Hillary Clinton and Amartya Sen on food security

Inclusive Politics12 Dec 2009Thea Hilhorst

In my last week at Columbia, I was fortunate to attend two events (and make pictures!). I heard Hillary Clinton speak about the American version of the 3-D approach, and today I had the honour of listening to Amartya Sen. Interestingly, both addressed food security.

Two blogs ago I talked about the danger that the idea of crisis evokes a technocratic response to resolve food security, sidestepping its political nature.

This was illustrated in the two talks. I was positively surprised that Clinton made ample reference to the importance of food security in a comprehensive approach to security. She gave the issue more central attention than it has had in decades. However, she then revealed the approach. The US is inviting partners to resolve the problem by enhancing technology and local entrepreneurship around food. No mention of the wicked problems that explain the lack of access to food that too many people suffer.

Although at an entirely different occasion, Amartya Sen seemed this afternoon to talk back. This Nobel Price winner famously stated in 1981 that food insecurity is not caused by a lack of food, but by a lack of entitlements to food. This is primarily a political problem. At the time, he optimistically forwarded the notion of democracy as solution. Once the majority could decide, food accessibility would be improved. Today, his talk was sobered. He was addressing the question how to ensure the rights of minorities. How to address food insecurity when the numbers of the malnourished are huge, but do not constitute a majority vote? Like in the US, where 45 millions malnourished are counted? Or, for that matter, how is the 1 billion food insecure minority worldwide going to claim its right to food?

Poignant questions, yet Sen’s answers were elusive. He referred to Marquis de Condorcet, an enlightenment thinker of the 18th century. Writing about overpopulation before Malthus, this philosopher was convinced people would find reason to solve this problem before it became a crisis: “The time will therefore come when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason”. Yet as Sen also admitted, reason has not worked so far for the bottom billion. So, we were left with more questions than answers. But maybe it is better to be left with questions, than to be given the false sense of comfort of technocratic packages that promise to change the world.