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Freedom from hunger is "not an optional human right"

[Mali] Abdoulaye Momina is 20 months old child / baby and severely malnourished. Pictured in August 2005 at Gao District Hospital, Gao, Eastern Mali. He has been receiving specialist treament for 1 week and is starting to recover weight. He is from a poor IRIN
Un enfant atteint de malnutrition grave dans l’est du Mali (photo d’archives)

The world has the technical ability but lacks the political will to eliminate global hunger, a scourge afflicting one in eight people that is as much a violation of human rights as torture, according to a report by the NGO, Action Against Hunger.

A main tenet of the study, the Justice of Eating – the Struggle for Food and Dignity in Recent Humanitarian Crises, is that the right to food is an inextricable part of the basic set of freedoms embodying human rights that are collectively the minimum conditions necessary for the realisation of human dignity.

 “They [human rights] are not like pick-and-choose menus where we can say ‘Oh, let’s just address torture or let’s just work for the ending of slavery’,” co-editor Samuel Hauenstein Swan said.

 “If the right to food is to be considered as important as the other human rights … then we must take the steps necessary to enforce it, much as we have begun to prosecute the crime of genocide,” the report states.  

The study addresses the destruction of livelihoods in Darfur, Sudan; unstable markets in Niger; HIV/AIDS in Malawi and Zambia; and the daily struggle of families fighting for food in the coffee lands of Ethiopia.

In each case, it finds that acute malnutrition is entirely avoidable with the correct strategies, including a combination of increased foreign assistance, financial investment, trade policies preferential to developing countries, and a tempering of economic liberalisation and the deregulation of food markets that have seen the reduction of subsidies to farmers and herders. “The freedom to eat must take precedence over excessively ‘free’ markets,” it states.

 “This book presents a powerful indictment of the local institutions, national governments, international agencies and policies that allow hunger to persist in the contemporary world,” Stephen Devereux, a research fellow at the Institute of Development at the University of Sussex, writes in the foreword.

Call to arms

Hauenstein Swan termed the report a call to arms to ordinary citizens to demand that their leaders act. “Despite winning some battles in the fight for human rights and universal dignity, rates of both chronic and acute malnutrition among children under age five remain extremely high. We hope that this report will help create increased commitment from the international community towards preventing and addressing malnutrition,” he said.

“Such increased commitment can only come about if the citizens of the world demand that their leaders make the fight against child malnutrition a political priority. History is filled with examples of ‘ordinary people’– rather we should call them ‘everyday heroes’ – successfully pressuring policymakers to more genuinely and courageously confront human tragedies. We can, and must, summon the same kind of deep empathy and resolve to demand our leaders fight tirelessly the winnable war against child malnutrition.”

The report cites the lack of “emotional comprehension” as perhaps the primary problem in mustering an all-out effort to defeat global hunger, which is estimated to afflict 852 million people, many of them in Africa.

While death from war, or from famine, as in Ethiopia in 1984, grabs the media’s attention, mobilising international relief efforts, the daily grind of longer-term but just as lethal malnutrition, passes under the international radar. “Perhaps the brutality of living with hunger, day in and day out, is harder to grasp, to visualise, to feel,” it says.

Political will

Stressing that a moral commitment by political leaders and private citizens to eliminate hunger must be underpinned by considerable financial assistance, the report dismisses the argument that the funds are lacking, noting that in the United States both the Iraq war and reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina demanded hundreds of billions of dollars in funding that had not been budgeted. “Yet when they became political priorities, the government found the money,” it adds.

As Hauenstein Swan said at the report’s New York launch: “Once the political will is there, the rest will follow.”      

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