Sugar Pond

Written by
Eryn Austin-Bergen
Published on
September 17, 2019 at 9:05:00 PM PDT September 17, 2019 at 9:05:00 PM PDTth, September 17, 2019 at 9:05:00 PM PDT

It’s easy to jump to conclusions. We do it all the time. About the driver who doesn’t use their turn signal, the mom who lets her kids eat cookies for snack, the woman standing barefoot by the side of the road holding a cardboard sign.

We jump to conclusions when the how to fix to someone else’s problem seems obvious to us. It can be hard to understand why they can’t embrace the solution we find so intuitive. We jump to the conclusion they are either too stupid, stubborn, or proud to change or to accept the help we generously offer. In our exasperation, we often forget to ask them “why.” We forget that we, too, have blind spots. This is especially easy to do when engaging cross-culturally.

The late 1990s marked the early days of Food for the Hungry (FH) work in Cambodia. It was a tumultuous time as the country underwent a power transition from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge rule to the hands of a newly empowered National Assembly. The country was still quaking from decades of rampant, state-enacted violence, fear, and hunger. In the end, deep seated poverty was the far-reaching legacy of Pol Pot’s failed utopian dream.

In partnership with other like-minded NGOs, Food for the Hungry acted swiftly to identify and prioritize areas of highest need to alleviate immediate suffering in Cambodia’s rural communities. Clean water was at the top of everyone’s list.

For decades, families in the village of Chhuk had used a simple and effective method of collecting and storing water. Each home dug a reservoir near their house which filled with rainwater during the summer and fall monsoon season. This water lasted households throughout the remaining dry season. Families accessed this homemade water source for all their household needs – cooking, drinking, watering livestock, bathing, growing gardens. In some instances, families transformed their water-storage pits into dual purpose fish ponds – a great source of food and income.

But there was a problem. Because these ponds were filled with stagnant water unprotected from animals and debris, they were terribly contaminated. Harmful parasites and bacteria thrived in them. The result? Chronic illness for the families drinking the dirty water. Parents couldn’t work. Children couldn’t go to school. The elderly suffered. Not only were the intestinal parasites painful, but repeated bouts of illness weakened those getting sick and often caused the premature deaths of small children.

Together with their partners, FH worked to install clean water wells for the village of Chhuk. From these sources, families could conveniently collect safe drinking water and begin enjoying life free from recurring sickness. Instead of drinking what was effectively poison, they could drink life.

There was just one problemthey didn’t want to.

FH and other aid workers were stunned. Why would families prefer to drink their old, dirty water that could kill them instead of this new, fresh water that could save their lives? It seemed so stupid. At this point, the team could have simply given up and gone home. They could’ve thrown their hands in the air concluding that Cambodians are foolish, “backward” people who just want to be sick. They could have judged the people of Chhuk.

But they didn’t. Instead, they paused to ask why, and to listen to the answers. After many conversations, the truth finally came out, and it was rather simple. The new water tasted bad. The old water tasted sweet. The foreign aid workers were at a loss. To be fair, the villagers in Chhuk had a point. Groundwater often has a heavy mineral taste that can be off-putting if you’re not accustomed to it. And change is hard to swallow. So how could FH convince the families in Chhuk that switching water sources was worth it…especially if they hadn’t grown up with the benefit of germ theory?

Ben Hoogendoorn (centre) visiting community leaders and families in Cambodia.

A visiting FH donor had an idea. Ben Hoogendoorn was a faithful FH advocate, heralding the cause of ending poverty throughout his farming network in British Columbia. He took every opportunity to join FH “on the ground” to visit and encourage the communities working to get from stuck to thriving. He wondered if showing the people of Chhuk what was in their pond water might just do the trick. Ben returned to Canada to retrieve a microscope from FH’s International Medical Distribution (IMED) warehouse in Saskatoon and hand-carried it back to Cambodia. FH set up experiments with key leaders and families. First, they looked at the clean water coming from the new, protected water sources. Next, they watched parasites squirm around on the microscope plates of pond water samples. Needless to say, the leaders were totally freaked out!

