Food, hunger and malnutrition problems linked to an 'abuse of power'

Flavio Valente, secretary-general of FIAN International. Photo by: FIAN International

For the past decade, efforts to integrate human rights into food security policies and actions have been led by the Right to Food Guidelines adopted in 2004 by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Despite some notable achievements such as the fact that many governments have incorporated human rights provisions in their food security laws, the guidelines have nonetheless come under fire from some quarters for having been inadequately applied and implemented.

And 10 years on, are they still fit for purpose?

According to Flavio Valente, secretary-general of FIAN International, the rights-based approach is the only possible way to tackle the full spectrum of food security issues.

“The issue of food, hunger and malnutrition is not an issue of a lack of production, it is not an issue of only a lack of income, it is a very complex matrix of causes,” Valente said in an exclusive interview with Devex in Rome. “To a certain extent, they are all linked to an abuse of power.”

One way this can be demonstrated is by analyzing the value for money in official development assistance. ODA should technically be channeled to implement the FAO guidelines, but the FIAN chief explained that the problem is that most of that money does not actually go into building the capacity of civil society or human rights systems, but rather to “building the interests of the donor.”

So where do the funds in fact go then?

“This issue has been raised by several governments and has been denounced by several governments that have enough independence to do that,” Valente noted. “Most of them know — and they have talked about that behind [closed] doors — that when you get ODA from a country, 75 to 80 percent of that money goes back to the country that donated in terms of consultancy, equipment, imports and all that.”

What is left, he added, is very often not used for the intended purpose “because it’s really not ODA — it is self-help, in a certain way.”

And so how can this trend be reversed?

Valente called on donors to “go beyond ODA” and focus instead on changing policies that harm progress in developing nations, such as skewed subsidies or unfair trade regulations. These types of policies, he said, are much worse than not giving enough money to poor countries, as essentially donors are then arguing that the social protection they offer is the price to pay for handing over the sovereignty of a nation's resources.

“People do not have the sovereignty over their own resources because the resources are directed to something else, to some other uses, to the production of agrochemicals or agrofuels,” he explained. “The issue here is much more about refraining from doing harm and promoting protection for the small-scale producers — for instance, against the impact of transnational corporations, the abuses of power happen in relation to that, both by governments and transnationals.”

In this way, Valente pointed out that initiatives like the G-8’s New Alliance for Food Security are a United States-led attempt to reform land laws in Africa ostensibly to end hunger and poverty, but with the hidden goal of guaranteeing safe access to that land for international investors. Since the initiative is led by the private sector, the FIAN chief believed that the motives are often weighted firmly in favor of improving the business climate, rather than improving a nation’s food security.

Valente revealed his disappointment by the absence of an indicator related to ending hunger and malnutrition, recalling a Feb. 2014 paper issued by FIAN that analyzed the contradiction between the human rights framework and the frameworks elaborated by the G-8 alliance.

“All the indicators are on how safe it is for the investors to invest; how many changes were made in the land or sea laws in the countries; and how amenable the environment is for investment,” he said.  

“It is really clear that there is a front of contradiction,” he continued. “The [alliance] is supposedly there to end hunger and malnutrition, but it is [instead] promoting its own agenda, and it is not the agenda of the people.”

Valente suggested that the human rights system should impede the G-8 alliance from such practices, and urged a greater prominence for women’s rights in the policies of the FAO and other organizations’ food policies.

“When they talk about [women’s rights], they talk about mothers — as if the only reason for a woman to exist is to be a mother and to take care of the family and the children,” he said, asserting the need instead for women to be empowered as entrepreneurs and recognized as equals, decision-makers, and heads of family.

Here, Valente sees a potential tie-in for the private sector in the future implementation of the guidelines, but stressed the need for clear conflict of interest rules.

“If you have a decision of the U.N. being highly influenced by the private sector that says 95 percent of the world’s malnutrition can be eliminated by selling fortified products, this would mean an income of $9 billion for the private sector, but is there enough proof that this is the best mechanism to really end malnutrition?”

Valente would like to see this $9 billion invested in the implementation of women’s rights, the protection of women’s rights and the promotion of sustainable food production. Here, he highlighted a study by CARE, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, that showed that work done with women, adolescents and girls to promote their self-esteem reduces four or five times over the rate of stunting in communities than simply distributing food or introducing micronutrients.

“It is not something expensive, but it tackles the root causes of whatever is going on,” Valente said. “You reduce child marriage, you reduce pregnancy in adolescence, you reduce submission of women, you promote women as full human beings. The other things follow as an outcome.”

Valente believes that this is precisely where the private sector should channel its support, making donations without attaching it to a specific program or activity that is strategically defined as being relevant. In this regard he criticized the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for being too centralized: “[Gates] doesn’t do anything without strings. Whatever they do, they do it in line with their own thinking and their own opinions on what is best for ending hunger and malnutrition in the world.”

“You have to invest in protecting people from harm,” the FIAN chief concluded, “both from the side of the government and from the side of the private sector.”

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.