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Re: Social protection to protect and promote nutrition

George Kent Department of Political Science, University of Hawai'i, United States of ...

Greetings –

I am delighted to see this discussion of Social Protection to Protect and Promote Nutrition. It has been very good, but there is a point that deserves more attention: the first layer of social protection normally should be the informal protection provided by the local community. Social protection by governments of various levels is needed mainly when there is no effective local community.

Here is how I described this in Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food, beginning at p. 98. The book is available as a no-cost download at

“In some ways, all of us are vulnerable. We face threats to our families, our freedoms, and our resources. We aspire to take care of ourselves, but at times we need support from others. Thus we do not live as hermits, but as social beings who provide support to and draw support from the people around us. We aspire to a measure of self-sufficiency, but we are vulnerable, especially at the beginning of the life cycle and at the end.

Consider the example of children, those who are in training for independence. As highly dependent beings, small children need to have others take care of them. Who should be responsible for children? The first line of responsibility is with the parents, of course, but others have a role as well. In asking who is responsible, the question is not whose fault is it that children suffer so much (who caused the problems?) but who should take action to remedy the problems? Many different social agencies may have some role in looking after children. What should be the interrelationships among them? What should be the roles of churches, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and local and national governments?

Most children have two vigorous advocates from the moment they are born, and even before they are born. Their parents devote enormous resources to serving their interests. These are not sacrifices. The best parents do not support their children out of a sense of obligation or as investments. Rather, they support their children as extensions of themselves, as part of their wholeness.

In many cases, however, that bond is broken or is never created. Fathers disappear. Many mothers disappear as well. In some cities hundreds of children are abandoned each month in the hospitals in which they are born. Bands of children live in the streets by their wits, preyed upon by others. Frequently children end up alone as a result of poverty, disease, warfare or other sorts of crises. Many children are abandoned because they are physically or mentally handicapped. Some parents become so disabled by drugs or alcohol or disease that they cannot care for their children.

In many cases the failures are not the parents’ own fault, but a result of the fact that others have failed to meet their responsibility toward the parents. For example, there are cases in which parents are willing to work hard, and do whatever needs to be done to care for their children, but cannot find the kind of employment opportunities they need to raise their children adequately.

In some cases others look after children who cannot be cared for by their biological parents. In many cultures children belong not only to their biological parents but also to the community as a whole. The responsibility and the joy of raising children are widely shared.

In many places, especially in "developed" nations, that option is no longer available because of the collapse of the idea and the practice of community. Many of us live in nice neighborhoods in well-ordered societies, but the sense of community–of love and responsibility and commitment to one another–has vanished. In such cases the remaining hope of the abandoned child is the government, the modern substitute for community. People look to government to provide human services that the local community no longer provides.

As children mature the first priority is to help them become responsible for themselves. So long as they are not mature, however, children ought to get their nurturance from their parents. Failing that, they ought to get it from their relatives. Failing that, they ought to get it from their local communities. Failing that, they ought to get it from the local governments. Failing that, it should come from their national governments. Failing that, they ought to get it from the international community. The responsibility hierarchy looks something like this:




Local Government

State Government

National Government

International Nongovernmental Organizations

International Governmental Organizations

. . .  this can be pictured as a set of nested circles, with the child in the center of the nest, surrounded, supported, and nurtured by family, community, government, and ultimately, international organizations. Of course there are sometimes exceptions. For example, there are many cases in which central governments provide services to the needy directly, bypassing local government. Often this is based on an agreed division of labor, and an understanding that services are likely to be distributed more equitably if they are funded out of the central treasury. Similarly, some programs, such as immunization, cannot be completely managed locally. Nevertheless, the general pattern is that we expect problems to be handled locally, and reach out to more distant agents only when local remedies are inadequate.

This is straightforward. The idea that needs to be added is that in cases of failure, agents more distant from the child should not simply substitute for those closer to the child. Instead, those who are more distant should try to work with and strengthen those who are closer, in order to help them become more capable of fulfilling their responsibilities toward children. Agencies in the outer rings should help to overcome, not punish, failures in the inner rings. They should try to respond to failures in empowering, positive ways. To the extent possible, local communities should not take children away from inadequate parents but rather should help them in their parenting role. State governments should not replace local governments, but instead should support local governments in their work with children. The international community should help national governments in their work with children.

Government’s responsibilities with regard to ordinary children in ordinary circumstances should be limited. The family should provide daily care and feeding. However, for children in extreme situations who are abused or who suffer from extremely poor health or serious malnutrition, governments have a role to play. If there has been a failure in the inner rings of responsibility and no one else takes care of the problem, government must step in.

Empowerment--or development--means increasing one's capacity to analyze and act on one's own problems. Thus, empowerment is about gaining increasing autonomy, and decreasing one's dependence on others. The concept applies to societies as well as to individuals.

There are similar rings of responsibility for others who cannot care for themselves, such as victims of disasters, the physically disabled, and mentally ill. These responsibilities need to be clarified so that the care of those who are unable to care for themselves is not left to chance. Thus this framework may be used in relation to all individuals who need protection and support, and not only children.”

The main point here is that we should not just automatically assume that it is government, at various levels, that should solve our problems. We should first do what we can locally, with our own resources. Both local people and governments should do what they can to increase local communities’ capacity to take care of themselves. That is better than having governments function as substitutes for failed communities.

Aloha, George