Re: The e-Consultation on Hunger, Food and Nutrition Security

Rahul Goswami Centre for Communications and Development Studies, India
21-12-2012

Dear FSN moderators and friends,

Thank you for opening up this matter, which in short is the removal of hunger. You have provided three themes for guidance, and the views we provide will find listeners (or an audience) on two occasions during 2013, in March and in September. In the provision of views, it may be advisable to observe a few personal preferences and here, before fulfilling the themes, are mine: that action to end hunger is not a "post-2015" target or goal and is a generation overdue; that, as you have stated, "many food security and nutrition policies, strategies and action plans have been written over the past number of years" and we see more, and not less, hunger and malnutrition stalk our communities which substantially dilutes my belief that such strategies and action plans work for the grater common good; that, as you have also stated, "close to 870 million people around the world remain undernourished and do not have access to a healthy diet" and indeed as long as the transformation of 'raw' - or primary - agricultural produce continues as the main activity of food processing and packaging industries, this total number will rise at an appreciably faster clip than the growth rate of population does.

Theme 1:
The most important lesson that has been there to learn, freely and independent of political or economic pressure, about the MDGs is how invisible they have been to those whose work has contributed to their limited success, and by the same token, their invisibility to many of those whose 'development', millennially related or otherwise. Why has this been so? In part I see this as a result of the MDGs (individual goals and the group of goals) having remained a subject of negotiation between inter-governmental agencies and relevant ministries and departments in countries. The MDGs did not, indeed they remained distant from, the sub-national scoreboards and locuses of learning they could quite easily have become. That is but one aspect. A second, more powerful on the ground, is that eradication of hunger is almost always in developing countries held up as an example of the ability of a certain regional form of politics to deliver these most basic of welfare measures - hence the commonality of countries together striving to achieve MDGs was treated as and remained a 'foreign' idea useful only insofar as it could be included as a subject for a seminar, and otherwise mostly irrelevant in the field.

As for the second question in theme 1, concerning a remaining challenge (I will omit the 'opportunity' part, because the 'for whom' question which is an accompaniment is a topic by itself), there is a lesson to be learnt from the sector of climate change, wherein several strategies on climate change and agriculture have been designed generally independently of agriculture sector policies (which in turn are designed independent of what small cultivating households, or smallholder farmers, require), as if the task of managing the two-way stream of communication between cultivator and climate researcher is left to the state and therefore tends more often than not to be incomplete.

Climate change is now and upon us, but these are recurrent questions the member states of the FAO (and of the UN) have faced since 1945, with the end of World War Two. If you read the passage below, it helps illustrate how little has changed from one point of view, and how much has, from another, far more destabilising point of view:

"...some of the basic problems that have afflicted humanity since the beginning of society remain unsolved. Large parts of the world still suffer from hunger, and the threat of famine is ever present. Today we are confronted by a new challenge in human history which, if not faced, could sweep away the little progress we have so far achieved - this is the upward surge of world population at a rate never experienced before."

That was the fourth director-general of the FAO, B. R. Sen (of India), and he said these words during his inaugural address at the First African Regional Conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, on 3 November 1960. Sen appealed "… to our Member Governments not only to discuss their problems, but also to avail themselves of the knowledge and skills FAO has acquired over many years in the fields of agricultural development and food production and distribution."  He said: "While the increase of agricultural productivity must remain the sine qua non of economic development of the less developed regions, the importance of education, public health and institutional factors must be recognised in any plan of balanced economic development."

As you see, it has been over 50 years and few of the deficits recorded then have been banished. How could they have been? In the years - the decades - since 1960, many a development theory has been advanced only to be discarded, but not before the worst of them were thrust upon poor folk and choiceless urban dwellers, as they are now.

Theme 2:
The economic and political landscapes in which we attempt to address hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition are not ours to command. Were they, I dare say we would not to include food and hunger in a post-2015 line-up of urgent needs. No matter what the moth-eaten rhetoric claims, there is little or no democratic control we have (we as practitioners or researchers or facilitators; farmers as farmers) over economic decision making. There are very few such genuinely socialist societies left. Is it possible to wrest control of our societies out of the tight and noisome grasp of the political-industrial combine and its scientist-servants? At country level it is extraordinarily difficult, and it is not for nothing that the 99% versus the 1% agitations have foundered in many parts of the world, for the machinery of the state is usually more aligned to the political and business elite than it is to the proletariat (and the cultivating proletariat).

Hence it has become a relatively far more simple matter now than it was a generation earlier to influence especially the youth and the new adults (let us say the 15-30 age group) and this is why so many working people continue, despite the evidence they encounter in their lives every day in the form of rising food prices and a shrinking democratic space, to be influenced by pro-capitalist ideas. Can the promise of organic agriculture practices using native or indigenous systems of knowledge help usher in a new democratic systems that represents the majority, a society based on human need and sustainability? That ought to be the sort of question and studied responses we in the FSN feed into the FAO for (at least) the remainder of the troubled life of the MDGs.

If there is an encouraging trend it is this: that there appears to be growing recognition that farmers need to be recognised as co-creators of knowledge in agriculture, encouraged and respected for the innovations they develop. We do know that promoting agriculture for development presents a serious challenge of managing multiple agendas and collective interests of formal and informal institutions (the state, the private sector, and civil society). Their inter-relationships, their obligations, processes, mechanisms, and differences are just as important, as pointed out to us so succinctly in "The Top 100 Questions of Importance to the Future of Global Agriculture" (International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 2010) which emphasised that "it is precisely at this interface that governance, economic investment, power and policy making converge and play their respective critical roles."

Theme 3:
Through this network and allied networks, we do know that a number of pilot actions are under way concerning the points raised in this theme. At the level of global discussion (inter-agency, inter-government, inter-disciplinary) there is ample strategising, but at the level of the local will we still know little about what this rapid surge in attention to climate change and agriculture will mean in practice? Who defines the agenda - is it cultivating communities or is it administrators who come under repeated political and business pressure? On what basis and on whose terms are particular approaches and technologies favoured as a result? Are interventions driven by particular donors or commercial interests? What happens to the needs of those cultivating households most vulnerable to the effects of climate change?

Studying the official documents of the FAO Council (it sat for its 145th session in early December 2012), it is difficult to reconcile the FAO's stated intention as an organisation with the burgeoning number of new partnerships and alliances that the FAO is striking every week. However, there is a different clarity concerning political commitment.

"Political commitment is a prerequisite to appropriate policies being put in place, and investments made to enable people to realize their right to adequate food, both in the short term through various social protection instruments, and in the medium and long term, through measures that empower poor and vulnerable people to be self-reliant, resilient, food secure and well-nourished. Political commitment not only refers to the responsibility of government, but also of civil society, the private sector and the wider development community." So said a relevant paragraph from the Council's "Reviewed Strategic Framework and Outline of the Medium Term Plan 2014-17" document. Thus we see there are three kinds of actors other than the private sector.  Why then is such importance being accorded to one kind?

Some of the answer, a small part, can be found in a qualifying statement of the same document: "Agricultural and food systems are becoming more complex.  More than 80 percent of the total value of food production corresponds to the industrial and commerce sectors.  These food systems are also more concentrated and integrated into global value chains which provide new opportunities for small farmers and new challenges from the point of view of maintaining fair and transparent markets."

Thank you and regards, Rahul Goswami