Maximising social mobilisation

Food Security12 Feb 2013Claudio Schuftan

The gap in policy processes towards better food security and nutrition interventions is not related to a lack of knowledge, it is politics. Research institutions need to be more aware of empowering beneficiaries.

Food and nutrition issues get little policy attention from decision-makers. The lack of action is not due to a lack of knowledge by the latter. Other gaps are at the root – gaps that denote a deliberate choice of not attending to food and nutrition matters. It is ultimately power relations that affect policy choices.

It is here contended that policy processes can only be fully understood if analysed politically. Consciousness raising and social mobilisation are indispensable to influence policy processes, but research organisations have hardly engaged in this consciousness raising. They still think that if decision-makers have more and better knowledge they will indeed take urgently needed decisions; but they never go against their own interests.

The current gap, if looked at as a knowledge gap, most decidedly exists, but is of little significance, because policy is only minimally affected by knowledge alone. It is political factors that define what the policies to be attended to, actually are – and it is ultimately power relations that affect policy choices.

How interactions between active civil society and various levels of government affect policy development and implementation is a chapter in the writing. Some civil society organisations have indeed achieved some real changes and there is much to be learned from those organizations. We have to help budding civil society organisations to achieve the clout (power) to demand needed changes and to monitor their implementation.

Consciousness raising and social mobilisation are indispensable in influencing policy processes; this is best done using the human rights-based approach that organizes claim holders to demand policy changes from duty bearers. (Note that ‘stakeholders’ is a terrible neutral term!)

Existing food and nutrition research organisations often engage in attempts to influence policy makers by communicating their findings to them and by contributing new information to policy fora. However, historically most of these research organisations have hardly engaged in the consciousness raising and social mobilisation of the ‘needed type’ at least not very proactively. Just communicating and contributing new information to decision-makers will not achieve the changes needed unless this information is more on the political side of changing things.

These organisations claim there is a disconnection between the spheres of policy making and of science-and-knowledge; that one needs to break ground methodologically to engage policy makers as decisions are made. Actually, this has been one of the problems of these food and nutrition research organisations for years: they try to connect policy with science-and-knowledge and not with politics. Do they really think that if decision-makers have more and better knowledge they will make decisions against their power interests? The need is not to break ground methodologically, but to break ground politically. The same can be said about interdisciplinary research. It is important, but in the end nothing will happen because almost all the hurdles are political and ideological.

Many of these knowledge and research organisations call for setting up social protection and safety nets. But the time is overdue to stop talking about safety nets! It will not lead to the changes we need within the system. The ongoing (neo-liberal) global restructuring is not going to do that, even worse, food and nutrition professionals are supposed to pick up the pieces.

People overlook the fact that some governments do place a high priority on reducing hunger and malnutrition. Take Vietnam, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Kerala State in India. What is the common denominator among them? Political determination. So, the bottom line that affects policy-makers’ choices is the politics of it all, i.e., political processes reign.

Even current legislation and legal systems do not affect action to reduce hunger and malnutrition to any great degree. This includes the promotion of the right to adequate food and nutrition. Laws may be passed, but are not enforced. National leaderships often feel content with having passed the legislation, and do not care much about its enforcement. Legislation is also frequently in response to international pressures and not to a felt need. Only mobilising civil society and providing them with the necessary teeth to monitor the laws’ enforcement will make things work.

What can these research organisations then do to create the conditions for actions that will effectively reduce hunger and malnutrition in developing countries? They need to go through a profound process of revising and redefining their vision and their mission so that they can genuinely adopt the right to adequate food and a nutrition-based approach in all that they do. They are simply not looking at food and nutrition as a human right even as they may have made oral and written pronouncements to that effect.

They need, for instance, to engage more on operations research that tries out different approaches to maximize the social mobilisation of claim holders to negotiate and demand their rights from duty bearers at different levels. In fact, research related to all areas of implementing the right to adequate food and nutrition-based approach is of high priority.

As a general rule, if research findings have high social mobilisation potential, they should be popularised directly to the beneficiaries to empower them to claim their rights. ‘Selling’ research findings to decision-makers may continue bringing us more of the same disappointments. Policy makers do not always really (want to) listen…unless beneficiaries put pressure on them.