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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

On Nutrition-Sensitive Social Protection

My point of departure is quite simple; social protection becomes a need when some members of a society are unjustifiably denied of the possibility of their satisfying one or more of man’s six fundamental needs with reference to their own cultural norms. While these needs are universal for all cultures, how they are satisfied is subject to cultural variation. One of these fundamental needs is nutrition.

Therefore, holistic social protection entails that when necessary, ensuring that the members of a social group are enabled adequately to meet their nutritional needs with reference to their own cultural norms in a way that does not harm anyone or our shared habitat.

A group specific mechanism to enable a social group to meet their nutritional needs that entails harm to some other group or to our habitat is unacceptable for obvious reasons.  One may legitimately call them ethico-pragmatic reasons, respect of which in the long run, is essential for the continued existence of the human race.

Nutrition-Sensitive Social Protection then, represents undertaking an appropriate set of actions that would enable a social group adequately to meet its nutritional needs with reference to its own cultural norms in a manner that entails no harm to anyone or our environment.

The current failure to holistically address the question, what makes nutrition sensitivity a critical component of social protection intervention, has led to an unprecedented degree of urban and rural misery in Asia, Africa and in Americas. Indeed, this is a serious charge, and I shall try to justify my position with a few examples from real life that can be easily confirmed.

Let me begin by stating the obvious; unless an appropriate and adequate supply of affordable food is available to the people, neither their sound economic status nor their enjoyment of human rights can prevent them from either being malnourished or inappropriately nourished. The former results in retarded mental capacity, deficiency diseases and other developmental problems, while the latter additionally leads to obesity and its well-known consequences.

It is vital to understand that social protection endeavours that are not nutrition-sensitive do more harm than good in the long run not only to the already deprived social groups, but also those who are about to enter their midst. Leaving aside the obvious ethico-pragmatic requirements any suitable social protection effort should meet, I will concentrate on the what constitutes the appropriateness, adequacy, and the availability of the nutritional component of social protection.


A significant part of the current nutritional habits of a social group is a product of a long evolution with reference to the group’s geographic location, climate, local flora and fauna on the one side, and the people’s nutritional needs on the other which are dependent on their energy and growth needs. This is an undisputable physio-biological fact. Over a long period of time, how those nutritional needs are met under those conditions get embodied as the food culture of that group.

Naturally, food culture will change over time as the conditions change, but this is a slow natural process. It is reflected in the agricultural products of a group. These products are able to satisfy both the taste and the nutritional needs of its members, provided an adequate supply of those are at their disposal at reasonable prices.

Often indeed those products come from the traditional farmers who are distributed around larger population centres (eg. Former southern Angola). The political ploy of raising people’s expectations to an impossible level, military conflicts of every kind, climatic changes injurious to agriculture, usury, and over-population have drastically reduced the rural agricultural production in many areas of southern Africa and some areas of Asia. At the same time, any one or a combination of those factors have resulted in huge and continuous migration of the poor to the cities (eg. Consider the continuing growth of shanty towns around the former ‘townships of South Africa and around cities in Angola).

For the sake of balance, let me also note that a similar growth slums obtain within and around the Indian cities like Bombay supposed to be in the throes of an economic ‘miracle’. It seems that  noone  knew about the poverty stricken slums around New Orleans until they were submerged under water in the aftermath of a cyclone a few years ago and the slum dwellers emerged in their thousands. All these people have something in common, viz., they are ill-nourished and their ability to work and learn is considerably reduced owing to their inability to meet their nutritional needs adequately. Moreover, their susceptibility to diseases is significantly higher than their national average.

So, how to ensure appropriateness of social protection with reference to nutrition? First of all,  it is essential to re-populate the already depopulated rural areas with agriculturalists trained to produce the foods of the country or the area concerned. This may require education and training, equipment, appropriate seed and livestock, and financial incentives as well as an adequate infra-structureincluding storage and cheap transport, not magnetic levitation and fancy air ports for tourists.

