Is the Gap in Policy Processes towards better Food Security and Nutrition Interventions Mainly a Gap Between Knowledge and Action?
Food and nutrition issues get little policy attention from decision-makers. The lack of action is not due to a lack of knowledge by the latter. Other gaps are at the root - gaps that denote a deliberate choice of not attending to food and nutrition matters. It is ultimately power relations that affect policy choices. It is here contended that policy processes can only be fully understood if analyzed politically. Consciousness raising and social mobilization are indispensable to influence policy processes. Research organizations have hardly engaged in this consciousness raising; most of them are rather conservative. They think that if decision-makers have more and better knowledge they will indeed take urgently needed decisions; but they never go against their own interests. What is missing, and is argued in favor-of here, is the need for structural changes that address the basic causes of preventable hunger and malnutrition by organizing pressure from below; thus the importance of empowering beneficiaries.
The issues at stake are here analized in a point-counter-point format.
As most nutrition colleagues would agree, the right food and nutrition policy decisions are not being made in a world where malnutrition is still a serious public nutrition problem and where a host of options for action exist. It is fitting to ask for the reasons for this and for perhaps, the overall lack of policy attention that food and nutrition issues get from decision-makers.
Some researchers in the food and nutrition community are indeed looking for ways to reduce the gap between knowledge-and-action. It is here counter-argued that it is not a lack of policy attention to the knowledge/action gap that is at the root of the problem. Instead, it is a deliberate ignoring of the food and nutrition problem as long as it is not the direct cause of social unrest. (To state the obvious, those who have the power are not those who have the problems). The real gap therefore is not between knowledge-and-action. It is not either a lack of political will. It is a deliberate choice of not attending to these matters if they are not jeopardizing the stability of the system controlled by those who hold the power. The current gap, if looked at as a knowledge gap, most decidedly exists, but is of little significance, because policy is only minimally affected by knowledge alone.
It is political factors that define what the policies to be attended to, actually are - and it is ultimately power relations that affect policy choices. In short, policy processes can only be fully understood if analyzed politically.
As regards beneficiaries genuine participation in decision-making, communities do not engage at all in the policy making process, because they do not have a voice; communities can thus not influence policy. They need to be empowered to do so in order to claim their rights.
How interactions between active civil society and various levels of government affect policy development and implementation is a chapter in the writing. The more militant civil society organizations have indeed achieved some real changes and there is much to be learned from those organizations. We have to help budding civil society organizations to achieve the clout (power) to demand needed changes and to monitor their implementation.
Consciousness raising and social mobilization are indispensable in influencing policy processes; this is best done using the human rights-based approach that organizes claim holders to demand policy changes from duty bearers. (Note that ‘stakeholders’ is a terrible neutral term!)
Existing food and nutrition research organizations often engage in attempts to influence policy makers by communicating their findings to them and by contributing new information to policy fora.
Historically, however, most of these research organizations have hardly engaged in the consciousness raising and social mobilization of the ‘needed type’ at least not very proactively. In all honesty, most of them are rather conservative organizations, as for example those in the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research institutions (CGIAR). Just communicating and contributing new information to decision-makers will not achieve the changes needed unless this information is more on the political side of changing things.
These organizations claim there is a disconnection between the spheres of policymaking and of science-and-knowledge; that one needs to break ground methodologically to engage policy makers as decisions are made.
Actually, this has been one of the problems of these food and nutrition research organizations for years: they try to connect policy with science-and-knowledge and not with politics. Do they really think that if decision-makers have more and better knowledge they will make decisions against their power interests? In their guts, politicians already know what scientists want to tell them...they may not have quantified information, but they know. The need is not to break ground methodologically, but to break ground politically.
These organizations still often call for more interdisciplinary research.
It is definitely not a dearth of interdisciplinary work that has hampered progress. Almost all the hurdles are political and ideological. If one puts together multidisciplinary teams of conservative researchers, the results and recommendations will be conservative and will just tinker with the immediate causes (and will do so strictly within the system). What is being argued here is the need for structural changes that address the basic causes of preventable hunger and malnutrition. (See www.humaninfo.org/aviva)
Moreover, many of these organizations call for setting up social protection and safety nets.
The time is overdue to stop talking about safety nets! This is precisely what leads to tinkering with changes within the system. The ongoing neo-liberal global restructuring creates a mess and food and nutrition professionals are supposed to pick up the pieces? Just in order that the poor and marginalized do not revolt? Who is cheating here? We need to stop victimizing the poor and throwing them bread crumbs. What about, to begin with, changing the system that makes safety nets for the poor required?
The CGIAR organizations claim they have proven their ability to communicate effectively to bring certain actors together to promote "action".
Yes, but what are they communicating? Rice with iron or with vitamin A? Doom forecasts for 2020? The horrible impact of AIDS on agriculture and on the economy? The need for improved agro-forestry? Super staple food species? Is that enough? Does this imply that those who will listen and do some of it will then go on to make structural changes? If one brings actors together to promote action, what meaningful and sustainable action will they promote, will this be the political action needed?
People overlook the fact that some governments do place a high priority on reducing hunger and malnutrition. Take Vietnam, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Kerala State in India. What is the common denominator among them? Political determination. Period. This is not just an often used ‘cliché’. So, the bottom line that affects policy-makers’ choices is the politics of it all, i.e., political processes reign.
To sum up, food and nutrition issues appear on the public agenda only when it is in the interest of the decision-makers or when international pressures become unbearable. Only occasionally does one see this happening when leaders have a clear mind and determination about the importance of food and nutrition in the development process. The only factor that ultimately works is organized pressure from below; thus the importance of empowering and mobilizing beneficiaries.
Even current legislation and legal systems do not affect action to reduce hunger and malnutrition to any great degree. This includes the promotion of the right to adequate food and nutrition. Laws may be passed, but are not enforced. National leaderships often feel content with having passed the legislation, and do not care much about its enforcement. Legislation is also frequently in response to international pressures and not to a felt need. Only mobilizing civil society and providing them with the necessary teeth to monitor the laws’ enforcement will make things work.
What can these research organizations then do to create the conditions for actions that will effectively reduce hunger and malnutrition in developing countries? They need to go through a profound process of revising and redefining their vision and their mission so that they can genuinely adopt the right to adequate food and a nutrition-based approach in all that they do. They are simply not looking at food and nutrition as a human right even as they may have made oral and written pronouncements to that effect.
They need, for instance, to engage more on operations research that tries out different approaches to maximize the social mobilization of claim holders to negotiate and demand their rights from duty bearers at different levels. In fact, research related to all areas of implementing the right to adequate food and nutrition-based approach is of high priority.
As a general rule, if research findings have high social mobilization potential, they should be popularized directly to the beneficiaries to empower them to claim their rights. 'Selling' research findings to decision-makers may continue bringing us more of the same disappointments. Policy makers do not always really (want to) listen...unless beneficiaries put pressure on them.
So, where is the gap? …and don’t you think this is a key issue for us to ponder in the post-2015 era?
Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
This thematic discussion was led by FAO and WFP in collaboration with “The World We Want”.
The consultation was facilitated by the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)