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Philanthropy vs. Rights

by Oxfam | October 20, 2011


A World Food Day conference at the University of British Columbia featured a fabulous array of local food activists in dialogue with several hundred people — a sharp and questioning, mostly young, audience.

In a wonderful address on food security in the province, Marc Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives suggested that, given the changing climate, BC would be foolish to expect to continue importing half its food from California. And Graham Riches of UBC dissected the widespread phenomenon of food banks, a supposed solution to hunger which has become but a “moral safety valve” for the population at large, allowing us to evade the underlying structural problem that causes hunger in the first place.

One of my favourite moments was a workshop led by Margo Matwychuk of the University of Victoria, who challenged us to contrast “global philanthropy” with “food sovereignty” as ways to address food security. These buzzwords, as it turned out, referred to traditional good-hearted charity on the one hand, and a right-to-food approach on the other.

The different models require us to ask different questions, she said: the former has donors making decisions to benefit the poor, while the latter has poor people demanding their rights. Professor Matwychuk astutely suggested that following the rights-based approach might lead us to conclude that the problem isn’t poverty, but wealth.

It’s easy to ridicule the old-style charity model which fails to perceive people’s assets, focusing solely on material lack. Modern philanthropy seeks to unleash people’s skills and assets: with capacity building for transformative change a poor community can solve its own problems.

A rights-based approach goes even further. It recognizes that many of the problems that afflict poor communities are not of their own making, and the solutions require engaging with the wider world, especially with the state.

Communities can do much on their own, but they can’t ensure a quality education for every child, or effective medical services. Communities may be able to feed themselves, but not if the fertile land and water is held by an entrenched rural elite or the markets are controlled by a cartel.

It was precisely to face such challenges that people invented states. The task a rights-based approach poses is to make the state function effectively for all citizens.

A rights-based approach recognizes the state as the duty-bearer of rights under international law. It is the state’s obligation to progressively fulfill the right to food and all other rights. And it is citizens’ duty to insist that the state fulfill them. It implies an activism that the philanthropy model would never contemplate.

As the professor said, it leads one to ask different questions. Something that participants were doing all day long.


Mark Fried is Oxfam Canada’s policy coordinator.

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