As FH continued to form long-term relationships with the people of Chhuk and walk with them on their journey out of crisis into stability– and eventually to graduating from poverty–they saw a profound transformation. Not only did families learn to trust each other–an incredible feat after the decades-long, Pol Pot rule-by-fear regime–they also began adjusting cultural habits that proved detrimental to their health. They had the maturity and humility to listen to outsiders, examine their practices, and ask themselves whether those practices were delivering the kind of community they wanted to live in. If the answer was no, they changed.

It took a shift in worldview, but now the Chukk community has embraced clean water sources, despite not always having the familiar taste. 

Cultural habits are incredibly powerful. They have the potential to catalyze transformation or arrest life-saving change. Reflecting on international development through a cultural lens, the UN recognizes that “people are the products of their culture and also its creators. As such, they are not simply passive receivers but active agents who can reshape cultural values, norms and expressions.”(1) In other words, while our reason for perpetuating destructive habits may have its roots in our culture, we are not helpless victims doomed to march forever on the same path. We are capable of redirecting our culture when we understand the underlying values and assumptions driving our decisions and are persuaded that the benefits of change outweigh the cost.

I wonder, were the tables turned would we be so wise?

What if we, in North America, faced a public health crisis similar to the village of Chhuk, where something we were accustomed to, a practice deeply rooted in our culture, turned out to be the very thing that was making us sick – or worse, harming our children? And what if someone from the outside offered us a simple solution?

In 2015, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) published a controversial and groundbreaking statement: “A new WHO guideline recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% (12.5 teaspoons or 50 grams) of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (six teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.”(2)

On the face of it, it’s hard to see how this press release could make waves. But what you might not know is Americans consume, on average, two to three times the WHO 10 percent daily limit.(3) And Canada ranks 10th on the list of nations having the highest average daily sugar consumption per person in the world.(4) Sugar has become core to our food system and factors into many of our cultural celebrations – Thanksgiving pies, birthday cakes, break-up ice cream – as well as daily life routines – snack time juice boxes, morning vanilla lattes, granola bar pick-me ups.

Voices in the scientific and medical communities (“outsiders”), however, have warned us for years that our sweet tooth might be getting us into more trouble than we realize. We’ve been told refined sugar causes tooth decay and weight gain, and that there is a strong correlation between sugar consumption and obesity and diabetes.(5) Recent evidence suggests even certain kinds of cancers exploit a high sugar diet.(6)

But, despite the “outsider” WHO’s proposed solution – consume less sugar – we’re still eating and drinking it. Over two-thirds of packaged food sold in Canadian grocery stores contain added sugar.(7) One out of every three Canadians is obese.(8) And Type II Diabetes is on the rise in children under the age of 18.(9)  

Why? Well…we like the way sugar tastes.

And, like the villagers in Chhuk, we have a hard time seeing the connection between our consumption and many of the sicknesses we suffer. It’s simply a blind spot in our culture. But whether in Cambodia or Canada, development is never just about clean water or nutrition. It always occurs within a web of cultural values and personal and communal preferences. It is never as simple as someone from the outside pointing to poison and saying, “Don’t drink this.” There are reasons for why we do what we do. Development involves a mindset transformation, a radical worldview shift. And that takes time, humility, trust, and persuasion. 

Acknowledging our own cultural blind spots first helps us cultivate the humility and courage we need to listen to outsiders, evaluate their perspective, and make changes we decide are beneficial. Second, recognizing our cultural blind spots enables us to withhold judgement on others who appear, quite frankly, to be making nonsensical choices. It reminds us that we have a “why” for everything we do, and so do they.

By compassionately listening to the answer and considering the context, we, like Ben Hoogendoorn, may devise a way for the “other” to see their situation differently. Respect and patience may win us the privilege of offering an alternative roadmap and we, like FH, may even be invited to stay for the journey.

Want to think a little more creatively about poverty? Check out our Ending Poverty Together Podcast!