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writing for godot


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Monday, 26 August 2019 11:31



Political naiveté?


23. Many moralists think that politics is 'dirty' or not a 'virtuous' activity. That is probably why they insist in quixotic actions against the injustices of the prevalent social system --which they also, more often than not, condemn-- without realizing that, in the end, they are instrumental to the maintenance of the system. They assume decision makers are rational, righteous and pious and will bend in front of hard scientific evidence or react to outrageous injustice. Liberals, on the other hand, pay lip-service to needed changes, even applauding radicals' interventions. But they lack, perhaps as much as the moralists, the political education or what is needed to work out ways to overcome malnutrition in capitalist societies.


24. The fight against hunger and malnutrition is eminently a political and not a technical struggle. Technology is hardly the adequate point of departure to achieve the deep structural changes needed to end hunger and malnutrition (and the problems of overweight); the right political approach is the better point of departure. Nutritionists are rarely trained as social scientists and, therefore, use social theory implicitly rather than explicitly. This is where the challenge lies in searching for the missing ideological link. It takes an initial conscious and decisive step to bridge any ideological gap.


25. The average development worker probably does not spend much time in purposely studying the basic tenets of the capitalist political economy to better understand how the system s/he lives in works. Radicals will probably more often go through this exercise to better adjust their strategies and tactics.


Social consciousness

26. Does all this mean that the more radical development workers have a higher level of social consciousness than their non-radical peers? It would seem that the answer is yes, and it has certainly cost them an additional effort. Once a certain level of consciousness is attained (is there a threshold...?) an action-oriented attitude usually follows. At that point, there is a convergence of ideology and action that makes the difference between taking an observer's vs a protagonist's role. Knowing about injustices does not move us. Becoming conscious about them generates a creative anger that calls for involvement in corrective actions. The latter can only happen within the framework of an ideology consciously acquired.


27. Political forces are fought with political actions, not with morals, or with technological fixes. This does not mean that strong ethical principles cannot be used as a political weapon, but this usually fails, mainly for …political reasons. It is because of ideological and political naivete that development workers who have occasionally jumped into the political arena in the North have so often failed.


28. Many nutritionists fear that their positions in academe, government or international or private organizations may be jeopardized if they 'come out of the closet' with more radical positions. They take a 'survivor's' attitude. The result of such a position is yet more palliative interventions that do not really affect hunger and malnutrition. There are certain actions that can be advocated in any system that will have a lasting effect in combating malnutrition. We seldom see agencies or concerned nutritionists primarily pushing those actions, because they are mostly non-nutritional, at least at the outset. If we could at least begin giving priority to some of these interventions (e.g., employment generation, women’s rights and income redistribution measures), we would be contributing more to solving the feeding problems of the deprived sectors of the population than by devising sophisticated nutrition interventions.


29. Nutritionists have to stop thinking that they cannot contribute much to the selection and implementation of non-nutritional interventions, because they are outside our immediate field of expertise. They are champions in denouncing transgressions to the exact sciences, but they are not half so active, and much less effective, in denouncing transgressions to the social sciences.


30. What do internationally funded nutrition programs in countries rendered poor really contribute to? How responsible are nutritionists working in those projects for their failure or success? Who do they see benefiting from these programs? How do they see the programs' impact in the long run? A good number of these programs only scratch the surface of the local problems and, therefore, contribute to the status-quo in these countries. We must be aware, though, that most rendered poor countries' governments would not accept foreign aid programs at all, if otherwise. Every donor brings its own ideas of development with it and its development programs will reflect their ideology. The influx of foreign experts tends to a mystification of the planning process and reinforces people's feelings of inadequacy about their own capabilities.


31. Professionals working in these projects must take part of the blame for failures. They ought to fight for changes-in-direction if programs are not bringing about the anticipated results Here, a new role becomes more evident: the nutritionist as a denouncer of non-realistic goals or methods of achieving them, especially because there are still some interventions that will partly contribute to improving malnutrition in a given population even within the constraints of the prevailing system. It is true that these nutritionists, in most cases, did not participate in the program's design, but it should never be too late to change directions. Therefore, for these development workers everything said about speaking-up in political terms is doubly important, be they ethically or ideologically motivated.


What can I do?

32. For those accustomed to solving problems and putting them aside, grasping a problem as intractable as world hunger guarantees frustration. The flaw in our thinking is that the solution to the malnutrition problem is not in nature, but in ourselves, in our approach to the fundamental social relationships among men. Malnutrition should not be attacked because it brings humankind utility, but because it is morally necessary. (Emmanuel Kant) What we need to fight for is equality not utility.


33. It seems that strict devotion to science is not enough, we need to use science to follow our con-science. We need to think about ourselves as political human beings working as technicians, remembering that global change does not begin at the global level, but starts with individuals.


