Governments in Times of Crisis: Neglecting to Uphold the Human Right to Nutrition?

Chapter 31

Governments in Times of Crisis: Neglecting to Uphold the Human Right to Nutrition?

Claudio Schuftan

Let’s face it, elites are not really interested in the development of rural infrastructures that can and will eventually lead not only to local and national food security, but even less to food sovereignty. Expressing such an inconvenient truth may be unpopular, but it is indispensable if there is to be a call for change. The sense of urgency over the growing hunger and malnutrition situation has to sink into the heads of still unwilling leaders. The time for declarations of intent is over. Ultimately, what we have to tackle is the lack of democratic structures, a fact that is putting both remedial and preventive actions on hold. Considering the dire consequences, the question is not whether the needed solutions are too expensive, but whether it will be too expensive not to do anything. Governments have to respect, protect and fulfill the human right to nutrition1 of their own citizens—and they are not going to do so without putting in place mechanisms to hold them accountable.

The Roots of the Crisis

The latest and ongoing concomitant financial and food (and other) crises are the result of an economic and political system that favors economic growth over equitable social and economic development. These crises highlight some of the most shameful contradictions of our time: The year 2008 saw more than 854 million poor people living in hunger at a time of record global harvests and profits for the world’s major agribusiness corporations. To date, more than a billion people do not have enough to eat.2

The still lingering global food crisis is not being caused by actual food shortages, but is more a crisis of food-price inflation that has exacerbated already existing hunger and poverty and has created new vulnerabilities. The soaring prices of staple foods hit not only the urban poor, but also the numerous poor farmers who are net food buyers. Contrary to what one might think, higher prices have not benefited small farmers. They are in no position to respond to market signals and will, additionally, face new challenges as the value of land rises and competition increases. Further investments in agriculture have perennially been asked for, but purely speculative investments in land are hardly what the development community had in mind. Several causes of this ongoing trend can be identified: the protectionist strategy imposed in Europe and the United States that affords massive subsidy payments to their agribusiness corporations, the emergence of a middle class in India and China, which has led to a significant change in diets, including more meat consumption, on a large scale. Other causes include: the increase in oil prices, which are passed on to consumers and make agricultural inputs and production more expensive, the growing demand for agrofuels, water scarcity and the loss of arable land. But all these are really eclipsed as causes by the ludicrous speculation we see in food commodity markets.

Impact on the Lives of Poor Families

The food crisis is generating reallocations in household spending, which are having a cascading effect, especially, on the lives of poor families. Vulnerable groups like children, women and minorities are particularly affected. Their access to food, health services and education is compromised. Some other probable consequences involve damage to the very social fabric due to the effect of the crisis on family support systems, increased domestic violence, child neglect, as well as abandonment of children by families no longer able to cope.3 Rising food prices lead to a lowering of household food purchasing power and to a reduced dietary diversity of households very likely resulting in increased micronutrient malnutrition. Consumers are forced to spend a much larger share of their income on food. The same is true for the numerous developing countries that import a sizable part of their grain needs. This higher expenditure affects their national budget and consequently the supply of services to the poor segments of the population. These countries’ options are restricted by their limited access to foreign financing, low reserve cushions and high external or public debt burdens. However, only insignificant external financing, which could help them adjust, has been made available to them. This is further exacerbated by the cuts in funding of food aid agencies which has forced them to reduce their activities. This has had very serious nutrition and public health implications and is clearly a threat to the right to nutrition. In short, the food crisis has had widespread detrimental effects on the health of many individuals worldwide. Reduced micronutrient and calorie intake have resulted in well-known problems, such as iron deficiency anemia, low birth weights, stunted growth of children and their respective consequences on wellbeing. The consequences are strongest for breastfeeding mothers since they result in declines in maternal nutrition. It is important to note here that the adequacy of nutrition of young children cannot be separated from the adequacy of their mother’s diet.

The Crisis Seen through a Human Rights Perspective

The global food crisis must be treated, not as a natural disaster, but as a threat to the right to nutrition for millions of individuals. It is thus essential to focus on the root causes underlying the lack of access to food and inadequate nutrition, as well as pay more attention to the negative repercussions of the current situation on specific groups, not only children, but the elderly, the marginalized, minorities, and people living with disabilities. The human rights framework compels us to identify the most vulnerable groups in society by studying patterns of discrimination, as well as the relevant actors (rights holders and duty bearers—including those in the private sector) and the gaps in their capacity, their authority and the resources at their disposal. It also requires us to analize the underlying social determinants of vulnerability also called social determinants of nutrition (exclusion from policy formulation, no access to land, to property and to inheritance; lack of productive and economic resources; unemployment; no access to credit; gross social protection gaps, etc.). Moreover, the analysis of the programs in place that either enable or constrain the realization of the human right to food need to be scrutinized. Using the human rights framework, on top of calling on all of us to help empower and ultimately mobilize rights holders to claim their rights, also calls on us to strengthen the capacity of duty bearers, so that they can fulfill their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the right to nutrition of citizens. This makes it a must for us to monitor progress being made on the implementation of related interventions using clear, targeted process indicators and benchmarks that ensure the accountability of all duty bearers, as well as access to remedial actions for victims of violations of this right.