The ‘right to nutrition’ in its social, legal and political context


Among diverse approaches to addressing malnutrition, a ‘right to nutrition’ is suggested as a normative concept that might increase the impact of policy and action. This research starts to explore the views of international agencies and national governments, civil society, legal professions and affected communities, and their understanding of - or desire for - a right to nutrition approach to address the intractable issue of malnutrition its social determinants. The research provides initial empirical findings on the potential role of a right to nutrition in framing action under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other global goals, from the point of view of those involved in human rights and nutrition policy work.

Project description

The initial phase of the research was to complete an ongoing review at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) of literature on the right to nutrition, as well as of existing work on the right to health and right to food as closely-related concepts. This review contributed to the framing of the empirical study, and elaborated the initial concepts and ideas explored in the empirical research.

A second phase of the research reviewed legal and policy documents, assessed in light of the constitutional, legal and administrative environment for a right to nutrition in each case-country: the University of Sussex School of Law produced a doctrinal legal analysis of the right to nutrition in the applicable international law and the legal systems of the case-countries; and IDS produced a critical political analysis of the international and national policy framework for nutrition and its relation to rights.

In a third phase of the research, initial concepts found in the literature and desk reviews were explored and expanded through in-depth key informant interviews with government bureaucrats, constitutional lawyers, civil society actors and communities in the Zambian and Sierra Leonian contexts.

This scoping study culminated in an international workshop on rights-based approaches to nutrition in 2019, taking the findings of this study as a starting point for discussions on future research and action for nutrition, and creation of a future funding application to further this work.

Timeline and funding


January 2018-December 2019




This research applied socio-legal, critical development studies, and political science perspectives to explore the views of government, civil society, legal professions and citizens, and their understanding of – or desire for – a right to nutrition approach to address the intractable issue of malnutrition and its social determinants both internationally and in Zambia, a country with a high burden of malnutrition in multiple forms. Review of policy and legal documents combined with interviews at international, national, and local levels provides the data for this study. The basis for the analysis will be the gaps between the international and domestic social and legal notions of a right to nutrition, and their expression by the different interest groups interviewed.


Initial assessment of policy, strategy and legal documents at international, regional and national levels found that international legal documents contain the most comprehensive description of what a right to nutrition might mean, with nutrition policy and strategy documents at all levels alluding to rights as a rhetorical tool rather than a frame for practice. Initial assessment of interview transcripts at international and national levels finds people at both levels talking about the meaning of rights and rights-based approaches; the process of enshrining rights in different contexts and the accountability and enforcement mechanisms needed; awareness of and barriers to realising rights; and how the wider political, legal and institutional context impacts the ability of rights-based approaches to do their work. Further interviews with Zambian citizens were carried out, and the final analysis contrasts the ways that international experts, national policymakers and activists, and citizens frame human rights, and a right to nutrition in particular.


This research provides an initial empirical exploration of the potential role of a ‘right to nutrition’ in framing action under the SDGs, to inform sustainable implementation towards the goals. Sustainability was assessed in terms of the acceptability and accountability of rights-based approaches to the different constituencies involved in development policy, to address the issue of malnutrition in all its forms under SDG2. 

Related work

This project was presented at a workshop on 'Children’s Right to Health', at the University of Sussex in December 2017.

Download Jody Harris' presentation: "The 'Right to Nutrition' in its Social, Legal and Political Context" [PDF 159.22KB].

The team

  • Principle Investigator (PI) and Co-Investigators

    Principal Investigator


  • Project team

    In addition to the Institute of Development Studies and Sussex University School of Law, the team includes representatives from Save the Children UK and the Scaling Up Nutrition Civil Society Network (SUN CSN) secretariat (which is hosted by Save the Children UK). Save the Children and the SUN CSN work on rights-based approaches to reducing malnutrition and so are key stakeholders in the research, and their in-country partners will host the work in case-study countries.

Where we worked