ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Is the Private Sector Undermining Nutrition?

Manipulation by Association

Much of India's nutrition agenda is being driven by the private sector through public-private partnerships and so-called multi-stakeholder dialogues. The new strategies of transnational corporations fall under the category of manipulation by association, where they establish their role and legitimacy by associating themselves with key institutions and people. A prime example of this is the influential 2013 series on maternal and child nutrition published by the Lancet. This comment analyses the issue and proposes some solutions.

The neo-liberal thinking and policies of the 1980s nudged aside demands for a more stringent regulatory approach and accountability, paving the way for corporate social responsibility (CSR), self-regulation, and “voluntary” codes. Popular CSR practices, including public-private partnerships (PPPs) and “stakeholder dialogues”, were designed to offset calls for accountability (Utting and Clapp 2008). Of particular concern are the food and nutrition industry’s attempts to become a legitimate partner in policy development. To achieve this, corporations have used several strategies, both at the political and academic levels, which include silencing critics and civil society, co-opting policymakers, lobbying, distributing gifts, and being nominated to government panels or advisory boards and committees (Wiist 2010).

One such strategy is manipulation by association, a relatively new one. This allows controlling, weakening, or delaying the enactment or implementation of regulations proposed by the government. The slow progress on the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (the Code) is an example. So far only 37 countries have enacted legislation that fully adheres to it (WHO Executive Board 2013b). India took 11 years to enact the Infant Milk Substitutes Feeding Bottles, and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 1992 (IMS Act) and more than a decade to strengthen it.1 Attempts were made to repeal it in 2005, but a public campaign saved it (Rajalakshmi 2005). The IMS Act prohibits advertising and promoting foods to be consumed by children under the age of two. It also bans giving gifts, and sponsoring health workers or their associations.

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