12 May Hunger Must Be Discussed as a Human Rights Violation
[Eymir Albal is a Ph.D. candidate at İstanbul University. She works as a research assistant at Özyeğin University.]
The problem of hunger, which has increased rapidly in recent years, has become much more serious since COVID-19. Since 2014, the gains in reducing this problem have started to decline. Criticism and concerns about the existing food systems have increased, set against the backdrop of the crisis in food prices between 2007 and 2008, the accompanying socio-economic developments, the more tangible effects of climate change, and the structural problems related to food security. As a matter of fact, awarding the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Program (WFP) demonstrates the importance given to this problem. Moreover, as a result of the sharp decline in Ukraine’s grain exports due to Russia’s aggression, the increase in food prices and the difficulty of access to food in many countries, hunger is one of the main issues in global politics (see the US Presidential agenda in the Security Council regarding food insecurity).
Can Foreign Aid Fulfill the Expected Outcomes?
With countries’ increasing interest in the international community, the problem of hunger has, in the past, been evaluated in the context of charity. Since the 1950s, developed countries have started aid campaigns with the transmission of agricultural production surpluses to other states. While these aid campaigns were related to the improvement of countries’ own economies (for example, the US aid programs supported the local agricultural sector and merchant fleets) the results were sometimes unexpected. Careless aid negatively affected the local agricultural sector. Therefore, these campaigns would be detrimental to fundamental rights and freedoms because they could increase inequality and poverty.
Official Development Assistance (ODA), a significant support for developing countries, is also important in this context. However, “while ODA to agriculture has increased in absolute terms every year since 2012, its share of total concessional resources has remained stable, at a low level”. The agricultural sector receives only 3.6% of global ODA. While development plans created as part of the G7 are important for the food security of developing countries, these developments have focused on private sector investments, such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN). However, handling the problem through the private sector instead of inter-state cooperation has met some criticisms.
Therefore, foreign aid and investment can bring more harm than good to small farmers, who are losing their land, pastures, and in the end, their livelihood. In regions where hunger is most common, large agricultural lands are purchased and become focused on productions far beyond the food security of the local people. State aid and aid organizations are moving in this direction in the name of agricultural development. As a matter of fact, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa project, which was supposed to strengthen food security in Africa and was launched by the Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, did not progress as expected at all.
Free Trade in The Agriculture Sector Needs Urgent Reform
Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking work, Development as Freedom, demonstrates that hunger is not only a food production problem and that hunger’s socio-political causes are ignored. However, developed states consider hunger as a development problem specific to third-world countries. Indeed, the Green Revolution considers hunger a production problem and so production increased rapidly in most countries with developments in agricultural technology and biotechnology.
The question arises: How has hunger increased when there is enough food for everyone in the world? Although there are many variables, free trade does not have the expected effect on the food sector. Considering its close relationship with nature, importance in the rural-urban relationship, and, as a necessity for sustaining life, agriculture cannot be seen as just another economic sector. Unfortunately, the IMF’s structural adjustment programs, the World Bank’s development programs, the World Trade Organization’s regulations (notably the Agreement on Agriculture, although there are some special protection provisions necessary for developing countries and an emphasis on food security in the Agreement) and intellectual property regulations have created serious obstacles to the food security and food sovereignty of peoples due to its policies shaped by solely economic concerns.
Developing states have turned to products that are lucrative in the export market, and have allocated agricultural land to products such as cocoa, coffee, and tobacco, instead of crops that will feed their people. Further, developing countries cannot compete with subsidies provided to farmers in developing countries, so the people of developing countries have gradually become dependent on cheaply imported foods available easily through free trade regulations. Thus, hunger has reached a serious level in states whose economy is based on luxury agricultural export crops.
These problems are exacerbated by considering hunger as a development problem rather than a violation of human rights. Hunger has been depoliticized, with food aid and free trade deemed as solutions, with the assistance of the international media. Most populist states, by pointing out the power of social capital, consider the problem of hunger a problem of individuals or communities. This understanding was clear when David Beasley, chairman of the WFP, tweeted that two percent of Elon Musk’s wealth would, amongst other things, “save 42 million people on the brink of starvation”. Beasley responded to Musk’s challenge and provided a clear plan, but Musk seems to have lost interest in the subject.
