March 12, 2023

Mystery soup: do you know what it is? Anti-Corruption in Jordan. Why? A dish on UNDP Jordan’s lunch menu to discuss food systems. To carry out the act of eating, the diners were invited to drink the soup through a sieve and to contemplate about corruption and inequalities.

By: Dana Khan Malhas, Innovation Specialist, UNDP Jordan, (    The most magical words a person can utter are 'Once upon a time.' They are an immediate calling to a world of endless possibilities and to a world where everyone is welcome, and anything can happen. So, without further ado I tell my story of possible and probable change.

Once upon a time (readers are invited to play a fairytale music in the background) UNDP dreamed of all the most amazing things it can do in Jordan – it dreamed of a world with no poverty and full gender equality everywhere, where affordable and clean energy help create decent work and economic growth, where prosperity is fueled by innovation and strong infrastructure that contribute to reduced inequalities,  where cities and communities are resilient and sustainable , where climate change is no longer a problem, and where people enjoy justice and peace through strong institutions and sustainable partnership. But -Change to intense suspense music- UNDP Jordan felt trapped inside its own story with its familiar characters and predictable plot. The world outside was becoming more complicated and much more complex, and the impact and relevance of what it was doing was under questioning and scrutiny.  Something needed to be done, and that something started with a simple, yet not so simple question: “Why are we here and what do we want to achieve in Jordan?” One question led to another, and Pandora’s box of questions we never ask at UNDP was opened. 

Chapter One: The Call to Adventure 

We embarked on our five-year strategic programming for Jordan conscious of the fact that the moment of putting it to the test will come sooner than later.  We took on “food system” as a challenge – an area that UNDP Jordan has no specific “team” that works on, but one that spans over an array of other systems – from culture to history, health and environment, business, economy and finance, inclusion, equality, gender relations and power dynamics.  

Could “food” be the frame through which UNDP can unpack and rethink the logic of sustainable development in Jordan? Could we have a piece of the “food systems” cake to share with technical food partners, but also help in serving it? A new adventure was in the horizon, and we were ready to enter a new, unfamiliar, and daunting territory. Challenge accepted!  

Photo courtesy of Jasmine House

Chapter Two: Into the Belly of the Whale  

Back in the summer of 2022, our radars picked up signals of a new issue that the Country Office did not consider, nor was it mentioned in its strategic programming design process. FOOD SECURITY. Links to corruption, social security and cohesion, and climate change were made through regular news articles on multiple visual and virtual platforms.  Suddenly talk about food and its link to national security was everywhere. Doubt started to creep, and confidence started to shatter; have we missed an opportunity? And will we regret it?  

Like in every good story, a fairy Godmother steps in and gives the protagonist the push needed to continue with the journey when doubts and fears assail.  And the Portfolio Initiation Framework process (PIF) was just that. A green light for the Country Office to experiment and learn on positioning itself in complexities. And boy where we in the middle of one! After all, UNDP is not a food organization, yet food security was a signal that we could not ignore.  Is there a place and role for us in this sector? Is it in line with our intent for Jordan? We couldn’t tell if we didn’t try and the PIF gave us the license to learn. So, we were on track again, adventure is calling, and now it had a focus. Unfamiliar to say the least, but we did after all anticipate “uncertainty” when we designed our programming document and maybe this was a call for us to put it to the test.   

Chapter Three: Initiation  

Every story has a chapter where the protagonist goes through a particular experience; an initiation into something for which previous experience had not prepared them. In this story, UNDP Jordan intended to make assumptions and test them, knowingly accepting that these assumptions could be wrong.  

Text BoxFrom the surface, as an organization that does not work on food, it appeared that we did not have a role to play in a system where others have a seemingly higher stake, but where no one has yet put a finger on the pulse of the system as a whole. Our starting point was the work of UN food agencies. We did not want to change the definition of food security, we simply wanted to first understand what our role could be in the bigger picture, and whether looking at food systems from an angle of people and communities’ resilience (with enablers such as livelihoods, climate action and policy reform) could result in a transformative shift affecting development in the whole of Jordan.  

A group of people around a table

Description automatically generated with medium confidenceA plan was at hand, to collect information and accumulate knowledge to understand who is in the system, what they do, and where and how they connect and align intents for change (if any!). But the skeptics were many. The laugh of an advisor to the government on food security is still ringing in my ears when I talked to him about UNDP’s plan: “So, UNDP wants to work with food now, eh?” (Ridiculing laugh in the background) The same came from within UNDP. ” Why food? And is it really an area for UNDP? and what is this new portfolio approach? We already have portfolios!” And as Robert De Niro in Ronin rightly said, “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt!” And doubt was the starting point, and what followed was built on the assumption that while we might be seeing a combination of things and events that don’t fit well together, they could still result in a series of unexpected results -in both the negative and positive sense.  