34. Many nutritionists have initially been motivated to simply transfer knowledge to the people; the need is now to start focusing more on the social dimensions of the problems of mass poverty and hunger. They need to act as human rights activists before acting as nutritionists. An important requirement for this is to seek knowledge about the real world and not only about the world ‘we would like to see’. One cannot build on wishful thinking. It is precisely a misunderstanding of reality (or a partial understanding) that often reinforces the amoral position of some development workers. Or, some of them may not really want to understand; they have, all too often and for all the wrong reasons, already made up their minds about one reality. The social reality is not like a laboratory; many variables in it are unknown and unforeseen. It is thus wrong for us to look at them searching for the statistical 'whats' instead of searching for the human rights 'whys'.




35. Nutrition seems to be as good (or bad) an entry point as any other (employment, education, health, energy, natural resources, ecology, climate, etc) to get involved in questions of equity and equality in our societies, if it is used as a tool. Since the constraints to equality are structural in nature, criticizing them from any angle (especially a human rights angle!), initially, will lead us invariably to the core of the social structural problems. Nutrition can lead to global considerations if not made a 'single-issue' goal.


36. Advocates of the latter limited approach to nutrition often look at constraints from a quite narrow perspective, a fact that seldom leads to more equality. There are too many substitutes for in-depth political action, in single-issue policies applied top-down that lead nowhere. The worst is that many people do not see this difference and a lot of political and human rights (HR) motivation and sometimes talent in colleagues or lay people is lost, because of pseudo-ideological approaches to global issues. Single-issue policies suffer from a lack of global vision of society and, in particular, a lack of will to make systematic historical changes.


37. Mention has to be made that there has recently been a call for a new ethic as the paradigm to replace the present Northern ethic of constant growth. This new, 'desirable' ethic has been called the 'ethic of accommodation'. It calls for simpler patterns of living, more in balance with nature. One may agree with such an approach only in what pertains to the finite availability of natural resources in our planet. But this new ethic seems a typical example of a partial interpretation of priorities that still promotes the status-quo. It is a romanticized option, devoid of ideological content, unless we want to consider it the deliberate result of what I earlier called a political imperative from the right.


38. What is needed is more dedication to work directly with those rendered poor so they can tackle the causes of their poverty and malnutrition themselves. This calls for nutritionists to go, as much as possible, back to field work and out of their offices or labs. Only there can the strengths needed for a change in direction and perspective be found. Knowledge and scientific power created in institutions away from the claim holders are returning to the people and affecting them. The gap between those who have social power over thinking --an important form of capital-- and those who have not, has reached dimensions no less formidable than the gap in access to economic assets.


Establish links


39. Human rights-oriented nutritionists need to learn from the people as claim holders and from their perceptions of the problems; need to establish links with local mass movements; and contribute to their consciousness raising. This latter process may fail, because it is possible that the socioeconomic contradictions present locally are not sharp enough to give priority to political action over, say, technological action that could immediately (purportedly) benefit claim holders and for which there may still be room in the system (??). The choice is, essentially, between leading claim holders toward social changes with an external consciousness, and raising mass consciousness and their capabilities within to make the changes. It is important to demonstrate to claim holders that it is in their power not only to change social reality, but the physical reality that surrounds them as well.


40. As researchers, nutritionists are always to participate and intervene as well, even at the cost of altering some of the parameters they are interested in studying. They simply must enter into a true dialogue with the group studied; this will direct the research towards the problems that are relevant to the group. It is probably because of this that short-term research creates more frustration than motivation, both in researchers and in the community.


41. There are three levels of possible involvement of HR-oriented workers in their field work:

  • In a first level, they solicit the participation of the community in their project. Discussions occur and some token improvements are offered for the community to select. The aim is to change people's attitudes and to motivate them to improve their condition. This participation has turned out to be harmless for the vested interests and is, therefore, a regular appendage of every government and donor project.
  • A second level calls for outright consciousness raising of the population; a dialogue between the oppressed and the elite is called for to surmount the contradictions of the social structure. (However, it has to be noted that in improperly motivated hands this can be reactionary or reformist).
  • At the third level, an effort is made towards the mobilization of the mass of claim holders. The HR-oriented workers get involved in organizing movements around lower class interests to strengthen their bargaining position.

[In any event, the desirable standard role of these workers in the field is one of a monitor that does not allow programmatic interventions to proceed unchanged if they are culturally or politically neutral or biased against the interests of the claim holders].


42. This, of course, leads us to the concept of accountability; to whom should field workers be accountable-to for their work, besides themselves? Traditionally, they have been accountable to their peers and to funding agencies, Too often they have neglected their accountability to a third group, namely, the ‘public at large’; this is simply way too vague. We too seldom see researchers communicating their findings directly to the people being served or studied, in an understandable language (!). Here, then, is another urgent area for improvement.


43. This brings us back to the question: what can I do? All that has been said here just stresses the fact that the battle against malnutrition as an example of a HR violation can be won, if HR-oriented nutritionists play their roles to their last consequences.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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