Nutrition and sustainable development

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  December blog                                                                                                        

  Claudio Schuftan


This month, I look forward to a world conference being held next June, in Rio de Janeiro. This is the ‘Rio+20’ Conference on Sustainable Development, whose website is at


The overarching declared purpose of Rio+20 is once again, to raise consciousness of and arouse conscience on the environmental dimension, which until late last century was more or less forgotten. Veterans of world summits on any topic have reason for scepticism, but they are needed, and we must all do our best to see that Rio+20 really does mark a time when we all move towards living in ways that are fair and sane.


Adequate good nutrition is smack in the middle of sustainable development. Neither is possible without the other.  But as I consider these issues, like you, I am also reflecting on what has been and is happening this year in the streets all over the world. This year has been and is one of direct action, and I believe that the unrest, riots and uprisings that we see and that some of us have experienced, whatever their immediate and obvious cause, all have a core mood in common. This is awareness that we are living in a world whose political and economic governance – or rather lack of governance and surrender to corporate greed – has gone wrong and has broken down.


The prevailing governance structure of the globe ignores the several crises the planet is facing, as well as the social determinants behind them. Food insecurity (1), preventable child and maternal deaths (2), price Barriers to accessing  medicines (3), collapsing health systems (4) share the fact that we do have enough resources to provide for them, but these resources instead flow to over-consumption. Military expenditure  and obscene wealth for a small elite (5).


Food prices including those of staple foods all over the world remained stable from 1990 to 2007; since then, prices have rocketed and fluctuated wildly. One reason, as pointed out by Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to nutrition, is the recent vast increase of speculation in food commodity futures prices. The results, early this year, were food riots in many impoverished countries, leading to uprisings in North Africa that threatened and toppled governments.


My point here is that the triggers for the unrest that escalated very rapidly in a number of grossly unjust societies, were uncontrolled and chaotic food prices, in countries whose rulers had failed to protect their people by the use of regulations and controls that could have stabilised the cost of staple foods, as wise rulers throughout history have done.









The latest manifestation of this year’s phenomenal series of direct actions is the Occupy Movement, which includes the Occupy Wall Street movement. This began in the South in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 30 July, spread to Zuccotti Park in New York on 17 September, and by early November had spread to 600 communities in the US and around 2,500 cities worldwide. Occupy is now supported or endorsed by political and other leaders even up to head of government level in many countries, including in the US and in the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China.


The protests are against what is now often accurately termed ‘casino capitalism’. This monster has been created by what still remains the orthodox political and economic system known as ‘freeing the market’, which is technobabble for surrendering the responsibilities and duties of government, and letting transnational corporations use increasingly lenient laws they believe will increase their profits.


Until this abuse of governance is stopped and reversed, world summits on the environment, climate change, prevention of diabetes, cancer and heart disease, or the war on world poverty, are really hot air. They are also duplicitous, because the officials who organise them must surely be well aware of the big issue that is driving environmental wreckage, the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice-caps, and the outrageous combination of obesity, poverty and deficiency.


  Box 1

Sustainable development

Eating the planet and having it


Whether we are policy-makers, professionals, citizens or consumers, or any combination of these, we won’t make progress with the idea of ‘sustainable development’ until we think through what these terms mean and imply. ‘Sustainable’ is perhaps easy to define. It means something like ‘capable of being continued indefinitely’ and in our context, taking human, living and physical resources into account. Thus, to use a well-known example, recommendations that everybody should eat more fish are not sustainable – unless few people pay attention to the recommendation.


So what about ‘development’? People like us have been brought up to believe in ‘development’. The concept of ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘developed’ countries, later tactfully changed to ‘developing’ and ‘developed’, is embedded in all discourses concerning human progress, as are allied terms like ‘emerging market economies’. What ‘development’ conventionally means is economic development. And the metric for this type of development, applied to any country, is Gross National Product. What this measures is the total amount of money turned over within a country. The more money circulates, the more economic development, which usually is simply termed ‘development’.


