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FAO responds to a nutrition emergency

Increasingly, FAO has become an active partner in providing assistance when emergencies occur. When a developing country faces an exceptional natural or human-induced calamity, FAO's Special Relief Operations Service responds to requests for emergency assistance in the agricultural, livestock and fisheries sectors. This covers a wide range of activities oriented towards the urgent rehabilitation of the disaster-stricken areas. FAO assists developing countries in establishing preparedness and post-emergency measures and in formulating and implementing relief and short rehabilitation programmes that will speed the return to agricultural development. Because nutrition is given increasing consideration in emergency situations, the Food and Nutrition Division is providing technical assistance as a means of improving the impact of FAO projects on household food security and nutrition.

In South Somalia, the Urgent Improvement of Household Food Security through Home Gardening project was initiated in February 2000. Its approach complements traditional responses to nutrition emergencies, such as food aid and rehabilitation of the malnourished. The intervention aimed to bring sustainable improvements in nutrition by building the capacity of both field workers and communities to improve household food security and to make optimal use of the foods that are produced.

The project was implemented by the international non-governmental organization (NGO) InterSOS in villages along the Juba and Shabelle rivers. Although these areas have good agricultural potential owing to the year-round availability of water, the Bantu communities are particularly vulnerable as they depend on farming, have limited access to land and livestock and had been affected by recent floods. The project distributed horticultural seeds and tools to women. In order for the project to have an impact on nutrition, the distribution of agricultural inputs was combined with training in nutrition and promotion of vegetable consumption.

Several training materials were developed under the project, including a nutrition manual for field workers in Somalia and booklets and brochures on nutrition and horticulture for the target population. These materials have been adopted by the Nutrition Working Group of the Somalia Aid Coordinating Body (SACB).

Training of trainers workshops were organized. Seven teams, each comprised of a health worker and an agriculture extensionist, were trained in nutrition and horticulture. The participatory methodology allowed for an exchange of information and team building among the participants and the planning of activities, as well as adaptation of the contents of the training materials to the local situation. The teams then provided training and distributed seeds and tools to a total of 15 000 women. The US$340 000 project was implemented over a six-month period.

Exchange of information and collaboration with other agencies working in the field will contribute to further improvement of this integrated nutrition and agriculture approach in nutrition emergencies.

Kristien Vliegen, Associate Professional Officer FAO Nairobi; and Arine Valstar, Associate Professional Officer, Nutrition Programmes Service, FAO Rome.

right to

Since the World Food Summit in 1996, renewed attention has been paid to the notion of the human right to adequate food and to rights-based approaches to food security. Yet many people are still asking what the right to food means, and how it relates to practitioners in fields such as nutrition, agriculture and development. Does it mean that everyone is automatically entitled to free handouts? Does the state have to establish soup kitchens in every community for everyone? Must everyone be directly provided for by the state?

During the cold war, the proponents of socio-economic rights would have answered these questions in the positive. But a new understanding is emerging in terms of the nature of human rights and the corresponding obligations of the state and other relevant actors. The divide between civil and political rights, on the one hand, and socio-economic rights, on the other, is finally closing.

Essentially, this means that the state has the obligation to ensure that everyone enjoys all human rights, from physical security to fair trial to health care, education, effective participation in decision-making and access to adequate food. At the same time, it is recognized that individuals are responsible for their own lives and will seek their own livelihoods given the opportunity to do so.

The primary duty of the state, therefore, is to respect people's freedom to seek their own solutions to their own needs. This is an obligation of non-interference and refers to the relationship between the state and the individual. Violations of this duty regarding the right to food may include food blockades, arbitrary evictions from agricultural land and food sanctions.

Furthermore, in recognition of the importance of relationships among individuals and between individuals and private sector actors, the state has an obligation to protect individuals from illegal interference by private actors, mainly through legislation and regulation of these relationships, including the protection of weaker actors against stronger ones. Good examples regarding the right to adequate food are regulations on food safety, nutritional quality, labelling, etc. which apply to food producers for the protection of consumers. Insufficient consumer protection may constitute a violation of human rights. Conversely, regulations that are too rigid and bureaucratic, making entry into business impossible for the poor, may also be a breach.

Finally, in recognition of the fact that many individuals are constrained by characteristics of their environment, such as poverty and lack of resources, the state has an obligation to fulfil the right to adequate food. This obligation is twofold, to facilitate and to provide. Examples of facilitation include the monitoring of markets and their effective functioning, the provision of infrastructure, consumer education and land reform.

The obligation to provide is, then, one of last resort; an obligation that applies only to those who are unable to provide for themselves, such as the very old, the very young, invalids and the unemployed. However, this provision does not necessarily have to be undertaken by the state directly - the family, the community, voluntary organizations and others all have their roles to play.

In conclusion, the state has to ensure that there is an enabling environment, where people can provide for their own nutritional needs and for those of others. The exact policies and regulations adopted by the state are not proscribed by human rights, but they must be inclusive and democratic, respect the rights of the minority and have the end result of a fuller enjoyment of human rights. Each country must work out the details for itself, within its own context.

Where, then, does the United Nations come in? According to the UN Charter, human rights and social development are main objectives of the Organization. Development agencies therefore have the role of assisting countries to create the environment that can enable people to secure food. The role of UN organizations is being redefined, so that they use the whole scope of human rights as their main point of departure. This implies that the UN should not only ask governments to take necessary action, but must also reorient its own activities, programmes and projects to make them conducive to the enjoyment of rights. The attitude must shift from that of charity to that of an actor that enhances lives. People who are the holders of rights should not only benefit from aid, but should also have a say in defining their own needs, participate in decisions that affect them and generally have more choices in their lives. Programmes must be people-centred as opposed to technology-centred. Recognition of the inherent dignity and autonomy of each individual is the essential starting point.

Margret Vidar
Legal Officer FAO

In 1998, FAO published The right to food in theory and practice to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The book contains contributions from human rights experts and Non Governments Organization (NGOs), as well as from FAO, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), on various aspects of the right to food. It is available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese and can be ordered from FAO. Readers can learn more about the right to food by visiting the FAO Web site on the right to food at

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