Now to the other side of the coin, i.e., those who are to be protected. Monetary help may enable them to buy food in the slum shops, but paradoxically enough, it is very expensive, its quality is poor to bad, and very often, it takes the form of some food foreign to the people. The solution seems to be the establishment of suitable outlets in deprived areas where the produce of their environs may be bought at reasonable prices. But, I do not know how this may be achieved for the law and order situation in some such areas would not allow it unless it is improved rapidly and effectively.

One of the greatest obstacles to real progress and a huge depopulator of rural areas leading to an ever growing need for social protection in under-developed countries is rogue aid provided by China, India, Russian Federation, etc. Evil effects of Chinese aid is brilliantly visible in southern Angola where Chinese capital and Chinese prisoners work to build tourist facilities and prestige projects. As a result, the Angolan capital has an immense population of poorest of the poor running into several millions. I think unless the caring nations intervene to halt rogue aid, it will become increasingly difficult to provide any social protection to many millions in the recipient countries.

My reason for this seemingly off-the-topic comment is quite simple. If the number of people who require social protection should continue to increase at the present rate, it is difficult to see how a country could produce enough appropriate food stuffs to meet their nutritional needs. It is often those who are engaged in agriculture who migrate into cities in search of a ‘better life’.

I have touched on food production and equally important, its equitable distribution. Apart from that, it is necessary that every development initiative does not entail a reduction in the number of agricultural workers, nor yet in the area of the arable land. Ideally, such an endeavour ought to provide either a direct or an indirect incentive to an increase in both, especially when it is not directly concerned with agriculture.

It would be wise to discourage capital intensive industrialized agriculture, particularly where the need for social protection is acute, for it renders many unemployed who add to the growing numbers of those who require social protection. Its opposite, viz., practical encouragement of small farming involving traditional crops could not only reduce the increase in the number of those who need social protection, but it could also increase our ability to take care of the nutritional aspect of that help as well as support the bio-diversity in food crops and livestock.

I shall now sum up some means of increasing the nutrition sensitivity of social protection interventions and what may be done to make sure that they will not lead to an increase in the numbers who require them.

1. Incorporate suitable agricultural education/training programmes and provision of start capital/material packages in social protection initiatives.

2. Include help to rural farmers and active expansion of small farming, and an equitable distribution of agricultural produce as an integral part of national development.

3. Help to establish and run agricultural cooperatives in rural and semi-rural areas, preferably via less formal but more transparent mechanisms.

4. Distributed and non-intrusive industrial development, which may provide employment without affecting the manpower needs of the vital agriculture sector.

5. Discourage ‘development schemes’ that uproots rural populations, loss of arable land, require cheap but often inappropriate food imports, and intrusive and mendacious food and drink advertising.

6. Some international mechanism to halt rogue development aid, possibly by giving world-wide publicity to its visible harmful effects.

7. The most difficult,  viz., tolerably good governance and its actual use, especially with respect to  agriculture, actively enforced labour laws, and holistic policy formulation and implementation.


Adequacy of an appropriate food supply is an individual issue, dependent on the the particular nutritional needs of a given individual, which in turn depends on one’s age, sex, specific energy and growth needs at a given time, etc. In generalising on food needs, it would be salutary to remember these variations rather than to engage in mechanical thinking and depend on caloric content of food items. At the same time, it would be wise to recall that what constitutes a balanced diet has to be determined with respect to the variations mentioned above for there can never be a universal balanced diet unless we are mass produced to a set of fixed specifications.


My final comments here are to underline the importance of ensuring an affordable supply of appropriate foods for those who require social protection.  Monetary help can hardly ensure anything more than a starvation diet to the needy unless we ensure the availability of affordable food. It is therefore essential that guidelines 1-7 above are observed both by the general development activities, and the broader social protection endeavors.

Best wishes!

Lal Manavado.