Human rights, justice and equity don’t enter this picture. A country whose population was mainly made up from relatively self-sufficient family farmers, with a small ruling class that was not rapacious, would by definition be ‘developing’ – or if it preferred to stay that way, ‘undeveloped’. By contrast, a country with a  substantial number of vastly wealthy people and an economy based on money, whose public goods are privatised, and whose diseased population is mostly in a perpetual state of insecurity and even gross poverty if only because of the cost of health care, is ‘developed’. Another example would be a  country whose national turnover of money depended on vast stocks of weapons of mass destruction, used from time to time to invade other countries. Such a country is counted as most developed. Sounds familiar?


My point here is that in its current conventional sense, ‘development’ cannot be sustainable, because it depends on increasingly rapacious and senseless exploitation of human, living and physical resources. The concept of ‘sustainable development’ in this sense is a contradiction in terms, it is in effect imagining that we can eat the planet and have it. Unless the leaders of the Rio+20 summit being held next June get their collective heads round this basic point, and insist on a new concept of ‘development’ based on rights, equity and justice, decency, happiness and freedom, we all will continue to roll on to doom.


What does this matter to us?


These seismic events are the context for the work of all professionals who, like us, are committed to doing our best to improve conditions in areas where we are competent.

So one of my first questions is:  If we are trying to make nutrition interventions in impoverished countries more sustainable, why is most of what is said, written and done having so little effect? Here are some answers to this question:


  • Our praxis, which is to say our application of principles and ideas, has become professionalised. In the process, we have devalued and demoted the proper role of popular knowledge in our teaching and practice.
  • Our prevailing values and attitudes as researchers and practitioners are arrogant. They have impeded us from respecting and acting as equals with our national counterparts in the countries we work in.
  • We still seek to control knowledge as part of an elite class. We thus fail to obtain a deeper understanding that will guide more appropriate actions which can only come from a process of genuine popular participation.
  • The root of the problem is that real sustainable development involves process of popular enrichment, empowerment and participation which our technocratic project-orientated ideology by its nature fails to accommodate.
  • Another reason for the irrelevance of many past and current approaches is that overall development education has continued to transmit societal values mostly as they are perceived in the North.


Those who teach or who taught us, inevitably teach us part of themselves and the frame of values that is part of their background. The context any teacher comes from has its own frame of assumptions about what is real, unshakeable and safe. These contexts can become cages.


Difficult problems tempt us to focus on their more manageable component parts. But this atomistic approach evades the more complex underlying and basic structural questions. This also prompts the ‘exclusion fallacy’, in which what we choose not to discuss is assumed to have no bearing on the issue (6). An uncritical, repetitive reliance on the same old shallow data in the interpretation of unresolved issues, which avoids seeing malnutrition as an outcome of complex social and political processes, will not and cannot do.


The predominant theories of development still see society largely as an organic whole that is normally in equilibrium. This view does not fit well with the facts. Instead, we need to view society as a complex of forces in tension and conflict, because of the divergence of interests that drive them. We should not assume that conflicts are resolvable within what is now the prevailing political, economic and social system (7).


There is now much talk about the need for ‘multidisciplinary approaches’. In principle these are needed. In practice they often assume that looking at problems from a ‘wider’ perspective will automatically lead to rational and equitable solutions. But the mere act of putting together disciplines, without taking into account where the ‘experts’ are coming from ethically, ideologically and politically, has not and will not by itself make a significant difference. This will be all the more so, if beneficiaries – who need to become de-facto claim-holders – are not fully involved in decision-making processes.








The Millennium Development Goals initiative will, we now know for sure, fail to halve the 1990 global hunger rate by 2015. This is more than just a wretched item of news. For far too long now there has been a block in the way of our realising that malnutrition in all its forms is in part driven by a model of development that is inherently unsustainable, as summarised in Box 1. The people in the streets may help us to become unblocked. But this calls for us being able to understand what they (and) we are seeking so that we are more likely to get where we need to be and, once there, to know what to do.


