all people in a community.

Martha Kimmel is MCC Nepal food security advisor. Leah Reesor-Keller is MCC Nepal co-representative.

Learn more

Madjdian, Dónya S. and Hilde A.J. Bras. “Family, Gender, and Women’s Nutritional Status: A Comparison between Two Himalayan Communities in Nepal.” Economic History of Developing Regions 31/1 (2016): 198-223.

Promoting local food sources to improve nutrition

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In many countries across Africa and Asia, communities use the bark and roots of the hardy moringa tree for medicinal purposes. Over the past several years, however, MCC and its partners in Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, India and Lao PDR have been promoting moringa leaves as a readily available, locally sourced and nutrient-rich food that is drought resistant and adaptable to changing climates. This article examines how MCC’s main partner organization in Burkina Faso, the Protestant ecumenical social service organization ODE (Office de Développement des Eglises Evangéliques), educates Burkinabé about the rich nutritional properties of moringa leaves as part of its overarching nutrition strategies in a country facing food insecurity exacerbated by climate change. ODE’s experience with promoting moringa leaves underscores the importance of looking to nutrient-rich, local food sources adaptable to changing climates in efforts to combat malnutrition.

Food insecurity and malnutrition rates in Burkina Faso are chronically high. The global acute malnutrition rate (GAM) among children under five years of age is 8.2%, while stunting levels stand at 31.5%. High food prices and unpredictable weather can result in drought or flooding, further limiting Burkina Faso’s access to food.

Over the past 30 years in Burkina Faso the climate has changed dramatically, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to predict the planting and harvest seasons. These changing climate patterns have in turn contributed (alongside other factors) to acute food insecurity. Arouna Yameogo, responsible for sustainable agriculture projects with ODE, recalls a time when the planting season would begin in June and end in December, resulting in a six month farming season. Today some parts of Burkina Faso see only two or three months of rain per year. Instead of steady, slow rains that nourish and provide moisture to the new crops, torrential storms now flood fields and ruin crops. Intermittent, moderate rains that alternate with a dry season are becoming things of the past. Meanwhile, the Sahel (the semi-arid region south of the Sahara desert) expands steadily southward, encroaching on Burkina Faso.

While these challenges to the agricultural sector exacerbate food insecurity and malnutrition, MCC and ODE see promise in the leaves of the moringa tree. Originally from northern India, moringa spread to various parts of Asia and Africa over the past thousand years. Nicknamed the “miracle tree” and the “never die” tree, moringa thrives in many different countries and varying climates. While moringa branches, seeds, pods and roots have been used in traditional remedies for ailments ranging from high blood pressure to stomach pain, the tree has not historically been viewed as a food source. Yet moringa, resistant to drought and flood, is able to weather changing climates, while also bearing the potential to combat malnutrition with its 16 vitamins and minerals and high levels of protein, potassium and calcium.

Yameogo and his colleagues at ODE provide support to farmers cultivating moringa to establish nurseries and have distributed moringa seedlings purchased from those farmers to hundreds of other farmers. Alongside efforts to promote the cultivation of moringa, ODE organizes trainings to educate communities about the nutritional value of moringa leaves and cooking demonstrations to show how those leaves can be used in and adapted for traditional dishes. “Moringa has grown in Burkina for quite some time, but people didn’t know about it or how to use it,” Yameogo explains. “Now we’ve had trainings to show the different nutritional qualities of moringa. It can prevent many sicknesses and can also fight against hunger because it has many vitamins and nutritional qualities. So now in the villages, we train people on the utility of moringa, and people use it all the time. We also train women how to make a powder from the leaves to put in porridge or in sauces. People are beginning to understand the importance of moringa.”

Community education on the use of moringa begins with awareness meetings since educating people about moringa’s nutritional properties is the first step in achieving wider adoption of moringa, with cooking classes showing how moringa leaves can be part of a daily, healthy diet. Participants in these trainings are not immediately convinced of moringa’s benefits or of its adaptability to local tastes. ODE has found, however, that participants gradually become used to adding moringa powder or leaves to everything from sauce to rice and even to eating boiled moringa leaves alone like spinach. One participant, for example, mixes moringa’s coin-sized leaves right into the peanut sauce she cooks with cabbage and tomatoes and serves over rice or , a thick, cornmeal-based mash common to Burkina Faso.

Since ODE began its projects, knowledge about and use of moringa have steadily increased in Burkina Faso. Although training and education are necessary to convince farmers that moringa is an economically viable crop and to persuade families that moringa leaves can be integrated into their diets, moringa is quickly becoming a valuable resource in efforts to combat malnutrition, both in Burkina Faso and beyond. Funding from MCC’s accounts at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) and the Foods Resource Bank (FRB) has enabled MCC and its partners to expand promotion of moringa as a nutrient-rich food source in multiple contexts. So, for example, MCC partners in Kenya and India raise awareness at the village level of moringa’s nutritional properties. In Zambia, meanwhile, MCC partners promote moringa consumption as part of efforts to strengthen the immune systems of people living with HIV and AIDS. By itself, of course, moringa will not solve food insecurity and malnutrition challenges. Yet, as ODE’s experience suggests, leaves from the moringa tree can play a vital role in addressing malnutrition in contexts in which agriculture is being disrupted by changing climate patterns.

Lauren Wade was an intern with MCC Burkina Faso in summer 2016. Arouna Yameogo is a project manager at Office de Développement des Eglises Evangéliques.

Learn more

Nielsen, Jonas Østergaard and Anette Reenberg. “Cultural Barriers to Climate Change Adaptation: A Case Study from Northern Burkina Faso.” Global Environmental Change 20/1 (2010): 142-152.

