On the growing participation of multinational corporations in food security global governance

What mechanisms to push such powerful players to change for transformative impact?

By Pierre-Marie Aubert

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

We continue with our second post of  ur third the thematic cluster: “CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter?”  In this post, Pierre-Marie reflects on the rise of “multistakeholderism”in the CFS, and more broadly across food security and nutrition governance. He concludes with reflecting on ways to reinforce governance framework to ensure more appropriate participation in multistakeholder mechanisms for food security and nutrition.

This blog series is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

 

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If you participated to CFS 43, you must have noticed the strong participation of private sector representatives. Around 150 of them were there, representing companies from all over the world and from all segments of food chains: agro-chemical companies, seed companies, traders, food processors, retailers, investors…

The 2009 reform of the CFS supported the creation of two mechanisms to facilitate the participation of non-state actors in debates (but without voting power): the civil society mechanism, for civil society organization and social movements more broadly; and the private sector mechanism. While civil society organisations immediately seized the opportunity and massively participated in the CFS, the number of companies represented at the CFS has been slowly increasing year after year, from less that 30 in 2010 to a bit less than 150 in 2016.

What’s going on in the CFS / PSM can not be understood apart from broader evolutions that characterizes the global governance of food and nutrition security (but also more widely), which tend to rely more and more on a so-called “multistakeholderism”. Between 2008 and 2016, a good dozen multistakeholder initiatives have been developed in the field of food and nutrition security and agricultural development: the Global alliance for improved nutrition, the Alliance for a green revolution in Africa, the Global alliance for climate smart agriculture, the New alliance for food and nutrition security, the Amsterdam declaration against malnutrition, to cite a few.

All of them involve companies from different segments of food chains, along with States, international organisations, research organisations and non governmental organisations. More than 60 companies are involved in at least two of those initiatives, most of them being large and often transnational corporations. Hence, and although the term “private sector” encompasses a broad range of actors ranging from multinational companies to small and medium enterprises or even certain farmers (who for example feel more comfortable to participate in the CFS through the private sector mechanism than through the civil society mechanism), one can not ignore the fact that multinational corporations from upstream and downstream parts of food chains play a prominent role in most global governance mechanisms for food security.

Just to give an example, out of the 12 multistakeholder platforms related to food security we looked at, major transnational companies such as Unilever, Cargill, Yara, Monsanto, Pepsi, were involved in half of them or even more. So the question is: what drives those companies to participate in such mechanisms? What can be expected from their contribution?

In terms of participation, three main factors can be identified. A first is common to all development issues and relates to the growing demand expressed by States and international organisations towards private companies. Sustainable development is indeed deemed to necessitate more investments that the public sector itself is no longer able to supply, hence the need to increase the support from the private sector.

A second factor relates to the need for most companies to raise their sustainability profile in the face of growing public / societal demand.

A third factor has often to do with the company’s business model and takes different forms depending on the type of initiatives we are talking about. In a political space like the CFS, one of the issue for companies is to make sure that what will come out from intergovernmental negotiations will be compatible — or even favourable — with their business operations. In project-oriented initiatives, like the Global Alliance for improved nutrition (GAIN) or the Amsterdam initiative against malnutrition, the question is more about identifying new markets / customers through different kind of projects.

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GAIN is an organization that mobilizes public-private partnerships to address malnutrition.

Given this context, what can we expect from this increased contribution of transnational corporations? A closer look at the projects developed under in those different initiatives allows to distinguish between four types of interventions: intensifying agriculture practices upstream by improving access to inputs (chemicals, fertilizers, improved seeds); generating more cash from agriculture by improving farmers’ access to (international) commodity markets; developing the demand and the availability of bio-fortified products downstream by working with marketers, food processors and retailers; and changing policy frameworks at all levels to favour the adoption of the three above mentioned types of actions.

All of those can be grouped under a similar heading, that of “agri-food chain modernisation”, which reflects to a great extent the agenda of most companies involved. One of the key reason behind that situation is that many companies are not willing to embark in initiatives that are not aligned with their own objectives, as reflected — for example — in their CSR policy. Since, on the other hand, the bearers of food security initiatives are keen on having “big players” on board, they tend to align the initiatives’ objectives and projects to what companies have already planned to do.

However, the project of “agri-food chain modernisation” has often been criticized by peasant organisations, social movements but also researchers for its many negative impacts on the ground. Yet, those groups are often under-represented in the different initiatives we talked about — apart from the CFS. This results either from their own lack of willingness to take part in those initiatives — often in the name of lack of accountability mechanisms (see here and there), or from the fact that they were not necessarily invited, or from a lack of resources (human, financial) needed to contribute to such initiatives.

Hence, while big corporations are indeed in a position to contribute to food security thanks to their great investment capacity, but also their position in most food chains, this is not likely to happen without certain changes. One concerns the kind of projects they want to invest in and the agricultural models they want to support. Such evolutions or innovations will however not be favoured by most multi-stakeholder platforms if they stay as they are. An other important change would thus be to reinforce their governance framework, in at least two different ways.

