Lynn M. Kwiatkowski

Struggling with Development:
The Politics of Hunger and Gender in the Philippines

Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1999
350 pages, ISBN: 971-550-305-5

reviewed by Jane Hutchison

Kwiatkowski tells a complex story of malnutrition among the Ifugao people of the Philippines. The Ifugao are known for the extensive rice terraces they operate in the Cordillera mountains on the island of Luzon. In the early 1990s, Kwiatkowski researched their understandings and practices around malnutrition, comparing these with the biomedical approach of many national health and international aid agencies in the field. The resulting book pursues a number of themes and issues, but linking them is the assertion that development assistance programs are, more often than not, a part of the problem and not the solution. A central claim is that national and international programs in the area of nutritional health are often unsuccessful, in part, because they perpetuate rather than reduce gender inequalities. How does this happen?

Kwiatkowski acknowledges that the national and international agencies mounting the programs are cognisant of the impact the status of women can have on the nutritional standing of themselves and their children. Yet, by targeting women, she argues that the programs often tend to increase perceptions that women's main responsibilities lie in caring for family in the home. But this 'domestication of women',[1] is culturally inappropriate as traditionally Ifugao women have worked both inside and outside their homes. In this largely agricultural community, women are as equally involved in the work in the fields as men, with many additionally absorbed in the production of crafts and running small businesses, or working for wages as maids, teachers, government employees and so on.

By targeting women, Kwiatkowski also argues that mothers are made to feel personally responsible for the poor nutritional status of their children by the programs, in a way that fathers are not. This causes feelings of guilt among mothers, and often confusion. The confusion arises because Ifugao people have no equivalent to the biomedical understanding of malnutrition in their language or social and cultural practices: the closest is na-ong-ong or 'extreme thinness'. 'Extreme thinness' is considered a health problem, but not all children with biomedically defined malnutrition are perceived by their mothers (or fathers) to be underweight, and therefore at risk. Significantly the Ifugao focus on 'thinness' means that they have tended to think of nutrition in terms of quantities of food and the satisfaction of hunger: much less have they perceived a problem with the nutritional quality or value of food.

Sadly, as a result, in recent decades Ifugao mothers have encouraged a marked uptake of sugar in the diet of their children, because they observe that their children respond positively to this kind of food, appearing to be satisfied. As Kwiatkowski makes clear, this is not simply an outcome of maternal 'ignorance': it is stems directly also from the greater corporate involvement in the production and distribution of food in the Philippines. Traditionally, the Ifugao community was not confronted with these 'bad' foods and so has been culturally ill-prepared for their easy availability. Interestingly, Kwiatkowski observes that malnutrition is also a problem for more wealthy sections of the Ifugao community: it is not simply a manifestation of poverty because the wealthier families are more able to afford to sugary foods.

Kwiatkowski is critical of the biomedical approach to malnutrition for its tendency to individualise the problem by directing treatment to affected bodies through the administration of food and vitamin supplements. Whilst poverty is recognised as a major cause of poor nutrition, the programs are not designed to grapple with structural causes. For example, the ubiquitous 'income generating project' and 'backyard gardening' are offered as ways to deal with family poverty, but at the same time, the agencies involved do little or nothing to address the wide disparity in men and women's wages, despite this being a major source of female disadvantage in the Ifugao community. Additional projects often only add to the existing work-loads of the women, whilst keeping their activities centred on the home.

Kwiatkowski's own preference is for a 'global political economy approach' (p. 23) to her subject matter. Accordingly, she links the high incidence of malnutrition among the Ifugao to broader structural inequalities in the international system, and the consequent failings of national redistributive programs, like land reform. However, as can happen, her claims in this area sometimes too simplistic. For example, we are told that in the early 1990s 'at least 44.5 percent of the Filipino population had incomes below the poverty line and that many Filipino people had great difficulty in meeting their full nutritional needs,' (p. 57) because of a 'power differential between the United States and the Philippines'. On that count, we are all doomed! At another point, Kwiatkowski is critical of exporting as a development strategy, yet elsewhere she quotes a 1992 United Nations report that states 'restricted access to the world's markets cost developing countries an annual $500 billion and helped widen the income gap between rich and poor countries' (p. 58). This is argument for more world market access not less.

Fortunately, Kwiatkowski is more consistent and convincing on the devastating impacts of the Philippine government's 'low intensity conflict' strategy against armed insurgents. Not only did the resultant militarisation of the countryside cause disruptions to agricultural production, but both sides of the conflict took to using the delivery of health and other services as a method of political conversion. To complicate the story further, Kwiatkowski shows how a number of Christian organisations involved in the delivery of biomedical practices were also not above using their programs as a vehicle of conversion, this time religious. In both these cases it is made clear that the delivery of health and nutrition programs to the Ifugao community is often further tied to the organisational goals and interests of the agencies that handle them.

Kwiatkowski notes 'the great influence' that Christianity has had on the lives of Ifugao people (p. 158), but she also stresses the endurance of the Ifugao religion, especially 'since numerous Christians practiced or participated in baki in conjunction with their Christian practices' (ibid). Baki is a religious ritual that the Ifugao use in relation to na-ong-ong. It is performed as a cure in that na-ong-ong is sometimes held to be caused by the presence of malevolent spirits. But as well, baki has other important social and cultural functions in the community as it affords opportunities for acts of kindness, reciprocity and the like. Of course, Christians favoured the power of prayer to Jesus, God or a saint or two.

Kwiatkowski's overall argument—that development programs can cause as many problems as they solve—is not a new one, but she works hard to demonstrate it in the Ifugao community case Sometimes, as a result, she pushed the Escobar line[2] a little too hard for my liking. This is the 'dependency' view that 'development' is 'a force perpetuated by western, industrialized countries seeking to manage and gain from the human and material resources of non-industrialized countries' (p. 21). The issues outlined in this book are complex and they do have structural causes, but this viewpoint becomes a bit of a 'one size fits all' argument when it is pulled out again and again. In that sense, the book for me was interesting but not exciting.


[1] See Barbara Rogers, The Domestication of Women: Discrimination in Developing Societies, London, Kogan Page, 1980.

[2] See Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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