The emphasis on technical fixes is misleading

Food Security21 Mar 2013Claudio Schuftan

Northern donors are more and more working on technical fixes to solve problems of malnutrition mainly in close co-operation with the food industry. Though this will not solve the causes that lead to malnutrition.

Why are we still selling technical fixes to solve the problems of malnutrition? Technology is inextricably linked to the society in which it is created and used and will be as socially just or unjust as its milieu. The search for a set of technical silver bullets to solve the problems of preventable ill-health and malnutrition associated with underdevelopment is particularly suited to the development philosophy of many donor countries and this has clearly influenced the still largely predominant Northern-led development model.

As a result, the model has ended up paying more attention to the immediate and underlying causes of malnutrition, allowing no room for directing our attention to its major basic, structural causes.

From this approach one gets the feeling that if all one needs is to throw more money at the problems, so much the better…

Such an approach pushes Northern donors, among other, to believe that reliable information using personal data (epidemiological and other) is the key to effective planning and action, regardless of the structural constraints in each local context. Obviously, all actions (and results) depend on the type of information we use, and more importantly on who controls it, i.e., how and for what it is used.

Application of quantitative techniques in our nutrition business can lead to an oversimplification of reality and to totally a-historic analyses, because the coding of information for scientific purposes involves reducing individuality to a few basic characteristics. Therefore, beware! This reductionism of reality can (and does) lead to biased and/or less than rational conclusions.

Using personal data out of their macro context leads the proponents of the ‘efficiency-above-all school’ in our public health nutrition guild to very seldom mind about the distributional consequences of the actions they propose and help implement. They complain that political considerations always prevent them from getting as good an investment portfolio as technically feasible. But the reality is that that is the way the real world ticks: ‘political considerations’ are there to stay. Ignoring this, leads us to the kinds of disasters in health/nutrition/development schemes that we have grown too accustomed to accept with remarkably little criticism.

This century, and the latter part of the previous, have been characterized by high ‘techno-expectations’; technology is deemed capable of acting as a powerful medium to achieve personal wealth and political change. This assumes that technology rather than politics can become the medium for how society expresses and pursues its values and priorities.

But unfortunately, social movements do not spread like technology, in great measure due to the fact that – as opposed to technical innovation – the position of ‘poor and underdeveloped people’ rarely impinges on the social consciousness of the rich people who control and have an interest in the spread of technology (technologies in the food industry included).

It is my contention that – with the tacit endorsement and help of the aid establishment that pushes technical fixes – recipient governments manage to ‘release ballast’ to meet day to day political pressures for change; by going for those ‘fixes’, they indirectly ensure their political survival. This, at the expense of making serious, long-lasting attempts to achieve disparity reductions in their effort to eradicate poverty. It is people’s disempowerment that is at the base of their preventable ill-health and malnutrition. More comprehensive redistributive plans linger and suffer from chronic lack of government support; inevitable needed reforms are constantly delayed and endless new patch-solutions are tried. But, as long as the government has ‘something’ to show for, it can keep its detractors at bay. Willingly or not, donors become instrumental in this process.

The transferring of aid funds to further technical fixes (including those for nutrition and for food technology) is linked to what some have called the transfer of ‘cold money or technology’, i.e., loans/grants/patents from agency to agency (mostly government) or from industry (mostly transnational) to industry, as opposed to the transfer of ‘warm money or technology’, i.e. from people to people, with a human and more equity-oriented touch. The latter modality is more prevalent (but not universal!) in the NGO community that less frequently falls prey to the technical fix creed.

To put it boldly, these days the ideology of Northern-led development and its aid apparatus is to a great extent driven by the interests of globalisation and is designed, at least in the case of bilateral aid, to expand shares in the global market economy. Such a Northern-led development paradigm tends to restructure the world order towards a globalised and centralised capitalist mode of production and certainly does not treat poor countries as equal partners thus ultimately undermining its own stated principles and the people it purports to help. If you think that nutrition aid is different, I invite you to refute me…

The technical fix approach in foreign aid is part and parcel of the above paradigm, and the extent to which a paradigm pervades our minds is a tribute to the efficiency of its propagation – often beyond common sense. The present dominant paradigm never gets to the heart of the matter and that is why all these strategies, systems, ‘isms’ and etiquettes have failed. Under the influence of the Northern-led development paradigm, the South lost its own creative self-assurance, began to think the North knew better and embarked on changing its ways of life accordingly.