Help yourself – going it alone to achieve food security

Food & livelihoods, Food security, Governance, Rights

If you and your family were going hungry, would you expect your government to do something about it? Policy research adviser Richard King discusses the second year results of our food price volatility research which looks at people’s awareness of, and ability to realise, their right to food.

Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies recently published the latest report in our Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project. The project is an ongoing exercise in 10 low and middle income countries, looking at the impacts of, and responses to, volatile food prices. It is funded by the UK Government and Irish Aid. As well as considering what food prices had been doing in 2013 (falling slightly in global commodity markets,
but remaining high and volatile in many people’s local markets), this year’s report considered the realities faced by people in our research communities trying to realise their right to food

Food price volatility research locations

We recently launched the report at an event in Dublin where we were fortunate to be joined by Narinder Bedi of the Young India Project. He has been working for over 30 years in Andhra Pradesh helping people living in poverty to achieve their rights.  Narinder’s experience chimed well with the findings from our research. As Narinder noted, rights are legalised by a wealthy elite, yet they are essentially meaningless if people aren’t empowered to exercise them. But in many communities
where we have been conducting research, the legislative apparatus and statute books feel a long way from the reality of people’s lives. 

60 year old Mrs M from Bangladesh told us: “I do not know about rights…If nobody helps then I starve and sleep. Our right is to beg door to door…I only know that I have to eat if I am hungry. How can I live without eating?”

Rights are legalised by a wealthy elite, yet they are essentially meaningless if people aren’t empowered to exercise themOur research found that the sense of a formal, legal right to food was generally weak, yet many people had latent ideas about a natural moral ‘DIY’ right to food, with responsibility seen to begin with individuals, their families, and perhaps their communities rather than the state. 

“Primary responsibility lies with the parents. If the parents fail, the immediate family relatives should come in. If the relatives fail, then the community comes in. If the community fails then government should come in. The government is the last resort.” 
Mr M., 42, district social welfare officer, Chikwanda, Zambia

These customary rights and responsibilities are patchy and uneven at the best of times, and are becoming less effective buffers against the global drivers of food insecurity. Yet where governments are taking visible action against food insecurity or where the issue has been live in public discourse (such as in debates around Kenya’s 2010 constitution), people are more likely to think they have a legally enforceable right to food. This popular understanding of rights is key because people can’t claim rights they don’t know about.

Informing people about their rights is crucial but not sufficient
In Narinder’s experience, informing people about their rights is crucial but not sufficient. People need not only to know what their rights are, but to be supported in their struggles to realise them. In our research we found a myriad of efforts and resources being spent on tackling food insecurity, but the overall impression was of a threadbare patchwork of activities, not an effective or accountable system. But if people are to realise their rights, accountability is key. Without a mandate to act, standards to which they can be held, monitoring systems, or
enforceability mechanisms – many food security initiatives ultimately fail in their aims to help people achieve food security. 

The right to food cannot be reduced to a right not to starveFor Narinder, being a recipient of an unaccountable food security programme can be akin to being a beggar – a passive recipient of charity with no say in the quality of the provisions offered. With genuine, realisable rights, however,comes power, and an ability to actively have a say in one’s wellbeing. As another panellist noted the right to food cannot be reduced to a right not to starve, micronutrient deficiencies (‘hidden hunger’) is also a violation of the right to

This year’s report is titled Help Yourself! Without adequate support to realise their legal rights, and in the absence of accountable food security initiatives, this is often the only option people face. 

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Maurine Minykha, 25, a single mother of two, buys food on credit from a local store in the Lunga Lunga area of the Mukuru informal settlement on April 2nd 2014. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Author: Richard King
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.