One of the backdrop questions of my recent India trip was when should the private sector be engaged in the fight against nutrition and when shouldn’t it?
This is a highly explosive topic in development and in nutrition it is at its most combustible. The Britannia Nutrition Foundation is sponsored by Britannia Biscuits, one of the largest food manufacturing companies in India. The position of the Right to Food Campaign in India is not to talk to the private sector. Their position is that food security is a public good and citizens have a right to expect the state to deliver on this right. In the Conference the Foundation, obviously sensitive to criticism, did not push the role of the private sector at all. The issue was the elephant in the room. This non-dialogue is a real shame.
The central question is “are there any overlaps between commercial interests and sustainable and equitable improvements in nutrition?” No-one in India knows the answer to this question because the dialogue is not happening.
It seems to me that 4 things are being unhelpfully conflated.
First, the role of business in making its core activities more supportive of nutrition. This means going beyond CSR and making sure that advertising is responsible, that legal resources are directed in ways that do not only protect shareholders, that labeling is clear and gives consumers real choice, and that transparency is high on the agenda, so that civil society can hold businesses accountable.
Second, business as a substitute for the state. I am not too optimistic here about the role of business, after all nutrition is a public good. But there might be things that the private sector can do better than the state. It is hard to imagine the private sector bungling supply chain management as badly as the state seems to have done.
Third, business as a complementing to the state. For example, while fortification of salt and other widely used low cost foods is only a small part of an effective nutrition strategy, international experience has shown that the private sector is usually the best way of implementing it.
Fourth, working with businesses outside the traditional food areas to make the environment more enabling for nutrition. This may be the most important area, and is certainly the newest. For example, when renewing a contract of mobile telephone operation, the state could build in requirements to set up SMS services to set up a reminder service for childhood vaccinations. Cloud computing companies could be contracted to improve nutrition surveillance. Can the strong expertise of India’s hotel management industry be brought to bear on strengthening customer feedback mechanisms?
I don’t know the answers to these questions—and it seems to me that not many others do either--answers can only come through a dialogue that is sorely missing.