Solving malnutrition through business and science?

Graham Harrison, “Solving malnutrition through business and science?“, Progressive Development Forum, 8 July 2013

There is in this hunger agenda a salient reshaping of how hunger is perceived and also how it is embedded into a broader model of political economy. The meeting fed into a broader process of elite institutionalisation of the ‘hunger problem’. In essence, the schema outlined above depoliticises hunger and positions international capital as the central agency in the solution to hunger. This, to say the least, requires some critical reflection.

This June’s G8 meeting was not framed in a ‘big issue’ fashion as previous ‘G summits’ have been – think of the G20 meeting in London 2009 or the G8 meeting in Gleneagles 2005. Development campaigners wanted the G8 to be about hunger and nutrition, but this focus jostled with others, notably Syria, tax, and trade. However, in and around the G8, ‘hunger’ was a key part of the shuttling of elites that week, between pre-summit meetings and the G8. On June 8th, the Government hosted a Nutrition for Growth summit at which a strong message about the causes and cures of hunger were propagated. In essence, the agenda follows the following lines:

Hunger and malnutrition are ‘technical’ problems. That is, they express dietary and nutritional dysfunctions.
The core to any solution is technology. That is, the application of existing scientific knowledge within new and existing aid and development policy.
The key agents of this technological solution are international business, research centres, and governments.
The core motivation for addressing hunger is to ensure that malnourished people can function better as workers and citizens.

There is in this hunger agenda a salient reshaping of how hunger is perceived and also how it is embedded into a broader model of political economy. The meeting fed into a broader process of elite institutionalisation of the ‘hunger problem’. In essence, the schema outlined above depoliticises hunger and positions international capital as the central agency in the solution to hunger. This, to say the least, requires some critical reflection.

What can business do for the malnourished and hungry? The answer to this question has been emerging from high-level discussions since the G8 at Camp David in 2012. The claim is that transnational corporations can improve agricultural productivity by more effectively disseminating new technologies to small-scale farmers. This might involve new and genetically modified seeds, new fertilisers and pesticides. It might also involve the rolling out of extension services that train farmers in the management of these new technologies. Agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies are already involved. These innovations are underpinned by Western state financial support and the dedication of funds from private companies or corporate philanthropic organisations, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Fund. …

The possibilities of this corporate solution to hunger are extremely limited. There is certainly evidence scattered throughout those parts of the world where small-scale farming is prevalent that investment in agriculture by private companies can have positive effects on livelihoods. Agricultural wage labour, new trading relations, opportunities to produce new cash crops all have potentially positive effects for small-scale farmers. Indeed, the broad history of peasant farming is that, where the basic productive unit of a household is pretty robust, farmers have taken advantage of new market opportunities very effectively.

But, the bigger picture generated by this specific model is less encouraging. …

The hard fact of the matter is that hunger is as much a modern and market phenomenon as it is a product of poor rains or low technology production. In real agrarian livelihoods, all of these factors comingle to produce hard work, poor diets, and social insecurities. ‘More market’ is not a panacea to the millions of working poor farmers who are already as much part of the global economy as anyone else. …

How should we address hunger and malnutrition? The fact is that there is no single social condition of hunger. Hunger is a manifestation of a range of different vulnerabilities and social dynamics. As such, all technological innovations are also social innovations and require consideration and evaluation as such. This kind of approach has long been recognised by a broad range of researchers and institutions, most notably the FAO and perhaps most prominently in recent times in the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Taking the rich and well-established research of the international agricultural epistemic development community, the current ‘science and business’ agenda looks both naïve and narrow.

Furthermore, there needs to be a more open-minded understanding of ‘we’. We live in a world where there is a vibrant and diverse range of agrarian/food sovereignty movements that base themselves on political struggles to defend access to land and water, to present hunger as a political and rights issue (which it clearly is), to try to evoke vernacular norms of legitimacy, justice, and order in the ways that agrarian markets function, and so on. One might recall a familiar social movements adage ‘nothing about us without us’ here; or one might simply note the common sense that those most motivated to solve problems of hunger are those who suffer it and who also happen to be those best placed to make solutions workable and sustainable.

Read the full article here.