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16.3: Chronic Hunger and the Civic Participant

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  • A different approach to governing hunger can be seen in Brazil. Although the country was for a long time a net exporter of agricultural products, it also had huge numbers of undernourished people living within its borders. This reaffirms the point that, in and of themselves, food surpluses do not prevent hunger – even at state level. So, when the left-wing Workers’ Party was elected to power in 2003, their leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made the Zero Hunger programme a cornerstone of his government’s social policy. He declared in his inauguration speech: ‘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’ (cited in da Silva et al. 2011, 9).

    This commitment came out of the country’s re-democratisation process in the 1990s, when civil society began to exert a greater influence in national politics after two decades of oppressive military dictatorship. The Council on Food and Nutritional Security, which was supported by Lula, was a particularly important institution in this respect. Composed of 54 representatives, twothirds from civil society and one-third from federal government, the Council drove forward a number of policies, including increased funding for school meals and support for family farmers. It also promoted the National Law on Food and Nutrition Security, which obliged the federal government to uphold people’s right to food and create food councils at more localised levels. Along with cash transfers given to poor mothers and an increase in the minimum wage, these reforms lifted millions of people out of chronic undernourishment. The Zero Hunger programme could claim real success. In contrast to Algeria, diverse groups in Brazilian society – including teachers, farmers, clergy and health professionals – were able to play a more proactive role in national food politics. Indeed, their collective contribution also reshaped international policy. When the minister for food security in the Lula government, José Graziano da Silva, was elected to the head of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation in 2011, he began to promote many of the same policies that had been developed in Brazil. A twin-track strategy based on investments in rural areas to boost the incomes of farming families and basic welfare payments to protect the most vulnerable in society was advocated.

    Backed by other United Nations agencies and the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, over the next three years Zero Hunger Challenge programmes were launched in a number of countries including St. Lucia, Laos and Zambia. This approach also informed the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals, which set out a roadmap for the end of world hunger by 2030. That said, it is a lot easier to make policies and plans than to achieve them. Key in the Brazilian case was the mobilisation of national civil society, which brought forward people willing to play a role in political affairs. In countries where this is not encouraged, it is hard to see plans for the reduction of poverty and hunger taking effect. Moreover, Brazil itself is far from perfect, with mass protests and political upheavals in 2016 reflecting the nation’s slide into ever-deepening recession. Chronic hunger may have diminished but temporary hunger and poor diet remain, especially in the impoverished areas of Northeast Brazil and among indigenous communities. Ensuring their right to food is an ongoing struggle, and one that will have to overcome the significant domestic political and economic challenges that Brazil faces.