Zero Hunger Britain

Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme is being adopted in countries around the world: why not Britain too?

Ben RichardsonTony Payne has argued that ‘we’re all developing countries now’. One corollary of this is that the pretension of an international policy hierarchy must be dropped. No longer should it be assumed that the best ways to address key developmental challenges have already been discovered by richer countries and just need to be filtered downwards to poorer countries. This is clearly evident in the case of malnutrition.       

In Britain, hunger has returned to the political agenda. Its existence is typically denoted by the increasing use of food banks, but other indicators also give cause for concern about the cost of living: the use of payday loans to buy food, the increase of hospital admittances due to malnutrition, growing anxiety about feeding the family, and the rising incidence of poverty crime by people shoplifting milk, bread and meat.

Rather than acknowledge the existence of hunger and other manifestations of food insecurity, the government’s reaction has been to stonewall campaigners and pass the issue around government departments in a conspiracy of silence. Meanwhile, backbench MPs and the right-wing press simply deny the problem altogether. Recent headlines in The Daily Mail cited OECD figures that show 8% of the British population sometimes struggle to buy food, down from 9% when the coalition came to power – a somewhat dubious defence, since at best that tells us over five million British residents still cannot afford to eat easily and regularly.

Compare this to the case of Brazil. When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected to power in 2003, he made the Zero Hunger programme a cornerstone of his government’s social policy, declaring in his inauguration speech that: ‘We are going to create appropriate conditions for all people in our country to have three decent meals a day, every day, without having to depend on donations from anybody’.

In less than a decade Brazil had met the Millennium Development Goal target to halve its proportion of hungry people, bringing tens of millions over the minimum calorie intake threshold. It has since been feted by NGOs like ActionAid for its progressive food policy and seen its model internationalised through the UN apparatus, thanks in part to the election of Jose Graziano da Silva, the bureaucrat in charge of implementing Zero Hunger, as the Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization. 

How did Brazil achieve this and what lessons might Britain learn? Much has been made of the policies of Zero Hunger. These include conditional cash transfers targeted at mothers, an ambitious school meal feeding programme, and financial subsidies and public procurement schemes targeted at family farmers. However, this focus overlooks the importance of politics. The progress Brazil has made cannot be separated from its re-democratisation process and the participation of civil society in national politics, specifically in the case of food, via the Council on Food and Nutritional Security (CONSEA).

Created in the 1990s and rehabilitated under Lula, CONSEA has become a mobilising force and an influential advisory body on food and nutrition security policy. Composed of 54 representatives, two-thirds from civil society and one-third from federal government, it has pushed Brazilian food policy in a much more radical direction. CONSEA has also developed the National Law on Food and Nutrition Security which, after approval by Congress, made the right to food an obligation of the state, as well as institutionalising the existence of food and nutrition councils not just at the federal level but at the sub-national level too.

The lessons of this experience are threefold.

First, politicise hunger. In Brazil, this was achieved by activists drawing on the pioneering work of people like Josué de Castro who argued that hunger was a product of wilful ignorance by the powerful. In Britain, one way to make a similar claim upon political elites is by turning the government’s international development rhetoric in on itself. In contrast to her cabinet colleagues, the Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, has publicly argued that ‘the curse of hunger is not inevitable’ and can be tackled by, among other things, boosting women’s earning power and extending healthcare provision.  By ‘domesticating’ hunger and moving away from the assumption that food insecurity only exists in famine-stricken lands far from home, campaigners can provocatively ask the British government: why the double-standards on malnutrition?      

Second, build institutions for an active food citizenship. The roll-out of anti-hunger policies in Brazil can be ascribed not only to Presidential support but also to pressure from autonomous civil society organisations and professional communities within the policy-making process.  Deliberations in CONSEA have been marked by tension and conflict; a far-cry from the voluntary and anodyne public-private partnerships pursued by successive British governments.  But there is a possibility in Britain for institutional bricolage: re-launching the recently abandoned national-level Council of Food Policy Advisers and connecting it to the nascent city-level Food Policy Councils, for example. This need not rely on backing from the current government. The London Assembly has produced a report on how to create a Zero Hunger City targeted at the Greater London Authority rather than central government. Likewise, supporters of the Labour Party may be interested to note that much of the groundwork for Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme was established alongside the Workers’ Party while they were in opposition.        

Third, defend public provision. There are valid criticisms to be made of the Brazilian conditional cash transfer scheme for undermining universal welfare and the provision of de-commodified public goods. And, of course, many argue that it has been the stringent conditionality imposed upon welfare recipients in the UK that has led to increased food insecurity. However, what could be taken from the Brazilian case – and is being highlighted in many other instances of food assistance schemes – is that hungry people spend money on food. This evidence could be used to help rebut reactionary claims that any increase in welfare or minimum wage (perhaps Brazil’s most important anti-poverty strategy) would not improve people’s diets if introduced in Britain. Similarly, Brazil’s school meals programme is one of the most expansive in the world, putting the recent commitment by the British government to provide a hot, free meal to all 4-7 year olds in the shade. Is it so unthinkable that all state-school pupils might receive one free meal a day? Or that Britain devises its own innovative provisioning polices – perhaps non-profit ‘community kitchens’ managed by councils and FE colleges to serve cheap nutritious meals in low-income areas?

Britain has not surpassed the need to address basic developmental goals. If it is considered a developing country too, we might look with fresh eyes at what is going on in countries like Brazil.