Vocally opposing and manifesting against old ways is not enough. The current movement needs a new conceptual framework, a new system of principles and values. These need to be concrete, cogent and compelling. Debates about past historical rights and wrongs should be mainly to guide us to come up with more coherent propositions for tomorrow. We need a vision firmly embedded in a practice. We must not walk away from these debates.


In our own work, we need to open new space to discuss and agree what now must come about. We need to take full account of all causal levels of malnutrition in impoverished countries and settings, i.e., social, economic and environmental, immediate, underlying and basic causes.  Vision must move to mission and to real work with tangible outcomes. A vision is not much good if it simply stays in the air as something devoutly to be desired. A vision of that sort is a mirage; it recedes as you approach it. To be of use, the vision has to point to a route, and to take into account a lot of unpleasant realities.


A vision is of no use unless it serves as a guide for effective actions. These will need to be biased towards the oppressed, because it is their rights that are being trampled. We ought to express and manifest solidarity towards the oppressed. Only then will our vision be shared with them and gain weight and credibility in its commitment to equity and justice. We can no longer abandon the have-nots to the dollar-dispensing Northern bilateral or multilateral agencies. The moment cries for us to press for more. Windows of opportunity have a way of slamming shut. (8)


It is hard for many of us to maintain political agility in a hostile environment. But the role of an avant-garde is to cause ferment. Let’s not assume that somebody else is going to take care of issues that engage and involve us. We have to get active. A strategic overhaul of our actions requires a crisis in our thinking. This I believe is why the Occupy Movement is encouraging.


The future of our work in nutrition cannot be a simple extension of the past. Business as usual is no longer an option and in the times we now live in, has little if any meaning. Tuning the engine won’t work; it needs to be taken apart and put together again, for new purposes (9).


For a start, we have to work towards checking the malign forces that propel us as professionals in the generally hopeless direction we are moving. The fundamental changes now needed, can be brought about only by organisations and people that have no vested interest in the survival of the non-sustainable development system as it operates now, and that oppresses dependent countries and their impoverished people (10, 11).


A new professionalism will emerge when we become explorers, always asking what and who will gain, or lose, from our choices and actions in our work in nutrition. New professionals ‘who put the last first’ already exist, but we remain a minority. Now we need to multiply, and interact, coalesce and organise dynamic networks among ourselves and between us and grassroots organisations.


A mere extension of what most of us have already been doing in public health and in nutrition is not strong enough to insert nutrition within sustainable development. Our big task now is not only to have conceptual breakthroughs, but also to design strategic plans that specify all necessary institutional changes.








What’s in store, and what’s to do?


So what should we do now? I have given this some thought. In one column here I can’t attempt much more than a wake-up call at a very significant time in history, when so many ordinary decent citizens are expressing their outrage on the streets. How can we all make progress towards genuine sustainable development, based on principles of justice and equity which is most likely to preserve Earth for our grandchildren and their grandchildren?  Here are some possibilities, which I regard very much as thoughts in progress, to be improved by discussion and exchanges:


