Why is promising a right to food more politically appealing than delivering that food?

In India, the system that delivers subsidized food and fuel to the nation’s poor is badly broken. Many people who are supposed to receive the subsidized fuel and bags of grain do not, and “studies show that 70 percent of a roughly $12 billion budget is wasted, stolen, or absorbed by bureaucratic and transportation costs.” This is according to a recent NYT article by Jim Yardley, which frames the current debate about what should be done as a struggle within the ruling Indian National Congress Party between Sonia Gandhi and her “left-leaning social allies” on one side, and “many economists and market advocates” on the other.

Sonia Gandhi wants to include a “right to food” in the Indian constitution, while expanding the reach of the existing distribution system to cover everyone, and increasing the level of benefits it provides. (For the moment, the Indian constitution directs the State to consider “raising the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people” as “among its primary duties” but does not spell out a specific “right to food.”)

The economists and market advocates, on the other hand, are fed up and want to experiment with vouchers, food stamps, or cash instead of the notoriously leaky bags of grain.

We’ve hosted many heated discussions on this blog about the “rights-based approach” to development (see the end of the post for a list). I wonder if we can avoid rehashing these same debates and instead ask WHY it appears to be so much more popular for politicians to promise a “right to food” than to devise a system that might actually deliver that food to the starving and the malnourished.

It’s true, we don’t know for sure that vouchers or food stamps would reduce the corruption in the system and make sure that the benefits get to more people who need them. So why not run some pilots and test several methods?

But it’s pretty certain what the people of India will get if their politicians vote to expand a broken system: More of a broken system, more injustice, and less food reaching the poor.


Aid Watch posts on the rights-based approach to development: Poverty is not a human rights violation Amnesty International Responds to “Poverty is Not a Human Rights Violation” UN Human Rights and Wrongs Hillary illustrates perils of fuzzy human rights concepts Human rights are the wrong basis for healthcare Guest Post by April Harding on Health as a Human Right Seeing the Light on a Rights-Based Approach to Development Why are we not allowed to talk about individual rights in development?


Photo credit: chmoss