Durst, Patrick and Nomindelger Bayasgalanbat. Eds. Promotion of Underutilized Indigenous Food Resources for Food Security and Nutrition in Asia and the Pacific. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 2014.

Hughes, J. “Just Famine Foods? What Contributions Can Underutilized Plants Make to Food Security?” International Symposium on Underutilized Plants for Food Security, Nutrition, Income and Sustainable Development. Acta Horticulturae 806 (2009).

Improving access to fresh food in Labrador

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Labrador is much like the rest of Canada’s north. Indigenous peoples have hunted, fished and raised their families on these lands for generations. The land has suffered from the impacts of colonization, as have its people. Resource extraction has changed the face of the land. Rivers have been diverted, habitat has been lost, causing a shift in migratory patterns of the caribou, and increased levels of methylmercury continue to affect fish and sea life in the Mishtashipu, now officially called the Churchill River, more than 40 years after the construction of the first hydroelectric project. Depletion of the caribou herds has resulted in a complete hunting ban and the government also places restrictions on hunting migratory birds and fish. In Labrador, gaining access to fresh, healthy and culturally appropriate food is more and more difficult each year. Yet in face of these challenges indigenous communities mobilize to address food and nutrition needs.

“No more than one a week to eat from the river,” Innu elder, Elizabeth Penashue, told me as we sat next to the Mishtashipu and talked about the pollution in the river. Only one rusted sign outside the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay warns people to limit consumption of fish caught in the river due to pollution. Penashue thinks there should be more warnings.

Access to quality, fresh food is a challenge in Labrador. Because of the area’s remoteness, shipping is expensive and can be slow. Walking into grocery stores in the winter and finding bare shelves is not unusual. Depending on the weather, that happens in the coastal communities throughout the summer, too. The cost of food is so high that people often eat cheaper, less nutritious and more processed foods just to help make ends meet.

The Community Food Hub, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, began in 2008 as a community project initiated by the local health authority and has grown into its own non-profit organization offering food education and programming in Labrador. An estimated 80% of the people served by the Community Food Hub identify as indigenous. The hub aims to address the community’s lack of healthy and culturally appropriate foods. MCC began a formal partnership with the Community Food Hub in 2012, when the food hub’s need for a part-time food security coordinator to complement and focus volunteer efforts became evident.

Currently the Community Food Hub facilitates several different programs. The hub’s children’s garden, in which an average of 190 students from two schools participate annually, is one of the hub’s most successful programs. The garden offers an opportunity for students in grades 4 and 5 to plant, care for, harvest and cook their own foods. Students have tried new vegetables, participated in the hard work of garden maintenance and cared for plants at home. Parents are also involved, and many have reported eating new foods and growing vegetables at home as a result of the program.

Community kitchens are another way of engaging the community. Focusing on low income families, the community kitchens provide opportunities for men and women to learn how to make low cost, healthy meals with others. Participants cook and eat together, after which they take the ingredients home to replicate the meal for their families. One of the surprising outcomes of this program is the online community-building it has facilitated. Members of the group share recipes, stories and pictures of their creations with one another, encouraging community.

The Community Food Hub works closely with the local agricultural association, ensuring that information about locally grown foods gets into the hands of shoppers. A community outdoor market program was started by the hub in 2013 in cooperation with the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the agricultural association. Farmers were invited every Saturday between July and September to join the market. The market also showcased locally made goods and offered fair trade coffee. Workshops on food preservation and wild food gathering were presented, along with demonstrations and trainings to encourage local gardening. In 2015, the Community Outdoor Market ceased being a program of the hub and continues successfully under the guidance of community volunteers. The hub nevertheless remains engaged with the market, setting up healthy eating and living displays at the market each week.

Initially, the hub began a community freezer project, hoping to provide food from the land gathered by local volunteers, such as fish, wild game and berries, to people who unable to hunt and gather on their own. It started with some exciting donations, like moose and caribou meat. However, due to reduced hunting quotas and people needing to save their catch for their own consumption in the winter, food donations were limited and the project ended. A similar project run by the Nunatsiavut Government is still available for seniors and shut-ins when food is able to be harvested or donated for distribution.

The challenges of food security continue to increase. Today, another large infrastructure project, the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric (or Muskrat Falls) Dam, threatens the health of the waters and way of life for the people who live in central and eastern Labrador. All three indigenous groups in the area (the Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and Innu nations), have come together to demand either the clearing of vegetation in the new reservoir in order to reduce imminent methylmercury poisoning and perhaps even to stop the dam completely. While the Community Food Hub is not directly involved in protesting, it does organize educational events to raise awareness about the effects of methylmercury in the local food system.

Food security and nutrition challenges have no easy answer in the North. Increasing access to fresh, local food from community gardens, children’s gardens and farmers’ markets can generally happen only in July, August and September. Freezing and canning meat and produce can help bridge the gap, but the winter period when food cannot be locally produced is long. Freezing and canning food is also expensive compared to the alternative of buying processed food during the winter months. Long term solutions are needed, but, for now, the Community Food Hub offers a partial solution with its ongoing focus on education to help people learn how to make healthier choices with available resources.

Dianne Climenhage is an MCC representative for Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Learn more

 Council of Canadian Academies. Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge. Ottawa: The Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, Council of Canadian Academies, 2014.

Islam, Durdana and Fikret Berkes. “Indigenous Peoples’ Fisheries and Food Security: A Case from Northern Canada.” Food Security 8/4 (2016): 815-826.