How recognising the right to food can help end hunger in Africa

Saturday June 30 2012

By Olivier de Schutter

After five years of volatile food prices, a global economic downturn and millions being pushed into poverty and food insecurity, is it possible to remain optimistic about defeating hunger in Africa?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. Even as this economic cycle bites, grounds for optimism can be found in a new determination in Africa and elsewhere to address the true causes of hunger.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that hunger is not the inevitable result of punishing fluctuations in harvests, food prices, and economic cycles. After all, the rising GDP and incomes of economic good times have often failed to translate into rising food security for the poorest. Growth does not guarantee poverty and hunger alleviation.

What best practices show is that hunger hinges on cross-cutting, distributional factors that are as much about access and social inclusion as they are about economics. Hunger can be decoupled from economic trends and addressed through political processes and rights-based perspectives. This is why cities and provinces can succeed in reducing hunger while a country fails, and why a country can make progress while the rest of a region continues to struggle. And this is why African countries can aspire to effectively tackle hunger, right now, regardless of economic conditions.

On a regional scale, Latin America has been the pioneer in refocusing the fight against hunger on political processes. Over recent years, framework laws grounded in the right to food have been adopted in rapid succession in Argentina, Guatemala, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Meanwhile similar laws have been put forward by parliamentarians in 11 other countries in the Latin America/Caribbean region, many of whom are connected through the Frente Parlementario contra el Hambre network.

A number of countries in Southern and East Africa are now showing promising signs of following suit. South Africa led the way by writing provisions on the right to food into its Constitution, a step subsequently taken by Kenya, and now looking likely in Zambia. Affording the right to food constitutional protection ensures state recognition of the fundamental status of the right to food and provides direction to a range of state policies.


Constitutional protection of human rights also allows people to challenge other state laws and policies that affect their ability to access adequate food. For example, in 2007, a new South African fishing law threatened the ability of small-scale fisherfolk to access the sea and sustain their livelihoods. Thanks to constitutional protections, the fisherfolk were able to challenge the law on human-rights grounds – and they won. The court not only provided remedies to the fishing communities, but also required the government to create a community-led task force to rewrite the law and policy.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Federation of Kenya was able to bring a lawsuit against the Kenyan government on May 30, 2011, for not adopting measures that would allow the population to cope with the high prices of basic commodities, including unga (maize flour), the staple diet of Kenyans. With its outcome currently pending, the case could not only provide relief to residents of Kenya today, but also lay the framework for future generations to challenge government actions or inactions that lead to violations of the right to food.

While constitutional provisions are already proving their worth, progress is also being made in the legislature. Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda currently have right to food-based legislation awaiting adoption by parliament, while Zanzibar is implementing a rights-based framework law on the sub-national level. Guaranteeing the right to food in framework laws materialises the obligations of states, providing policy directives on the progressive realisation of the right to food and affording avenues of redress to those whose rights have been violated.

Right to food legislation is not an end in itself. It must be the basis and the starting point for building a whole apparatus to tackle hunger. And this apparatus must embrace a human-rights approach at every stage, because the mechanisms of participation and accountability that engage people with political processes are the very same things that provide a buffer against the social marginalisation at the heart of hunger.
Many are the solutions put forward for eliminating endemic poverty and hunger in Africa: Agricultural yields must be raised and regional markets strengthened. These factors cannot be downplayed. But for genuine, sustainable progress to be made, the right to food must be written into law, and political processes must be fundamentally reformed to integrate human rights. Only then can we be confident that future economic growth, and the reinvestment in Africa and its agriculture, will truly benefit the poor and food insecure.

African countries can now count not only on the lessons learned from other continents. It is time for Africa to build on the first building blocks it has put in place on the road to realising the right to food. Provided that as much political will and resources are channelled into this political process as into increasing agricultural yields, hunger can progressively be defeated.