The Right to Food in Africa: Meaning and Issues

School children enjoy their daily meal at a school in Cape Town that provides food for needy learners, 15 June 2017. Photo: Daily Maverick.

Introduction

There are many things exposing African countries to a hunger crisis, including global warming, the humanitarian crises, and COVID-19 and its impact on agricultural activities and inflation. The Russian-Ukranian war is also causing issues, including the disruption of supply chains. This will all lead to dramatic consequences if nothing is done to counter it.

In a World Bank note on food security in 2022 (I), it states that rising food prices will exacerbate hunger and malnutrition worldwide. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2022 report (II), the number of people living in hunger has reached unprecedented record levels since 2021, and is only increasing. According to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the FAO (III), several African countries are at risk of worsening acute food insecurity by September 2022.

These countries include:

  • Ethiopia
  • Nigeria
  • South Sudan
  • Somalia
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
  • Kenya
  • Zimbabwe
  • Benin
  • Cape Verde
  • Guinea
  • Madagascar
  • Mozambique

These alarming reports have heightened the focus on food security and put the issue of effectively implementing and guaranteeing the right to food back on the agenda. Faced with the various crises affecting the world and their impact on African economies, how should the right to food be understood? Are African leaders up to the challenge of guaranteeing this right?

 Understanding the Concept of the ‘Right to Food’

 The right to food was implicitly formulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, notably in Article 25 (IV), which states that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food…” Thus formulated, backed by the right to an adequate standard of living (V), the right to food remained for a long time a hollow concept that was difficult to operationalize.

As a result, it was difficult for states to build legal, political and socio-economic instruments to guarantee its effectiveness and ensure its implementation. But the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights changed all that (VI), enshrining in Article 11 the right to adequate food and the fundamental right to be free from hunger. It emphasizes that “States Parties shall take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right… the necessary measures, including concrete programmes…”

However, the right to food does not always have a clear content. It was in 1996, at the World Food Summit organized by the FAO (VII), that the states present set themselves the objective of “clarifying the content of the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, as set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Covenant).”

Jean Ziegler defines the right to food as “the right to have regular, permanent and free access, either directly or by means of monetary purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food, corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a psychic and physical, individual and collective life, free from anxiety and with dignity.”

In 2004, the FAO General Council adopted a set of “voluntary guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security,” (VIII) with the aim of giving substance to the right to food and making it operational. The FAO’s guidelines for ensuring adequate food aim to: “to ensure that food of good quality is available in sufficient quantity to meet the dietary needs of individuals, that it is physically and economically accessible to all, including vulnerable groups, that it is free from harmful substances, that it is culturally acceptable, and that all have the means to obtain it.”

The right to food thus focuses on access to food and on people’s ability to feed themselves. The right to food thus includes the right to feed oneself and one’s family by one’s own means and in dignity. This right implies another right: the right to produce one’s own sustenance or to have a duly paid job enabling one to feed one’s family.

To be able to ensure and produce one’s own subsistence, one must have access to the resources and means to do so: land, water, seeds and fertilizers, technology, credit and the market. The provision of all these resources is the responsibility of States, which, in compliance with their obligations to guarantee the right to food, must do everything in their power to ensure that populations have access to these resources.

 The Right to Food: What is at Stake?

In 1974, the UN convened a World Food Conference (IX), at the end of which the States present adopted the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition. This declaration makes the right to food an inalienable right. It also requires governments to “ensure adequate nutrition for all.” But the prescriptions made at the end of this Conference and enshrined in this declaration have remained unheeded.

The FAO, under the banner of the UN, reinvested the idea of the World Food Conference as the World Food Summit. In its commitment to “promote the political will to fight hunger” and provide states with the technical means and political guidelines to guarantee the right to food, the FAO has made the World Food Summit an intense moment of reflection and information on agriculture and the agricultural policies of the states involved (X).

Since 1974, food summits have transformed the right to food into a fundamental right, an inalienable right that is increasingly recognized, and for which guaranteeing effectiveness is not only a political but also a legal obligation for states (XI). Very few countries have enshrined this right in their constitution (20/190), like South Africa, Congo and Uganda in Africa, but several of them are signatories to covenants and conventions requiring respect for a fundamental right to food recognized by all.

The FAO encourages member countries to constitutionalize the right to food, in order to move from words to deeds (XII). According to the FAO in its 2020 report on the state of food security and nutrition in the world(XIII), African countries have seen the greatest increase in the number of people living in hunger since the COVID-19 pandemic. It is imperative that they implement appropriate strategies to curb the aggravating causes of hunger: social injustice and socio-political crises.

Conclusions and Recommendations

While implementing and guaranteeing the right to food remains a challenge for humanity, for Africa it’s much more than a challenge – it’s a question of survival. Therefore, following the example of South Africa, which explicitly enshrines the right to food in section 27 of its Constitution(XIV): “Everyone has the right to have access to adequate food and water…” African states have an obligation to explicitly recognize the right to food as a fundamental human right in national legislation(XV), so as to make it, in Carole Nivard’s words, “a justiciable right”(XVI).

In addition to national legislation, African countries must follow FAO guidelines, adapting them to their own socio-economic realities and contexts. To give concrete expression to this right, African states, in the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which revealed the continent’s weak agricultural production and dependence on Ukrainian wheat, need to revisit their agricultural policies and encourage local production and consumption. One of the major objectives is for each country to achieve “food sovereignty or the right of peoples to feed themselves” (XVII).

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Pr. NGO TONG Chantal Marie is a Research associate in Governance & Democracy at the Nkafu Policy Institute. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science, obtained from the University of Nantes (France). Pr. NGO TONG is also a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ngaoundéré. She is a reviewer and co-editor of the African Development Perspectives Yearbook and a member of the Research Group on African Development Perspectives, Bremen since 2019.

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