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close this bookEssays on Food, Hunger, Nutrition, Primary Health Care and Development (AVIVA, 480 p.)
close this folder19. Activism to Face World Hunger: Exploring New Needed Commitments
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe problem(s) of hunger and its (their) solutions
View the documentLooking at ourselves and the other actors in the battle against hunger and malnutrition. (individuals, institutions and social groups)
View the documentOrganizing ourselves and others
View the documentKeeping our eyes open and constantly learning more about the issues at stake
View the documentSpeaking up!


World Hunger Year, No.7, 1991.


* [Chilean doctor; since 1975 he has been working on nutrition and primary health care issues in more than 15 countries in Africa. From 1988-1995 worked in Kenya. Since 1995, working in Vietnam.]

[Why are we so often conciliatory when we should be confrontational?]

The problem(s) of hunger and its (their) solutions

A better understanding of the global context in which the world around us works and of the implications thereof in the perpetuation of hunger in our midst are sorely needed. Too often we rather see a "shish-kebab mentality", being applied to make sense of current world problems. This much easier and convenient approach looks at the various problems affecting the world as if they were all separate events skewed together by tragedy. (T. Vittachi)

There is thus an urgent need for us to identify and better define our very own positions and priorities towards the more structural and global determinants of (he present domestic and world hunger situations, even if both may have vanished from the front pages of our newspapers. Such a challenge calls for: a) an active effort on our part to try to identify the present sociopolitical structure(s) that lead to the major constraints at the base of the self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and hunger, b) a comparable effort to identify and isolate the main actors (individual or institutional; public, private or corporate) responsible for the sorry present state of affairs -in an effort to elucidate who and what forces we will have to oppose or support in the formidable task of eradicating hunger, followed by, c) an identification of the current methods and interventions being proposed or implemented to tackle the existing and foreseeable future hunger problems.

Most interventions we see being implemented deal with the symptoms and immediate causes of malnutrition (i.e. malnourished mothers and children) rather than with the underlying and basic sociopolitical causes that perpetuate the situation. These symptoms -which we are relatively better at dealing with- will continue to be a problem as long as actions to combat their mots do not attempt to make real structural changes that effectively change the power base of those sectors of society that suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

However, involvement in health and nutrition can be an entry point to approaching the need for structural changes, i.e. he used constructively if health and nutrition interventions widen lather than narrow our horizons and lend us to take responsibility for the underlying and basic dimensions/factors that cause ill-health and malnutrition. We cannot just leave this for others to deal with. Don't "let George do it". It is our business.

Multidisciplinary approaches of the traditional type per se -just making professionals of different backgrounds sit together to discuss and decide- are not enough to refocus the attention on the need for changes that really tackle the more basic causes of malnutrition. These approaches, so much in fashion nowadays, are simply not leading us to acknowledge and work within a more ideological and political framework to get to where the real contradictions lie. Many people get "stuck" before reaching this crucial realization and cannot change the major focus of their work, because it literally lakes "a second adolescent crisis" to change the outlook and the actual content of the work they routinely do

Looking at ourselves and the other actors in the battle against hunger and malnutrition. (individuals, institutions and social groups)

Where do we fit in this protracted struggle against hunger?, and who are "we"? At what level of the proposed framework are we acting? Why? Do we sometimes perceive the futility of working on symptoms and at the immediate and occasionally (lie underlying casual levels? Do our actions (individual/institutional) attack the real root causes of the problem? What is stopping us from moving towards tackling the depressives? Why are we so often conciliatory when we should be confrontational? (not necessarily to be understood in a violent sense...) How much do we have to change ourselves? Is our own class-bound ideology hampering us in our efforts 10 truly deal with the issues?

The answers to this set of relevant questions are highly personal by any measure and, not wanting to fall into unnecessary generalizations, I will leave the render to son them out But, In any case. a word of wisdom is called for We must keep our eyes constantly open or we will be "used" (in a national or an international context) to bolster the existing unfair system while trying to "help". Our energies may thus end up being devoted to maintaining a status-quo we basically want to redress

An ethical motivation -which I assume all or us have is not enough when confronting the status quo expressed in concrete situations in our daily work; the issues must be placed and dealt with in the political context that the world operates in. The powerlessness of the poor and hungry is what ultimately needs to he reverted and that requires some hold, decisive steps to break the status quo. Can we become catalysis in this process?

A reform of development strategies is needed basically because most existing development institutions are hampered In take such bold steps due to the fact that they work through governments which have little genuine interest in the needed structural changes and prefer to "patch-up"" the existing system. Moreover, these, organizations are pushing development in the Third World coming from their own Western biases and conservative charters and the modules they "sell" are enthusiastically adopted by local ruling elites, especially because they do not erode their power base and still give them an aura of commitment to change. The whole issue of conditionally in development aid (aid conditioned en some structural and/or human rights practices changes) thus probably needs to be brought to the foreground over and over again - provided the "right" preconditions are set. of which there is no assurance if imposed by the. donors. All of us. collectively, could exert some pressure on demands along the lines of proper conditionalities by lobbying these agencies in our country and/or openly protesting and opposing some of their ongoing loans, grants or commodities disbursements.

Strategies to face transnational corporations and banks -also central actors in the determination and potential resolution of world hunger- are in dire need of being revamped as well, as much as possible using concerted approaches by as many as possible of the governments of the South adversely affected by these corporations' operations. Being watchful and militantly vocal on issues regarding transnational corporations, especially as relates to the foreign debt, is central to a committed activism on our pan.

