RE: 10 Year Anniversary of the Right to Food Guidelines

A Ercelan Pakistan

Summary Response from the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum

Globally, as well as in Southasia and in Pakistan, mass hunger and malnutrition have come to be recognized as unacceptable in a democratic world, and there is acknowledgement by states and international organizations that such impoverishment and deprivation has made untenable a world without violent conflict.

This is an important achievement for promoting and protecting all human rights for all – a perspective that emphasizes chronic malnourishment as itself revealing the persistent violation of economic, social and cultural rights which lead to hunger, as well as underscoring that hunger excludes people from any real opportunity to achieve remaining rights.

Any targeting runs the danger of denying universal citizen rights. However, when the goal is recognized to be universal outcomes, then attention to the right to food has correctly helped to refocus on differential public action for children, women, and the aged since their needs – for food specially but generally for a decent life -- can be very different from those of young, adult males.

            Major shortcomings must obviously begin from the global failure to eradicate mass hunger, e.g. in the time span of the MDGs. It is a glaring failure of state and society, and certainly not for lack of social resources – e.g. Pakistan has long had national income per capita that well exceeds any credible estimate of income required to eliminate hunger, and annual foreign aid is enormous. This extreme inequity overwhelms the considerable progress made in other indicators of human well-being; it suggests a weak civil society and one that gets easily distracted in advancing entitlements of the well-fed. Some good initiatives – such as the employment guarantee in India – have not even been attempted in other countries of Southasia and elsewhere that are blighted by significant incidence and intensity of chronic malnourishment.

            Important contributors to failure include global militarization, with impacts that extend beyond the diversion of substantial resources to armaments. When, for example, violent conflicts exclude many from attaining even subsistence livelihoods, then even the right to food is not realizable. However well-stocked the market may be, food grains cannot be consumed by those who are excluded from income.

            Neoliberal macroeconomics ill-advised, aggressively peddled by donors, and greedily adopted by hunger-plagued states remain a major constraint to eradicating hunger. Illustrations of policies that subvert the right to food include reducing subsidies on food for the hungry rather than levying taxes on wealthy tax evaders and avoiders. State attachment to sharp inequality of income and wealth has led to ‘jobless growth,’ such as maintaining high unemployment to keep real wages low.

Export obsessions exacerbate the policy of cheap labour, perversely acclaimed as an advantage in trade. The same donors who push for human rights, and specially the right to food, also tempt countries to increase exports that obviously undermine efforts to increase the provision of food to the hungry. When it is not blatant as export of food it conceals the diversion of land and water away from food production as e.g. sugar, Basmati rice, and water-guzzling textiles and garments. Ironically, by extending GSP-plus to Pakistan and retaining it for Bangladesh, the EU contradicts its call for compliance with core human rights.

Even those committed to the right to food often proclaim that the zero-hunger goal requires boosting supplies by existing production techniques. This is a tragedy since the integrity of nature has been destroyed by supposedly modern and innovative methods.

            The Right to Food Guidelines should have helped states to prepare a comprehensive plan of action, and one that is time bound. This has not happened.

The central fault lies in these guidelines being voluntary, and hence without accountability of states for failing to take action. There are also other problems in statement and interpretation that have resulted in action but wholly contrary to fulfillment of the right to food. These include exports of ‘high-value’ items that in fact compete with land and water in growing food, and are ecologically destructive. Imports of ‘cheap’ food have often meant further impoverishment of producers, again both economically and ecologically.

            Invited to improve labour productivity, states have perversely used this to build infrastructure that in fact reduces the ability of poor people to access food affordably and permanently. Power projects that use freshwater and return degraded water into water bodies is obviously bad. But even irrigation infrastructure can be deleterious, and not just to fisheries. Income inequality and hence vulnerability to hunger are accentuated because state water projects invite ‘hijacking’ by large landowners.

            While land reforms are mentioned in the guidelines, but weakly. Hence no food insecure country has considered serious land reform. Small-scale producers are mentioned favourably, but the guidelines do not stress that they are the only solution to equitable production and hence distribution of food. As remarked by some, prior counter-distribution of wealth is required rather than reliance on post redistribution of income.

            The Guidelines state the central objective “to strengthen people’s access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood.” In assessing the impact, one needs to ask if the Guidelines lays enough stress. There is also no binding follow up of state action for pursuing “inclusive, non-discriminatory and sound economic, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, land-use, and, as appropriate, land-reform policies, all of which will permit farmers, fishers, foresters and other food producers, particularly women, to earn a fair return from their labour, capital and management, and encourage conservation and sustainable management of natural resources.”

The biggest challenges to achieving the universal right to food lie in enabling a multiple transformation in the structures of production and consumption. Access to natural resources must be democratized, in ways that increase autonomy of small producers in ways to reduce vulnerability to state power and market greed. Use of natural resources has to promote ecological sustainability. Production and distribution of energy must shift away from the wasteful to needy, which implies all expansion through decentralized solar and wind systems.

            The global community must stop all aid that denies the right to food, of which coal and nuclear plants are an example; drilling in water bodies is frightening; fracking represents enormous danger to the ecological contributions of water. So is the import of fossil fuels, including LNG, which require export revenues from sources that diminish food production and expand economic inequality.

            It is usual for national constitutions to acknowledge state obligations to citizens based upon the right to life, which surely requires the right to food, made possible by a decent livelihood. The task for public action at all levels is to ensure that these remain the priority. Extensive agrarian reforms to benefit the landless are required. For the remaining rural citizens, and all urban citizens, the state must implement guaranteed employment at a decent wage. This would enable a dignified existence, denied to recipients in charity handouts of food.