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Help yourself: How do poor women and men understand their right to food?

June 5, 2014
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Naomi Hossain of IDS introduces the latest report (launched today) from a joint IDS/Oxfam research programme on food prices.Naomi_Hossain photo

Do people at risk of hunger think they have a right to food? What does a right to food mean, and how can it be claimed and enforced? We asked these questions of around 1500 people in our Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project in 2013, an ongoing exercise in 10 low and middle income countries funded by the UK Government and Irish Aid.

The responses were surprising: despite all the talk at international conferences, the shining examples of Brazil’s fome zero and India’s Right to Food Act, and the NGO campaigns, there is a big gap in advocacy and basic information about rights for right-holders themselves. Across our 23 research sites, the sense of a formal, legal right to food was generally weak. People tend to think they have a legally enforceable right to food mainly when their government has recently, explicitly, claimed this responsibility. Then much depends on the willingness and ability of governments to act. In Kenya, campaigning and advocacy around the new 2010 constitution mean people are well-informed of their right to food – at least in theory. In Nairobi, Mr M, a 37 year old craftsman, said

Yes, I do know that hungry people do have rights to food as stipulated by the constitution. But we do not know [from] whom we should claim these rights.

The reality can be demoralising. Mrs C, a farmer in the drought-stricken coastal region of Lango Baya in Kenya, told us

No, I do not think hungry people like me have any rights. Late last year a meeting was called by the Chief. The meeting we were told was aimed at helping people who are HIV positive and the elderly receive assistance. We were told we needed to apply. We did, we even wrote down our numbers, but since then we have never been called or assistance brought for us. I am very bitter, because they should have just told us that they were no assistance coming instead of raising our hopes on something that was not there. They lied to us.

We called this year’s research report Help Yourself because for most people in most places, the right to food seems less a legal relationship between states and citizens than a DIY right – a matter for individuals, families and, at most, local communities. People think they have such a right but it is because this seems a natural notion related to the basics of survival and the minimum mutual support that makes up a community.

Right to Food campaign, IndiaEven people at risk of hunger do not expect to be fed or given hand-outs – they talk instead of the right to work to feed themselves. They expect policies that make agricultural inputs and food affordable, and that ensure that work is available and pays enough to cover living costs. Mrs H, a 34 year old domestic worker in Dhaka echoed her Bangladeshi compatriots when she said:

Allah did not say that you keep sleeping the whole day and when you rise I will feed you. Will it work if you keep shouting for rights when Allah himself is giving the direction to work for food?

Many people seem to fear being labelled ‘lazy’ if they state their claim to a right to food. Yet they also recognise that disasters or misfortunes, and being too young, old, frail or otherwise unable to work means depending on others. Then too, people look to churches, mosques, or neighbours rather than expecting the state to act, even though local institutions and individuals are themselves over-stretched.

In Chikwanda in northern Zambia, 50 year old Mr P uses crutches after childhood polio, and works as an agricultural piece-worker. He heard about his right to food on Mpika FM radio but doesn’t expect much from the government. Times are so tough for Mr P that he relies reluctantly on rodents for his protein these days – nobody in his community has helped take him to places where he thinks he might get help with fertilizer or food.

As Bolivian participants told us about their experience of organising around rights, people have to help themselves if the right to food is going to mean anything other than theoretical legislation. This means organising to claim their rights. In many different settings democracy was seen as a means of enforcing a right to food, and votes as a referendum on government performance on food security. But a step is missing: people need to be organised to claim their rights if their votes are to translate into action. And for that to happen, they first need to know that those rights exist. As former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, argues, ‘[p]eople need to know their rights in order to be able to demand change and accountability from the Government’.  

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