Reference to ‘the right to food’ has been a fixture of food security debates since the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security, and the movement to enshrine the human right to food in national law has gained pace since. Where enshrined in constitutional, statutory and subordinate laws or through established jurisprudence, the right to food expresses not just a desire to achieve people’s freedom from hunger, it also specifies the responsibility of governments as duty bearers to ensure such outcomes, holding them accountable for doing so (Mechlem 2004). But having a right is not the same as enjoying that right, as old and new evidence of famine, chronic hunger and all forms of malnutrition indicates (von Grebmer et al. 2017). And as a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Food put it: ‘people need to know their rights in order to be able to demand change and accountability from the Government’ (De Schutter 2012: 12).
But what do people know of their right to food? This article takes as its starting point that people’s knowledge of their rights is likely to be critical to their enjoyment of those rights, but also that such knowledge is not simply given, flowing directly from human rights law into popular political culture, public policy, social norms, or actual practice. Instead, as Sally Engel Merry shows us, the process of implementing human rights involves a kind of ‘vernacularization’—a process of interpretation and negotiation between different interests, institutions, and understandings of ‘rights’, across multiple levels of the system. Important parts of the implementation of human rights are thus shaped not only by transnational human rights framings, but also by what happens in the ‘missing middle’, where elite and popular conceptions of specific rights and responsibilities within particular contexts and histories become lenses through which human rights are refracted, re-envisioned and put into practice (Merry 2006). In this article, we follow Merry’s direction to focus ‘on the social processes of human rights implementation and resistance’ (ibid: 39) by highlighting for scholars and activists preliminary conceptual and programmatic conclusions from these popular—or ‘common sense’—conceptions of the right to food.
The research on which this article draws was undertaken in a tradition of participatory research that aims to uncover and amplify people’s own categories and meanings in relation to policy and practice (Chambers 2002). The research was part of a larger, longitudinal, multilevel, mixed methods inquiry into the effects of food price volatility in ten countries in South and South-East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America during 2011–15 (Hossain 2015). Its unusual scale for a predominantly qualitative study means it offers valuable breadth of insight into processes of global change as they emerge out of the interaction of multiple local instances and experiences. It also suffers from the problems of scale in large scale qualitative research, including the interpretative challenges of multi-sited, multilingual research undertaken by multiple actors (Hossain and Scott-Villiers 2018). The article thus draws chiefly from broad findings generated by discussions around the following broad questions: what do people think about their right to food? What do they believe they can claim, and from whom?
Based on this qualitative research we show that a strong ‘common sense’ approach to the right to food can be discerned across these settings, and that this is likely to shape the realization of the right to food in instructive ways. Among the most significant findings, the research highlighted how many popular conceptions took on natural rights justifications and integrated these within relevant moral and social frameworks. This, coupled with an emphasis on the right to food as the freedom to earn, and on non-state institutions of marriage, kin and community as primary duty bearers, did not clearly signal an expectation of public action or legal responsibilities under usual conditions. Yet in times of mass food insecurity, people from all backgrounds appeared to hold public authorities responsible for acting, and evaluated them accordingly. The law and the state featured prominently in perceptions of the right to food where it had been (recently) constitutionally guaranteed (Bolivia, Guatemala and Kenya): there people spoke of the right to food in relation to the very real challenges of claiming rights or holding governmental duty bearers to account. Past episodes of dearth, at least those that remained in the public memory, and current political and electoral struggles over food-related matters also influenced what the right to food meant, and for whom. The article analyses these findings to identify points at which popular and human rights conceptions connect or diverge, identifying both specific and general implications for research and activism on the right to food.
The article is organized as follows. The next section sets out the rationale for an exploration of popular conceptions of the right to food, identifying its rise to prominence in global policy, the challenge of realization (including vernacularization) and the significance of alternative framings in contemporary struggles over food. The following section discusses the methodology used, describing both its significant limitations and its value to the questions at hand. The article then goes on to discuss findings about the origins and meanings of the right to food, and about duty bearers, claims-making and political space. The article concludes with a discussion of some of the implications of this ‘common sense’ approach to thinking about the right to food, highlighting its contribution and indicating areas for further analysis.