The right to food 1998-2008: a casualty of the war on terror

(February 8, 2009) Ten years ago in Hunger Notes, I envisioned the dawn of a new era that would guide the approach to hunger after the end of the Cold War (Human Rights and Nutrition Practice in a New Era). I argued that the end of the Cold War provided new opportunities to pursue a human rights-oriented development practice in place of one driven, as it had been, by global geopolitical interests. I thought that a period where economic human rights would not be seen to be the rhetoric of the Eastern Bloc might encourage the US to ratify the right to food domestically and take leadership to pursue it internationally, together with its effort to spread democratic and civil rights. At the time, overall development assistance was drifting downward, seeking a new post-Cold War rationale for helping other countries, and human rights, I thought, might be it, especially as post-Cold War countries were rushing to ratify the international human rights treaties and more and more countries were moving from undemocratic to democratic forms of governance.

To grasp the new opportunities I encouraged nutritionists to learn the language of human rights and methods of working with grassroots communities in newly democratizing countries.1 Dealing with the new risks called for applying our skills in midst of burgeoning civil conflicts and addressing global causes of hunger in local settings as communities received less government assistance and became more exposed to the vagaries of markets and globalizing free trade. I concluded that those interested in reducing hunger and undernutrition had to view their task as both scientific and ethical, because in the normal course of political life in both developed and developing countries, only when a commitment to a just society is mobilized will science serve the interests of the poor.

Progress? Or self-interest over principle?

The record of the past ten years has been disappointing. More countries have ratified human rights treaties related to ensuring food security, but with some notable exceptions, such as Brazil, countries have largely left these mostly unimplemented into their laws and policies. A recent and hopeful development has been the international agreement in 2004 of a new set of voluntary guidelines on the human right to food was approved in 2004.2

But the United States has continued to shirk any leadership on the human right to food.

It has not ratified or accepted guidance from the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, the Covenant on the Rights of the Child, or other human rights treaties as they address food security, and the official U.S. delegation only reluctantly participated in the process of developing the voluntary, non-binding, guidelines.3 While for a time in the late 1990s, it seems that the US Congress might take up the International Covenant of Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which embodies the human right to food, it did not.

The window of opportunity closed on September 11, 2001 with the attack on the World Trade Towers in New York City. That act single handedly rekindled a development policy directed more to US domestic security concerns than to human rights principles, particularly economic human rights such as the right to food. By 2003, US government foreign assistance was enfolded into President’s United States Strategy on National Security4, security expenditures soared while investments for food and nutrition security continued to decline, and resource allocation criteria favored countries who were allies in the war on terror. From 2002-2005, annual USAID development assistance and food aid averaged about $13 billion, up 20% from the final decade of the Cold War, yet assistance for agricultural development was under $500 million and falling while US government expenditure for anti-terrorism, and security assistance, such as hardening embassies from attack, increased from $370 million dollars to over $5 billion. Food security and hunger took a back seat to the huge run up in national security-related spending, and development resources migrated to allies on the war on terror (such as Iraq, which became the largest aid recipient5).

Undernutrition in democracies

Fortunately democratization has continued, with 150 of the world’s countries living under freedom in 2007 compared to 138 in 1997, according to the Freedom House Index of freedom or partial freedom6. People living under authoritarian and undemocratic regimes such as North Korea, Sudan, North Korea, and Myanmar are thankfully fewer, since it is in these types of countries where the poor are most vulnerable to food insecurity and hunger under “normal” as well as emergency conditions.

Yet some actual and nominal democratic systems have increased corruption in matters of food management as and behaved in ways that have mimicked the worst authoritarian regimes (such the looting of the Malawi strategic grain reserve and in Zimbabwe, where the allocation of food aid by the government rewarded political allies and punished the opposition). The good news is that the media, researchers, politicians, and NGO advocates and watchdogs (such as FIAN) are examining and exposing the relationship between the denial of political rights and hunger, edging the world closer to acknowledging that that food is an economic human right. And rumor has it that some NGOs are taking up human rights as an approach in the new open political environments. This is not exactly a commitment to sweeping policies that will satisfy the human right to food, but it is a step in the right direction.