The importance of money for people in need cannot be denied and most people would hope that Musk could donate 2% of his wealth to people in need through WFP. However, the real problem is that millions of people’s lack of access to food could (mostly) be solved with a single person’s two percent wealth. That’s why Schutter argues that the right to food is essentially a taxing problem for G8 countries. Remember, Musk cast a survey on Twitter on whether he should sell 10% shares, purportedly so that he could pay tax in the US but coincidentally saving him billions in taxes.
The ‘Right to Food’ Based Approach is Essential to Eradicate Hunger
In light of the rights-based approach, hunger should be evaluated through the right to food, and in terms of the right to food, interstate cooperation is a legal responsibility to ensure socio-economic rights in accordance with Article 11(2) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The obligation to fulfill the right to food is divided into three sub-categories: (a) the obligation to facilitate, (b) the obligation to provide, and (c) the obligation to promote. Among these categories, a developed state’s obligation to provide at the international level is a complex topic. As Sepulveda argues, based on the Committee’s work, it is possible to infer that ICESCR’s reference to foreign assistance and collaboration in Article 2(1) does not establish a general responsibility, but such an obligation emerges in terms of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. However, Article 11(2) ICESCR talks about international cooperation and “to ensure freedom from hunger to everyone” is a core obligation. According to the General Comment No. 14, core obligations give rise to international responsibilities of developed States – states that are in a position to provide international assistance and cooperation. Therefore, it can be argued that there is a definite legal obligation to cooperate in hunger situations dependent from emergencies.
The duty to cooperate is more clearly regulated in Article 13 of the Draft Convention on the Right to Development. Article 13(4) emphasizes a fair multilateral trade system by promoting official development assistance and financial flows, including foreign direct investment to countries with the greatest need. In this regard, the first and only regulation that directly regulates food aid is the Food Assistance Convention (FAC). Although compliance with the FAC, which replaced the previous Food Aid Convention, seems quite high, the number of participating states and aid assistance is not at the desired level. At the same time, the FAC gives priority to WTO agreements in case of conflict between WTO regulations and its regulations (Article 3), making it questionable whether it would be a useful tool to combat hunger in times of emergency. Although states consider aid incompatible with free trade principles and use aid to avoid other obligations (for example, hidden dumping) changes can be made in the ongoing WTO negotiations.
Ultimately, the relationship between international trade and human rights must be examined from a different perspective in terms of ensuring the right to food. The main users of soil – small farmers who feed us – are deprived of this resource in most places. Not only that, but agricultural workers are starving because they must feed other people cheaply and excessively. In this ironic situation, the support given to farmers is limited by international trade regulations. In most developing countries, a significant number of farmers cannot meet the increasing agricultural inputs due to drought, their debts, and exchange rates (for example, see the case of Turkey). Farmers’ and agricultural workers’ inherent rights, such as the right to seed, land, or water, are still unrecognized by so many states. Australia, Hungary, Israel, New Zealand, Guatemala, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America all voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants in the General Assembly.
In a nutshell, the food crisis we are experiencing should be handled with a ‘right to food’ based approach. We should be aware of the negative effects of international aid and that aid cannot structurally solve the problem. We should therefore approach the problem in a way that enhances the agricultural sectors in developing countries and ensures the food security of small farmers. These issues must be dealt with in more detail at the Twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference, which has been postponed to a future date. We must recognize that food is a vital resource rather than a basic commodity and that the food security of countries is of primary importance in terms of ensuring this right. As Ziegler states: “The right to food is not a right to be fed, but primarily the right to feed oneself in dignity by his/her own resources”. For this reason, the striving to ensure the right to food should be left primarily to local communities and states, because neither Musk nor Gates nor the surpluses of other states can ensure it.