Why Do Those with Full Bellies Determine Food Policy for the Starving?

By Glenn Ashton · 28 Oct 2013

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Imagine fighting fatigue to struggle out of bed each morning, to eat nothing beside a thin gruel of maize meal. Now you must go to work, or seek work or get your exhausted brain to consider ways to get your family though another day, without additional sustenance to fuel your failing body.

This is the reality of more than 40% of South Africans. Worse yet, the situation is deteriorating; food inflation markedly exceeds broader inflation. The limited existing food security programmes reach very few people, school feeding schemes are dysfunctional and the economy remains stagnant. In short, the prospect of a significant proportion of our population achieving their constitutional right to food is remote.

This untenable situation was recently highlighted by the release of this year’s comprehensive food price barometer by PACSA, the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action. This report clearly illustrates the extent to which food inflation has significantly outstripped both national consumer inflation and more specifically the narrower CPI food inflation levels. Symbolically released on October 16th, World Food Day, the report shows how the poor are disproportionately affected by food price inflation.

Inflation figures are only abstract symbols of our lived reality. Analysis has shown that they are especially poor at illustrating the actual extent to which inflation impacts the poorest sectors of society, which in our case represents the majority. The poorer one is, the greater the proportion of income spent on food, making the financial situation of the poor disproportionately inflation sensitive. So while food inflation may feature in the mealtime conversations of the wealthy, amongst the poor it means the difference between having a meal or not.

The government has recognised and belatedly begun to attend the problem. It is impossible to ignore the increasing flood of reports and warnings around hunger, stunting and food insecurity affecting us across from villages to cities. But is state intervention too little, far too late?

The two decades since our democratic dispensation have seen extensive research of the problem placed in the public domain. Entire university departments focus on these problems. The African Centre for the Cities at the University of Cape Town has published some particularly revealing studies of urban food insecurity. The Programme for Agrarian and Land Reform (Plaas) at the University of the Western Cape carefully examines the relationships between poverty and reform of our primary food production systems. The Development Bank of SA and the CSIR have each expended significant effort toward solution of the problem.

The state response has been tardy and unconvincing in its allocation of resources since the Integrated Food Security Strategy was promulgated more than a decade ago. The African Union’s 2003 Maputo declaration suggested countries spend 10% of national GDP on agriculture in order to alleviate food insecurity across the continent. Ten African countries have met or exceeded this target. South Africa spends less than one half of a percent of its GDP on agriculture, the lowest proportion on the continent. This is a clear indication of the lack of intent to change the system toward one that works for the majority, not the elite. After all, who makes the policies?

So the question is how to place this issue - which predominantly affects the poorest, largely voiceless majority - into a domain where the constitutional right to food can be addressed. Various attempts have been made. The state and corporate assisted Massive Food Production Programme (MFPP) in the Eastern Cape failed and even undermined household food security. The Masibambane project, an NGO headed by President Zuma and run by his cousin Deebo Mzobe was canned after a public outcry about cronyism. It has recently been rebranded and renamed as the Fetsa Tlala (End Hunger) campaign, which claims to have 130 000 hectares of land under cultivation and aims to expand this to a million hectares in the next five years. It too appears to be a top down attempt at solving a systemic problem.

These programmes all followed similar models to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and US Aid, along with numerous philanthropists, corporates and industry bodies. Another related programme is the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Program (CAADP), equally in thrall to corporate interests.

What all of these programmes have in common is a sense of adherence to top-down, externally imposed agricultural transformation, founded on the increasingly disputed Evidence Based Policy (EBP) paradigm. EBP is touted by overseas development organisations like DFID, US Aid, the World Bank as well as other NGO’s like the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

While EBP appears to provide a useful point of departure in devising policy, it exemplifies the failure of imposing naïve, narrow and technical solutions upon complex, multifaceted problems. After all, EBP largely arose under Tony Blair’s New Labour model of business-friendly, centralised decision-making and has subsequently been adopted by ideological fellow travellers.

In short, EBP involves using supposedly neutral “scientific” research in order to arrive at unbiased policy decisions. While the theory appears sound, the reality is that political decision makers tend to select chosen outcomes. Consequently the necessary nuance is easily diluted.

What is really required, both in South Africa and across the continent, is to shift toward a democratically representative, more bottom-up development process. This would shift the emphasis from beyond the sometimes biased interpretation of evidence in EBP toward broader and more inclusive, analysis of the evidence and subsequent implementation of more relevant policies. And while EBP provides some useful insights it should not dictate the process of policy implementation.