Increased vulnerability through globalization

For over 30 years, since the food crisis years of the 1970s, the world’s development agencies such as the World Bank and developed country development agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development, have peddled policies to governments in developing countries of comparative advantage, liberalized agricultural markets and export-driven economic growth. 7 Even the most food insecure developing country was encouraged to use trade as a replacement for direct assistance to its agriculture, particularly assistance to the large number of peasant farmers for the production of basic foods. Food production for local use by small-scale farmers (the vast majority of farmers in developing countries) was not only out of fashion by virtue of the Washington Consensus, it was unpopular among government leaders in developing countries, who preferred to support more profitable and taxable agricultural or manufacturing exports to the developed world. . Experts looked askance at any policy, such as fertilizer subsidies for poor farmers or tariffs on food imports, proposing to strengthen national food self-sufficiency for a developing country.

This was done at the same time that the United States, Canada, and European countries maintained very large subsidies for their farm sectors. Thus the agricultural policy espoused (and enforced through development assistance programs, which were provided to developing countries only ‘on condition’) by the developed countries toward developing countries was “don’t do as I do, do as I say.” The result of these very large subsidy programs in developing countries was first of all increased production in the developed countries and then lower prices, especially in developing countries, as excess production was “dumped” abroad. The result was a period of low food prices in developing countries that eased pressure on low-income food purchasers, especially in restive urban areas, while at the same time creating ever more low-income urban residents of developing countries by undermined the agricultural livelihoods of vast number of farmers. The world was in a sense “depeasantized.” 8 In part due to this dynamic, 2007 was the first year where there were more people in urban areas of the world than in rural areas.

The experts argued that basic foods such as rice, wheat, corn and oil did not have to be produced in country, rather countries could use their agricultural resources to produce whatever brought in the highest revenues. Then, basic foods could be purchased (or donated) cheaply from the “breadbaskets” of the world. In 2006-2008, the failure of this logic has become tragically clear. To name just one principal change, the United States is using a substantial part of its production of corn not to feed people, but to feed cars, again using a very substantial subsidy to make this change, and consequently driving up food prices around the world.

To treat food as if it were a commodity no different than gold or oil, subject to the whims of global traders and currency speculators with little but peripheral interest in human needs, is a recipe for economic shock in poor food consuming households. Ironically, policies of Europe and the US to become more self-reliant in fuel for themselves seems unquestionable logical, but the notion of food self-reliance comes under criticism even as over 40 countries have descended into food crisis.


The way the world deals with the hunger and the human right to food has continued off track for the past ten years. It is time to reassert that hunger is too important to be an adjunct to narrowly construed national security interests or trade ideologies. Food is a life giving substance, not just another commodity. Treating food as if it was not special and deserving of special rules governing its production and trade has not lead to more just or safer world.

US citizens should call on the U.S. to ratify international treaties on the right to food, and reshape its development policies not only to voice what is right ethically, but to demand that practical steps for implementing the right to food become an integral part of trade and development policies and agriculture and nutrition budgets and programs.

Countries whose people are among the most hungry should also head this message. It is time to take advantage of the opportunity for a resurgence in local food production that three decades of low prices, skewed urban policy preferences, and under funded small rural investment has denied its small farmers.

Otherwise, the next crisis will make the crisis of 2008 look tame.

* This opinion piece are the authors alone and does not necessarily represent the views of World Hunger Education Service.

[1] See Thomas Marchione, ed. (1999) Scaling Up, Scaling Down: Overcoming Malnutrition in Developing Countries, Gordon and Breach Publishers (Taylor Francis Group).


[3] Arne Oshaug. (2005) Developing Voluntary Guidelines for Implementing the Right to Adequate Food: Anatomy of an Intergovernmental Process, in W.B. Eide, and U. Kracht eds. Food and Human rights in Development : Volume I, Oxford: Intersentia, pp. 264-5.

[4] The White House (2002) The National Security Strategy of the United States, Washington, D.C.

[5] Data derived from USAID Greenbook accessed October 2007.

[6] Freedom in the World Report 2008.

[7] This section draws from my commentary, “A Time to Rethink the Global Food Regime” American Anthropology Newsletter, forthcoming, October 2008.

[8] see Deborah Bryceson, (2000), Disappearing Peasantries? Rural Labour Redundancy
in the Neo-liberal Era and Beyond, 299-326 in Bryceson, D.F., C. Kay and J. Mooij (eds). Disappearing Peasantries? Rural Labour in Africa, Asia and Latin America, London: Intermediate
Technology Publications.