Blog Action Day 2011: On the Right to Food, Hunger and Poverty

The right to food is a Human Right: it might be good to be reminded of that fact as we watch around 6 million children die per year as a result of starvation and related diseasesi.
The right to food sends us back to the very rights to live, and to live in dignity. It is consigned at article 25 §1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rightsii,

  1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food (…)

as well as at article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966:

Article 11The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consentThe States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed (…)

It is particularly worth noting that not only does international law recognise the fundamental right to be free from hunger, but it also places the State as the duty bearer of ensuring that this right is implemented and gives it the obligation to take every steps possible to realise and implement that right.
As for all Human Rights, the State’s obligation are threefold: to respect, to protect and to fulfil. Behind these words lie the following explanations: to respect means that the State shall not take actions or adopt laws that will increase its people’s starvation or malnutrition. To protect means that the State shall prevent powerful institutions and entities from increasing starvation and malnutrition and to fulfil means that, should a situation of starvation or famine arise, the State shall fulfil the right to food directlyiii.
Based on the World Food Programme (WFP) Food Statistics that indicate that 925 million people do not have enough to eat, with 98% of them being in developing countriesiv, we can deduce that the aforementioned State obligations are not being taken seriously enough.
It is also important to underline the gender component of the global food crisis: also according to the WFP Food Statistics, women make up a little over half of the world’s population, but they account for over 60 percent of the world’s hungry.Besides, smallholders farmersvproduce half of the world’s food: among these farmers, 8 out of 10 are women (in Africa, this number reaches 80%)viand they play a key role in counteracting the negative impact of the global food crisis. Women’s vulnerability has been increased by the HIV/AIDS pandemic when women more often than not become the heads of households as well as by natural disasters and catastrophes. It is also important to underline that women tend to become more vulnerable to violence when they have no means of sustenance, but also even while working on their lands.
So what are the main causes for malnutrition and starvation? While the impact of climate change has increased food insecurity and is worsening the hunger situation in many countries, the impact of globalisation and neo-liberal policies on price volatility and vulnerability is not to be undermined.
Indeed, first of all, trade liberalisation and IMF and World Bank policies have had a negative impact on smallholders farmers because on the one hand, the request and in some cases the imposition for liberalisation of Southern agricultures that came from North countries has been coupled with these same governments maintaining subsidies for their own farmers. On the other hand, countries who “benefited” from IMF and World Bank loans are now crippled by the debts they have contracted towards these two institutions. Trade liberalisation and the complacency of governments who have failed their duty to protect their people’s right to food have enabled rich countries and big multinational corporations to buy lands at a very cheap price, making the previous small owners unable to cultivate their own lands, forcing them to become employees of the corporations or to seek elsewhere means of sustenance, increasing their vulnerability. The high level of productivity of these corporations has impacted on commodity prices and has rendered smallholders farmers who were integrated in regional and national markets unable to compete with cheaper imports, not to mention the environmental impact of intensive agriculture. The cost of neo-liberal policies are economic, environmental and social, and have led to the global food crisis we’re currently facingvii.
G20 governments are now pouring money and food aid into countries facing food crisis, but these actions, although now much needed, are like putting band aids over cracks and will not solve the long term issues. In order to have long term economic growth, significant poverty and hunger reduction, the systemic causes need to be addressed. Cancelling debts, allowing subsidies for Southern agricultural economies, fighting governments’ corruption and regulating and monitoring big food industries are just the beginnings of agricultural reforms that should concentrate on supporting farmers cooperatives and local and national production.
It is high time governments face their responsibility: the right to food is a human right, and appealing for funds to “save people dying from hunger in the South” is just not good enough. It is not charity that is needed, but a real in-depth democratic, social and economic globa reforms that puts the state at the core of the development action and involves farmers and citizens.
Nothing about us without us!

iJean Ziegler, Previous UN Special Rapporteur on Food,

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