  • We need to de-professionalise our work. This will mean seeking, re-valuing and incorporating popular knowledge and know-how into planned actions.
  • In this process, our local counterparts, and local civil society organisations, need to take a more visible lead, even at the cost of some possible mistakes.
  • All relevant knowledge needs to be shared from the very start with the beneficiaries who in the process become claim-holders.
  • We need to move away from the project-oriented approach and move towards processes of popular enrichment and empowerment.
  • We now need to depend less on academicians, and professional practitioners, and listen more to the everyday sufferers from the prevalent inequitable system.
  • They should define the changes that are needed. Action plans are thus to be negotiated and finalised in neighbourhoods and fields, not in our offices.
  • Education has to be from the claim holders’ perspective with their choice of contents and priorities. We have to be more open to their needs and values.
  • Our analyses need to incorporate the structural causes of malnutrition as part of the ‘big picture’. This includes changes made by economic globalisation.
  • We will thus be forced to face the complex social and political forces of oppression that prevent populations and communities from improving their own nutrition.
  • We have a duty to confront head-on and to expose the malign forces that oppose greater equity so as to neutralise them, from local to global levels.
  • We need to use the internet to build networks of like-minded colleagues who can consolidate a strong worldwide solidarity movement.
  • We have to confront the types of bilateral and multilateral aid – often no more than tinkering – that perpetuate inequitable and disempowered societies.
  • We have to play a part in forcing institutional changes in aid agencies, the UN system included, so as to make them more democratic and transparent.
  • We need a whole new curriculum for public health, nutrition and development professionals, to prepare a new generation of more enlightened professionals.


The processes that can lead to real sustainability, to the fulfilment of the human right to nutrition, and to equitable societies, can and should start with small direct actions that we can help bring about more easily.


Actions at grassroots level can take many forms. These should always include examination of who is losing and who is winning, and why. At higher levels, most of us have more experience on how to start discussions leading to change. We now have to follow through! We have to commit ourselves, in a more active and even militant way, to get and to keep the process of popular empowerment moving, always confronting the status-quo that gives the impression that nobody cares.


Examples where some of these elements have worked exist. Some of these, like the Indian state of Kerala, and Sri Lanka, Cuba, and Costa Rica, are well known. Others, like the primary health care work done in Iringa in Tanzania, and the Indian Jamkhed comprehensive rural health project in the state of Maharashtra, are also sources of insight and inspiration. They all have in common bottom-centred, gender-sensitive, empowering approaches and a political choice to tackle the underlying deep roots of poverty, injustice and ignorance.


The road to real development indicated here requires that we break with the old development paradigm, as summarised in Box 1. This will mean stepping on the toes of many powerful vested interests. It has always been like this, isn’t it?


I rejoice to see the people, especially the young people, now in the streets, sometimes passionately debating with courageous establishment figures who come to reason with them and learn from and sometimes join them.  The present moment is full of promise. The old ideas are broken. An era is ending. We are in for an exciting new era. We need all the courage we can muster. It’s time, I believe, that we all stopped being mere bystanders and become actors. Addressing issues like these will have to pave the way to Rio+20.



1          Holt-Gimenez E. The world food  crisis: What’s behind it and what we can do about

it, Food First 2008, Institute for Food and Development Policy, Oakland, California.

2          Hogan M C. Maternal mortality for 181 countries, 1980-2008: A systematic

analysis of progress  towards the Millennium Development Goals, The Lancet  2010, Early online. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60518-1

3          ‘t Hoen E F M.The global politics of pharmaceutical monopoly power, drug patents,

access, innovation anfd the application of he WT Doha Declaration on TRIPS and

public health. Dieman 2009, AMB Publishers.

4          WHO. Everybody’s business: Strengthening health systems to improve health

outcomes, WHO Framework for Action, 2007 Geneva.

5          Milanovic B. Global inequality recalculated: The effect of new 2005 PPP estimates

on global inequality, World Bank 2009 Washington DC.

6          McDermott W. The forbidden agenda, Transnational Perspectives 1989, 15:1, 6-8.

7          Langley W.  Liberation theology and the politics of transformation,

Transnational Perspectives 1989, 15:1, 23-29.

8          Gitlin T. After the thaw, Tikkun 1988, 3:6, 50-53.

9          Myers N. New Economics 1987, 1, 1, 8.

10        Harman W. Redefining global development, Development Forum 1989, 17:2, 21.

11        Bracho F. The common cause for worldwide sustainable development: A   Southern view, IFDA Dossier 1990, 63-67.



Please cite as: Schuftan C. Nutrition and sustainable development. [Column] Website of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, December 2011. Obtainable at



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1 Response to “Nutrition and sustainable development”

  1. 1Carlos

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