Feeding charity or justice? [RECAP]

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

People pictured, in clockwise direction from top left: Nizar (speaker), Rashidah (sign interpreter), Evelyn (speaker), Vivian (moderator), Abhishek (speaker)

Feeding charity or justice? brought together people working in food-related causes to discuss how we can produce food in a sustainable way that provides nutrition for all. Moderator Vivian opened the module with a reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic. She highlighted that the question of charity versus justice is especially relevant during this time, as fundraisers, donation drives, and mutual aid initiatives flood our newsfeeds.

Our first speaker Abhishek spoke about the significance of this current moment, describing it as a suspension of the ‘normal’. He delivered an incisive macroscopic view of how the social service ecosystem in Singapore (comprising government functions, social service providers, and ground-up grassroots initiatives) has changed in response to COVID-19. He described witnessing a greater symbiosis and equitable sharing of power as ground-up initiatives start occupying more ground. It remains to be seen if this is a permanent shift, but this rise of power of the people sector is a hopeful one.

Nizar spoke next and shared his story of founding one such ground-up initiative and its development over time into a more formal entity. While Abhishek gave an overall view of the social service sector in Singapore, Nizar gave a detailed insider’s look into the emotionally and financially demanding process of growing a charity in Singapore, specifically one that works in distributing food aid. Particularly potent was his concluding anecdote which painted a picture of how our current system needs to do better in becoming a model of justice, not just charity. One of the ministries had reached out and asked if his charity had any plans to expand their food distribution capacity. They were coming from a capitalistic and business mindset which aimed to maximise efficiency. Nizar responded by clarifying the tension between charity and justice. He told them that just providing food is not the answer. Instead, we need to look at how we can serve less, because having less hungry people is the real solution. The simplicity of the illustration is striking -- between a charity model of providing food aid to lower-income households and that of a just system where people do not have to go hungry at all.

Our final speaker Evelyn delivered a heartfelt address on her relationship with nature, reflecting on food justice and her personal experience of becoming a farmer. One could sense the audience appreciating the principles she was sharing about how humans should live in harmony with nature. A key closing insight she offered was how to make this relationship between humans and the living world a more circular one.

In the Q&A segment that followed, the speakers spoke about social and environmental justice and the desire to make high quality food available and accessible to everyone. Three sharings to highlight in particular are:

First was a discussion on the exclusion of marginalised communities from conversations and actions around justice. Abhishek shared about his work in bringing lower-income families into spaces of nature. This has been radically important in facilitating regeneration and growing public space for the urban poor.

Secondly, Nizar introduced the concept of “thayyib” to deepen the more widely-known “halal”. “Halal” refers to what is permissible while “thayyib” refers to what is permissible and of high quality. This idea mirrored our unpacking of the tension between charity and justice. It is not enough to do what is “enough”, just as the charity model is characterised by stop-gap measures. We need to go above and beyond to ensure that these social services and solutions we seek to deliver are “of quality” in addressing the root causes of the injustice.

Lastly, Nizar and Evelyn talked about the present tension between making high quality food accessible to all (including the lower-income) and ensuring that farmers are able to make a dignified living. Evelyn spoke with urgency about the situation that she and other farmers face. The main concern is the high cost of running her farm with mindfulness towards ecological, health, production, and quality concerns. Coming from a different position of providing food aid, Nizar also shared similar sentiments. Despite being driven by wanting to provide real care (in the form of quality food), he was constrained in making some decisions based on financial restrictions. This was an important dialogue grounded in their lived experiences and positionalities. It illustrated the importance of listening deeply to human stories prior to any attempt to “solve” a problem. This will help develop effective ground-up solutions that tackle the root cause of the problem.

A key theme that emerged through the three sharings is to discuss relationships -- whether the relationship between farmer and food distributor, or charity and government body, or social service providers and lower-income aid recipients, or human and nature.

At one point during the session, Abhishek asked: “What is our role?” He was referring to social service providers and asking how we can move towards a fundamental shift in the social service sector. How can we become facilitators of a space seeking to strengthen community responses and resilience, instead of relying on external “experts”?

This question relates widely to all of us who are working for social change. How can we work towards dismantling systems of oppression regardless of our positions beyond re-creating stop-gap measures? As Vivian asks, “How do we create the appropriate environmental conditions such that we all (privileged or marginalised, human or non-human alike) can flourish?”


There is also a full glossary prepared previously for the module.

Positionality: one’s identity which depends on the social and political context in which they are in; it can also affect the way they see the world

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