One is to recognize the fundamental differential of power that characterizes the different participants to such initiative. When the net profit of a company is worth the double of a country’s GDP, not to speak about the annual budget of a small farmer organisation, those power asymmetries can not be ignored and must be considered in the way in which discussions are organised and decisions taken.

Second is to endow such platforms with a stronger accountability framework, which involves the following key elements: the definition of a referential framework, which is to enable the assessment, ex-ante, in itinere and ex-post, of the potential and actual impacts of a measure or a project; and the creation of a reporting mechanism thanks to which those impacts can be attributable to actors who can, in turn, be held accountable.

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Pierre-Marie Aubert is a research fellow in Food and Agricultural Policies at the Institute for sustainable development and international relations (Paris). Visit http://www.iddri.org/Iddri/Equipe/Aubert for more information!

Governing food systems in a multi-stakeholder era, an example from Brazil

Is the Brazilian CONSEA a “multi-stakeholder process” or a platform for participatory politics?

By Matheus Zanella

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

We quick off the first post of the year by continuing with our third the thematic cluster: “CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter?”  In this post, Matheus brings us a national-level example, the Brazilian National Council on Food and Nutrition Security, aka CONSEA,  and argues that more conceptual precision is needed when comparing and assessing the transformative potential of multi-stakeholder platforms.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

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If you have been following the CFS and food security governance at the global level there is a good chance that you have heard about CONSEA. And if you have visited Brazil, I am almost sure that someone dropped this acronym in conversation, at least once.

In the past few years, CONSEA – the Brazilian National Council on Food and Nutrition Security in Portuguese – has become the showcase example of a successful “multi-stakeholder model” that promotes food security and nutrition. It has been featured in a number of international reports as an inspirational experience to other initiatives governing food policies. Members of CONSEA have been participating in CFS activities since at least the CFS 2009 Reform. At CFS43 last October, for example, the omnipresent David Nabarro delivered a video message in one side-event where he stressed the importance of CONSEA in influencing the CFS Reform process itself towards a “multi-stakeholder model”. The governance structure of the Council was also presented as a positive case to the plenary of CFS40 in 2013 and in a number of side-events.

CONSEA works; well, it has been working until now at least, considering that many of its members are highly suspicious of the new government administration intentions towards the Council – but that would have to be subject of a different blog entry.  The fact is that report after report confirms the importance of the Council in forging innovative, participatory and accountable food security policies that managed to take Brazil out of the FAO food hunger map already back in 2014.

So if CONSEA works, where is the problem?

The importance of CONSEA is unquestionable. Nevertheless, I fear that there is a conceptual misunderstanding when labelling this Council as an example of a multi-stakeholder model. For those that are more interested in the kind of policies that work for addressing food and nutritional insecurity, this might not be very relevant. But it is for those willing to understand the political economy that drives the adoption of a policy A instead of a policy B – that is, people concerned with the governance of food security.

First, CONSEA has little to do with the multi-stakeholderism that has been propagating in global governance circles (including the Agenda 2030 discussions). While the growth of multi-stakeholder platforms is associated with the changing nature of States and other non-state actors in the international system, the constitution of CONSEA reflects political changes within Brazil itself – re-democratization in the 90s and the left-oriented government of the 2000s. There are obvious interactions between the national and the international dimensions, but they do represent very different political disputes and power shifts.

Second, the composition of the Council is substantially different than other bodies that normally carry the multi-stakeholder label with pride – for instance the CFS. In terms of number of participants, CFS is still frankly dominated by Member-States, in despite of the 2009 reform that substantially opened space for non-State actors, including civil society and private sector. CONSEA has a much stronger presence of social movements, NGOs and small farmer associations, on the other side. In its 2013-2016 composition, out of the 40 seats, these groups had more than 30 seats, with just one seat assigned to the national large farmer association and another one for the agro-industry.

That implies that more critical and progressive thinking manages to flow more easily within the Council, shifting the challenge to the design and implementation of public policies that would be needed to make those transformative ideas reality. Indeed, the differences between the CONSEA model and the standard multi-stakeholder model are so evident that – still lacking a better terminology – I propose to consider CONSEA a platform for participatory politics or – if you prefer – participatory democracy.

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More conceptual precision needed to assess the transformative potential of multi-stakeholder platforms

If you are not from Brazil, why is this relevant? Because conceptual precision is needed to compare and assess the real transformative potential of multi-stakeholder platforms, such as the CFS. Analytical tools can assist us in un-folding the actor composition, in classifying their discourses, in identifying the power relations and asymmetries between actors, among other elements that shed light on the political economy of these platforms. Very recently, colleagues and I tried to do this exercise using the theory of deliberative democracy, in a manuscript that is still under review by a scientific journal. This is just one example of bringing political theory to empirical analysis of multi-stakeholder platforms.

Like it or not, we live in the multi-stakeholder era of global governance. Only understanding these platforms better will allow us to answer if these are bringing us closer to normative ideals that are usually associated with them, from justice, to inclusivity, to democracy.

