Nutrition policy-making in Fiji

Childhood nutrition policies can influence lifetime risk of non-communicable diseases. Dr Tarryn Phillips discusses the challenges of nutrition policy-making and reform in Fiji, and the impact of neoliberalism.

Story by Drishtee Lokee.

Nutrition is poor in Fiji, stemming from global economic inequalities and local reliance on cheap imported food. This has led to the export of most locally grown produce and increasing local prices. Families earning above the poverty line spend 18 percent of their income on food while those below the poverty line spend 29 percent.

Dr Tarryn Phillips, a senior lecturer in Crime, Justice and Legal Studies at La Trobe University and a team of researchers examined the struggles faced by public health professionals and policy makers who advocate pro-health policies in Fiji.  They found that a major barrier to reform in nutrition-policy in Fiji is the impact of neoliberalisation.

“Neoliberalisation is a process in which there is a priority placed on economic growth, a laissez-faire attitude to markets, the privatisation of public services so that they are run more like businesses, and the idea that the individual should take responsibility for their own welfare,” she says.

According to Dr Phillips, advocates for neoliberalism believe that if nation-states let the capitalist freemarket fend for itself, increased wealth from the elite will ‘trickle down’ to the masses. In Fiji, this has only led to an increased wealth gap, with poorer communities having less access to healthy diets and suffering from higher rates of nutrition-related diseases.

“The theory of neoliberalism has a very specific idea of equality – the idea that all people are equally able to make healthy decisions and live healthily. This neglects the ongoing impacts of colonisation and dispossession that has led to entrenched inequalities,” she says.

“It also neglects how corporations exploit less regulated markets in developing countries like Fiji, to sell and advertise unhealthy products like tobacco and alcohol.”

Dr Phillips collaborated with public health scholars at Fiji National University, The Centre for the Prevention of Non-Communicable Diseases in Suva, La Trobe University, the University of Melbourne, and Sydney University, to examine the struggles faced by public health professionals and policy makers who are trying to implement pro-health policies.

“Our research shows that Fijian policy makers face pressures from the top down, such as a government that tends to prioritise economic growth over other considerations, and very powerful industry players in Big Food and Big Beverage companies.” says Dr Phillips. “They also face pressures from the bottom up, such as communities who want consumer choice and do not want to be restricted in what they can buy.”

“The policy makers respond by trying to work around neoliberal forces – forging alliances with community groups and strategically using ‘rights’ discourses."

The study showed how policy makers who want to make a difference in public health feel that the government sometimes prioritised economic growth over public health concerns.

“We recommended more dialogue between health and economic sectors, more open decision-making, and less weight given to corporate voices,” says Dr Deborah Gleeson, Associate Professor in Public Health at La Trobe University and a collaborator on the research. “This will help to bring a balance between Fiji’s economic growth and their public welfare.”

Dr Phillips also raises the implications and responsibilities a global community has in this situation.

“We should also be placing more scrutiny on the undue influence held by large multinational organisations, and larger governments in the region, who pressure smaller governments like Fiji's to make policies that suit their trade interests,” Dr Phillips says.