29 June 2013

Africa: Making the Private Sector Public in Hunger and Malnutrition


This week saw the Delhi launch of the Lancet Nutrition series.  Ahead of the launch a group of senior nutrition experts and paediatricians in India wrote an open statement that contained the following sentence.

"The call for engaging with the "private sector" and unregulated marketing of commercial foods for preventing malnutrition in children raises serious concerns. The inherent conflict of interest will ensure that commercial considerations override sustainable nutritional goals."

The series said nothing of the sort.

Paper 4 of which I was a co-author says we should engage with the private sector, but on the public sector's terms (i.e. in the areas they want, for the groups they want and with the regulation and risk assessment they demand).  Unfortunately this private sector stuff is pretty much only what the Indian newspapers wanted to talk about.  They should be asking why the Government has not collected any national nutrition data for 7 years.

The inability to have a debate on the rules of engagement with the private sector is costing children's lives and wellbeing.  And the standoff is so pointless because the private sector is already incredibly influential (nearly a quarter of all Indian kids in the upper income quintile are stunted--these households use the market to provide for most of their food, water, health and sanitation needs).

Relatedly, President Obama was in Africa to promote the G8's New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. The Alliance is a trio of commitments from African leaders, private sector partners and the G8.

I was interviewed about this for the LA Times.  I said that New Alliance could be a good thing but only if it passes three tests (a) is it targets to smallholder farmers (see the new High Level Panel of Experts report on smallholder farming), (b) who can actually afford to engage with it (if it does not leave them in too much debt),  (c) if governments are willing and able enough to specify  the conditions under  which alliances with the G8 and private sector are formed and then (d) enforce them.

The imbalances of power between the public and private sector in food and agriculture makes the meeting of these conditions difficult but not impossible.  Underpinning all of this is transparency.  I don't believe transparency is sufficient, but in this area of power imbalances around hunger and nutrition, I feel it is necessary.

Whenever the public sector engages with the private sector, the agreements, conduct, profits and impacts on  hunger and malnutrition have to be public.

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