The (un)sustainability of food aid programs, an interesting discussion (Willem Van Cotthem)

It all started with a quote of the actor Robin WILLIAMS, recently shared on my Facebook page: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up alone, it’s not.  The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.

A comment of John Richard PENDERGAST (London, UK) ignited an interesting discussion about the significance and lack of recognition for methods and techniques to help stop hunger and malnutrition :

29-7-2013. Hi Willem, Can you please tell me (why) people have not taken my ideas forward to help stop people dying from HUNGER, even though I’m offering my 3Rs Plastic Container Gardening ideas to the world for FREE, so that one day it might become part of Governments WORLD AID programme right now and in the future. (

What is the PROBLEM with people not using my ideas? 

Is it because I’ve got a young black naked child on the intro-page of my website (, scraping the earth for something to eat, with the words Making Globalisation Work for the POOR on it ? 

Or is it because I’m offering a different way to grow something to gardeners who already know how to grow their own food?

Or is it just because it’s too much of a high price to help save lives, even though it’s for next to nothing, because it’s all made from waste.

I know lives are being lost when they could have been saved.  What more can one man do without help from like-minded people, trying to save millions of lives if we can in our own ways ?

Here is my short reply to him :  Yes, John, That’s what happens to great ideas. Anyway, keep up the good spirit, be patient, for Rome and London haven’t be built in one day (or even two).

John PENDERGAST’s reaction was :

30-7-2013. Hi Willem, Yes I know things don’t happen overnight normally.  Over (16) years now I have been telling so many people like yourself that my 3Rs Plastic Container Gardening systems works.  And you have proved it by using my ideas in your own way.   You would have thought someone out there,  who is already involved in trying to help save lives, would have taken my ideas forward, just like my friend Dr Job S. Ebenezer is doing in his group Technology For The Poor. 

Album:Photos from John Richard Pendergast's post in CONTAINER GARDENING AND VERTICAL GARDENING
Album: Photos from John Richard Pendergast’s post in CONTAINER GARDENING AND VERTICAL GARDENING

Maybe if we, and lots of other people, make comments on say the World Food Programme or the DFID, someone might get the message and start up some projects with our help.”


This was a sparkling for my more consistent reply : “Sorry, John, But for many years (1992-2006), as the representative of the Belgian scientists at the desertification convention UNCCD, I showed, to all the delegates of the countries and the international aid organizations, with presentations and poster stands various effective methods and techniques to combat desertification, hunger and malnutrition. Not even a handful of them have reacted in a constructive way. One of the most positive reactions was that of UNICEF Algeria, setting up a project of “Family Gardens in the refugee camps in S.W. Algeria” in 2005-2007. For a reason still unknown to me, who was their own scientific consultant, this successful project was suddenly stopped in 2008, although all the UNICEF reports were extremely positive.

2007 - Family garden in the Sahara desert (S.W. Algeria) - UNICEF-project (Photo WVC)
2007 – Family garden in the Sahara desert (S.W. Algeria) – UNICEF-project (Photo WVC)

Many people commented already on this strange attitude and decision. The common idea in all these comments is : (1) if UNICEF Algeria has built successfully almost 2000 family gardens (kitchen gardens) to help the refugees in the Sahara desert to grow fresh food full of vitamins for their needing children, (2) if UNHCR and FAO delegations in the refugee camps have seen this success story and even asked to construct a similar garden in their headquarters in Rabouni (Tindouf area), why didn’t these UN organizations synchronized their efforts to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in a sustainable way by building a family garden for every family in the camps ? Why do they prefer to continue the monthly shipment of truckloads of food over a distance of 800 km in the desert (and this for already 37 years (since 1975-1976 !).

Can someone tell me what the meaning is of the word “(un)sustainability” ? Here, I rest my case.”

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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