Text BoxText BoxWe started with a review of food systems in Jordan to determine the opportunities for the Jordan Office.  We needed a better understanding of the boundaries of the system we are exploring including its existing interrelationships. The mere definition of a system implies the existence of actors whose interactions shape the overall system, and the system shapes the interactions. Parallel to this,  an intersectional deep listening and sensemaking exercises were conducted in partnership with the Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC) Social Innovation Laboratory to better understand the real concerns and needs of food system actors and entities across Jordan. Different actors “view the system” differently, and no one correct view of the food system exists. All depends on who and where you are in the system and what your values, and interests are. Understanding the relationships and recognizing the different existing perspectives related to food systems were visually reflected in five system maps to better identify the critical connections and interrelations that could help us understand it and react to it. A series of insights emerged around the connections, narratives and perceptions around food systems from a diverse range of people and entities in Jordan, but most importantly from within UNDP itself.  

 And just like that, the “why food and UNDP?” was transformed into an “oh, I see a connection there”. Eureka! A link was made, and our strategic programming document can apparently justify a seemingly improbable engagement in a new sector if we get out of our comfort zone. Faith was restored! What’s next? 

Chapter Four: Lunch is served   

Food in Jordanian culture is used to mark special occasions; it gives comfort during hard times, and spreads joy and happiness of body and soul. It is a way to connect with people especially when t is shared, and it usually is. The table on which food is served has the power to break barriers to talk about anything and everything; life plans, politics, economy, human relationships, and business as it provides a stable setting to converse, debate and strengthen relationships.  

A key aspect of systems thinking is opening a dialogue between people of different insights. Each person comes with their own limited set of experiences and mindsets, but when these come together, magic happens, and connections are made. With this in mind, and thinking of a “lunch table” as the setting, we asked ourselves: “Can we bring multiple perspectives to the table to discuss the why, what, how, who and when of transformative change in the food systems in Jordan?” And just like that we had a lunch to prepare for! 

Text BoxA food immersion activity was planned with gastronomy in mind with the help of Dani Lasa Co- founder of Imago, but we were lacking a Jordanian chef. Back in 2022, I was involved with the Strategic Innovation Team in a series of discussions with chefs, artists and entrepreneurs from the Arab Region working around food for change, and Jordanian chef Karmah Tabaa was one of them. As a female chef, a minority among her peers, Karmah is on a personal mission to understand, document and become more knowledgeable about local as well as regional food culture. Now all we needed was to convince her to cook for 25 guests representing actors from the food system and think of a menu that tells a story – all in four days. Piece of cake!!   




Luckily, she accepted the challenge and a menu reflecting the key ideas and insights identified in the deep listening and analysis processes was designed. The design of the menu sought to highlight the diverse needs, aspirations, and concerns for invitees to reflect together on the needed change towards a more fair, equal, and accessible food system in the country. Questions about different elements of the food system that were perceived relevant were added for people to engage and share and contrast the perceived opportunities and challenges related to food system in Jordan from their different views and roles within the system.  

Text BoxIssues discussed varied; the absence of a national entity managing and regulating the food system in the country, the need to organize all systems around food, the urgent demand to generate knowledge and awareness as well as opening channels of communication on the subject were raised. Even gender equality and innovation were served, and discussions ensued. In the words of one of the international partners on the table, “This is definitely the most disruptive discussion I’ve ever had”. And remember the food security advisor who laughed when he heard UNDP’s interest in food systems? He took me to the side and said, “There is surely a role for UNDP to play; alignment for systems change”  

Chapter Five: Back to the Beginning   

This is where I should come with THE END, concluding my story, but I feel inclined to go back to where I started from and ask again: “Could a single sector (or specific issue) hold the key to transform the development pathway in Jordan? And if so, how can we prioritize our programming at the intersection of our mandate and assets -as well as those of others- with the country’s needs and priorities?” After all, we are engaging in some of the strategic areas identified during this still ongoing journey, and the potential of connecting the dots is high.  

The short answer to the question above is “yes we can!” The long answer is “yes…but only if”, and those ifs are many.  

  • Yes…. if embracing a portfolio mindset and approach also comes with accepting risk and failure as possible.  Because one can’t be responsive to the complex and the uncertain by applying a top-down linear approach focused on results-based management, predictable indicators, and low levels of risk. 

  • Yes…. if we constantly monitor and assess the changing context we work in and adjust our interventions and strategic directions accordingly. This needs a new architecture of our M&E systems beyond our delivery rates and in a way that takes future scenarios of positive change into account  

  • Yes…. if UNDP establishes robust learning systems that constantly reflect on what is working and what is not, and adopt adaptive management to its decision-making processes  

  • Yes…. if UNDP invests in building the capacity of its staff to think and act systems and lead and facilitate effective system thinking processes with national, local, and international partners 

I will stop here and end my story of possible and probable change and conclude with a famous quote by Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so”.  

How about that for food for thought?  

The end…… or is it?