The opportunities for failure increase in proportion to the degree to which pre-determined, ideological policy frameworks are forced upon problems. Instead, success is far more likely when pursuing inclusionary, adaptive and iterative policy processes that take account of existing social reality.

South Africa’s failures to implement food security for its people reflect the broader failure of many African countries to achieve the same ends. If Africa is to succeed it must do so on its own terms, according to its own requirements. Hunger cannot be allayed by the continuation of externally imposed, ideologically and commercially unsuitable policies, particularly those which favour entities which stand to profit from misery.

Food is a universal right: what hope is there of implementing food security policies if they are determined and controlled by those with full bellies, their minds made up? The policy space must urgently be opened up to include those who are most affected and to consider their requirements and perspectives. This will involve significant compromises by those in power, along with changes in emphasis in how these programmes are managed. Failure is not an option: Nobody can sleep easy when there is hunger in our midst.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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1 Nov

Food Poverty

The Marikana strikes, the Western Province farmers revolt, all revolve around the high cost of food. Workers today find it difficult to feed their families and consequently their solution is to demand higher wages. Employers can often not afford some of these high wage increases so they reduce staff levels. More people and hungry people at that, out of work.

Could there be a cartel operating between suppliers and retailers. I suspect there is. What are the mark up on foods from the big Retailers? 20% on dry food products, 40% on dairy and anything between 35 to 60% on meat products.

What are Retailer mark ups in Europe, the USA and Australia for example? Around 2% to 4% for most food products. Are our suppliers and retailers extremely greedy? They are, without a doubt. Will government have an interest in controlling this greed? Very unlikely as increased VAT means more money in the pockets of the Political elite

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2 Nov

Inflation and Economics

Thanks for the article, however please could you elaborate further on the following:

1) The make-up of the inflation experienced in food, which you stated was higher than CPI, etc. I would assume that the main factors are energy and wages (disproportionately high for our unemployment standards, and directly related to SA labour policy)

2) The state has gone though huge expense to consult the relevant experts on these matters. I remember reading a paper released by UKZN on this matter. In order to have efficient pricing, you have to have economies of scale; that is not provided by land redistribution. Whilst I admire the idea of an egalitarian centralized control of land...taking from the 'elites' or professional farmers as they are known in agriculture and giving to the majority who know nothing about farming is not going to solve food issues.

*On a side note, I thought SA had a huge obesity problem?

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3 Nov

Inflation and Economics - Response

Hi Thabo,

Thanks for your points raised. My quick responses to each:

1) The link in the article to the research by PACSA shows how food inflation outstrips broader inflation. The AIDC and others have shown further how our national inflation figures fail to illustrate the impacts of inflation on the poorest sectors of society, further exacerbating this gap. In other words if general inflation is stated as 6%, it is likely to be closer to 8% for the poorest sectors because they do not buy motor cars, have mortgages, buy insurance, etc which impacts the inflation bundle. Instead they are far more prone to food and transport inflation than the wealthy, for instance.

2) As far as sorting out the food policy mess goes, yes some serious research has gone into the matter but there has not yet been any serious overarching policy developed that deals with the problem, both urban and rural food security and the relationship between the two. Remember that two thirds of us live in cities today so the two faces of food security must mesh carefully and a comprehensive policy must take account of many factors such as the retail system (raised by Waypoint, below), the distribution system (we waste around 30% of our food produced!) and then look at social support mechanisms to assist those most in need. And of course to develop mechanisms which take account of and respond to the real requirements of the most vulnerable amongst us. Instead we have only skimmed the surface of food policy - we have a long way to go toward implementing an adequate system.

3) Obesity and malnutrition go hand in hand and are intimately associated with today's industrial food diets - high in cheap starch, unhealthy (processed) fats, and not enough natural food as in fruit and veg.

Food security is a complex, wicked problem and it requires a dedicated team and the development of a policy along similar lines as the NDP - but only dealing with food. The NDP touches on food security and has some useful pointers but is seriously inadequate in how it articulates the problem.

Peter Britz
3 Nov

Technical Fixes

Great concise analysis which puts a finger on the real problem. In South African government agricultural policy interventions, the emphasis is heavily on gifting hardware "means of production" to "beneficiaries" such as land, tractors, fish tanks, irrigation systems. This makes for great politician photo opportunities when they are handed to communities and creates a culture of dependence on free money. Most projects fail because of a lack of ground-up community institution building and human capital development. We really need to invest a cadre of committed developers to work with communities over long periods of time (decades) to achieve real change in food production.

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