A number of grassroots organizations have begun springing up around the world becoming vocal and active on development issues. Cooperatives, labor and consumer unions, women's organizations and others have begun to look into health and nutrition issues. The potential of this emerging social movement is great and needs all our support. The World Food Assembly was organized in 19R4 with the specific aim of pulling these movements around the world together into a network that could exert some pressure to change development schemes touching food and nutrition issues. The Institute for Food and Development Policy is also collecting information on these organizations trying to distill some of the pearls of wisdom lint explain their success.

Organizing ourselves and others

The continuous organization of constituencies is the cornerstone of lasting, positive changes to combat hunger and malnutrition it its roots. The following are steps I think should be followed consecutively in organizing community work: (adapted from H. Bantje)

1. Participation:

Participation in development work can and has become an empty catchword and often ends up being a type of "resentful, controlled participation". What participation should really mean is democratization/decentralization of the decision making process, opening the avenues for the people to exercise the right to choose and to take collective initiatives stemming from self-deliberation and leading to self-management of the tasks to be initiated. Organization has an instructional role per se when linked to organized activity. We have to reject a passive rule for people: nut only be indifferent about it As Paulo Freire noted: people have to be present at the historical process as thinking activists, not maneuvered by the establishment to think for them.

2. Raising political consciousness:

In working with people, one should always ask why things are the way they are-specifically avoiding to provide answers...; this process exposes contradictions. politicizes the issues and also brings out a strong sense of collective identity in people. Additionally, it cultivates any existing spark of awareness into workable concrete actions at the same time providing the pertinent rallying points for such action.

Note: Completion of this step makes the process (and you) vulnerable to repression by local authorities...

3. Mobilization:

Mobilization is also called "practical politics" although it may initially involve distinctly non-political issues and actions.

Mobilization can be: for self-help, for lobbying, or for placing demands.

One should start with small, attainable goals, i.e. organizing unpretentious local voluntary work, posing relevant questions to or making specific demands from authorities This by itself is a giant step forward.

Mobilization ultimately leads to a process of empowerment and some degree of control of the situation(s) through building confidence in the ability to act and make a real measurable or observable difference.

The existing discontent and anger can be mobilized creatively and can be used as a force to start proposing some structural changes.

Note: Attainment of this step is even more. vulnerable to repressive actions.

4. Consolidation of movements:

a) Networking: Working together and organizing and coordinating work with others is of paramount Importance in the process of empowerment. It helps create necessary support systems. Networking can also link together in coalitions a number of dispersed, existing single issue constituencies, be it around limited or more general strategic or tactical objectives and he it temporarily or permanently. This facet of organization can be particularly relevant and positive in the First World, where single-issue constituencies have become more vocal and visible (i.e., environment, women's rights, consumer rights, antinuclear, etc.). b) Solidarity work: Supporting, positive attempts at change by others-i.e. nationally or internationally as for example in Nicaragua or Southern Africa-is also vitally important.

Keeping our eyes open and constantly learning more about the issues at stake

You cannot be an activist in the world of poverty and remain in it without some kind of preparation, without some kind of education, in a service which is not charity, not begging, but which demands justice. (P. Wresinski)

Continuously question yourself to what extent your involvement (or non-involvement) is used to maintain the status-quo. Question, for example, the role of foreign aid in perpetuating exploitative systems (aid cannot transform an antidemocratic structure of power into a democratic one; it can only reinforce what is already there...).

In this questioning, you have to keep in mind that. unfortunately, fundamental chance is not possible without conflict with the powers that be. Whether we should help precipitate this conflict or face it when it comes remains an open question.

Critically explore why/how some countries have made progress in addressing the problem of ill-health, hunger, and malnutrition (i.e. China, Cuba, Costa Rica). Make it a habit to critically review the role of the World Rank, me IMF and other donor agencies (USAID. CIDA, etc.) in specific country and project contexts -always putting the foreign debt crisis in its proper perspective (an example of how debtor countries are now subsidizing the banking system at the expense, of the wellbeing of their poor). Who is really, aiding whom when net flows of capital in the late eighties are towards the North...?

Last but not least, do not skip critically analyzing the of particular NGOs (and some of you within them) working on hunger issues, In last instance ask yourself if those NGOs are working for or against the. best interest of the people. Our responsibility to the hungry and sick is not to go in and "do for" them. but to help remove the obstacle preventing people from providing for themselves. It is not for us to go into other countries and "set things right".(Food First)

Speaking up!

Do not rely on others to do it; speak up! Each one of us must speak up and act at our very own levels. Every bit helps, Think globally, but act locally. Be forewarned, though, that when you move from charity to speaking out, you are liable to step on some toes. When you set out to "set free the oppressed" you risk being considered subversive and un-American...

Keep asking why? Constantly expose and denounce contradictions you find in your analysis as specific situations and, most of all, do not be intimidated. The. "silent majority" is probably behind you on most issues. We need to become change agents and effective advocates for social change leaving, old fears behind.

If you are a student, influence your educational authorities to change or add courses on the topics of hunger and its resolution. Foster a continuing dialogue and debate through special workshops, seminars, guest lectures or participation in World Food Day activities every October 16th.

Procrastination, remember, is the lifeblood of the status quo! (World Food Assembly).

Lastly, never forget that the role of science and technology in resolving the world hunger problem is, in fact, peripheral. (Yes!, as opposed to what some self-appointed "experts" want to make us believe). Such a locus and orientation-often calling for doing our technical work better and using more and efficient training, management and supervision- only diverts the attention from the more basic political/structural issues which have to addressed if we are serious about wanting to combat hunger as a sign of inequity. Efficiency is important. But not if only applied to the more technical aspect of combating ill-health and malnutrition.

Bringing together people actively involved in changing/challenging the socio-political and economic structure(s) that perpetuate(s) a system in which people go hungry in a world of plenty is thus an urgent task.

Claudio Schuftan
IPO Box 369, Hanoi.