 

Matheus Zanella is Research Associate at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Germany, visiting researcher at the UNDP World Centre for Sustainable Development (RIO+ Centre) in Brazil. and PhD candidate at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern. He has worked at the FAO, the Brazilian Ministry of Rural Development and farmers’ organizations in his home country, always dealing with topics related to agricultural and environmental policies and their interaction with food security and sustainable management of natural resources. He is also a co-convener of this special blog series.

Credits for photos:

1_ CONSEA

2_ Ubirajara Machado/MDS

Are equity and accountability a likely outcome when foxes and chickens share the same coop? 

Critiquing the concept of multistakeholder governance of food security[1]

By Nora McKeon

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here. This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

Last week Carolin Anthes reflected on the role of human rights in the CFS and across the UN system.  This week we launch the third thematic cluster of this series: CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter? In this post, Nora McKeon presents a  critique of the rise of multistakeholder processes in food security governance, warning that a failure to take power imbalances and interests into account is working to reinforce the corporate food regime. 

There is a popular aspiration today for governance arrangements that give voice to those most affected and hold governments to account. Such approaches require clear parameters to ensure effective participation by the marginalized and avoid corporate capture. There is an abyss between this kind of practice – often termed “multi-actor” in civil society circles – and what has come to be known as “multistakeholderism”, which ignores differences in interests, roles and responsibilities among the parties and negates power imbalances. The former can make an important contribution to defending the right to food. The latter is becoming a big part of the problem.

To make the distinction clear it is necessary to disentangle the knots of confusion the concept has accumulated over the past two decades. Multistakeholderism moved out of corporate boardrooms and into the space of global governance in the mid-1990s accompanied by the modality of public-private partnerships (PPPs). Today it has become an integral part of the implementation strategy for the SDGs. This evolution has been sustained by an astonishing ascension of the undemonstrated paradigm of the corporate private sector as a motor of development and food/nutrition security.

The political economy bedrock of this narrative is the advent of what has been termed a corporate food regime  (McMichael 2013) to which the public sector has sold out responsibility for ensuring food security worldwide. In discursive terms, the paradigm reposes on the abiding tropes of modernization and productivity. It profits also from the vagueness of the term ‘private sector’, which is opportunistically taken to cover anything from a family farm to a multinational corporation despite the great differences of size, operational logics and interests that apply across this range.

The rapid concentration of  transnational agrifood corporations along global food chains has benefited from the support of neoliberal  policies. The corporate private sector has a powerful motivation to gain access to global governance arena in which such policies are determined. ‘Business and industry’ was included as one of the nine Major Groups in the 1992 Rio Conference outcome document. This step was strongly contested by participants at the civil society consultations organized in parallel to the World Food Conferences in 1996 and 2002, who decisively refused to be placed in the same box as the private sector.

This logic prevailed during the reform of the Committee on World Food Security in 2009, the only institutional development in the UN system characterized by the direct engagement of social constituencies representing those most directly affected by the policies under discussion. Strongly contested points successfully advocated by social movements included the fact that the CFS deliberates from a human rights perspective; its recognition as the foremost inclusive policy forum promoting policy coherence; civil society’s right to autonomously organize its participation – independently from that of the private sector –and attribution of priority voice  to constituencies of those most affected by food insecurity; and government accountability as the ultimate decision makers.

Corporations ignored the CFS reform process, but in the same year the World Economic Forum convened an expert group to formulate a new system of global governance. The final report of this ‘Global Redesign Initiative’(GRI) calls for a move to redefine the international system as constituting a wider, multifaceted system of global cooperation in which intergovernmental legal frameworks and institutions are embedded as a core, ‘but not the sole and sometimes not the most crucial, component’ (WEF 2010, p. 7). Instead, coalitions of the ‘willing and able’ – TNCs, some countries, civil society bodies, parts of the UN – would take the lead in addressing unresolved global issues. The implications for global governance in this model are severe: TNCs heavily influence framing of global issues; the selection of participants is undertaken without public review; decision-making is conducted without concern for power imbalances or different  interests (Gleckman 2013).

The blueprint developed by the GRI is being replicated across a fast multiplying series of issue areas within and outside the UN system in ‘multistakeholder’ coalitions like  Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) or the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture. The differences between this model and that of the CFS are notable.

The fact that the corporate sector and its allies are investing considerable attention in the CFS is a demonstration of the authority the Committee has progressively achieved. It is only to be expected that these actors are seeking to weaken the political significance and the human rights basis of the CFS.  But the Civil Society Mechanism is not without arrows in its bow.

The 43rd plenary session of the CFS witnessed a striking growth in political maturity and level of analysis on the part of civil society participants. The CFS remains one of the few global arena in which articulate testimony given by small-scale producers themselves provides a powerful antidote to the recipes that others invent for them, as demonstrated in the recent negotiations on ‘Connecting Smallholders to Markets’.

The relations between the interests of the corporate sector and the neo-liberal frameworks that support them are systemic, but also dialectic. The rules of the game seem “just the way things are” until the equilibrium on which they are based starts to wobble. The corporate food regime has promised cheap food coordinated by transnational corporate supply chains, legitimized with a food security – productivity – modernization narrative. Today food crises and health issues are putting into question its ability to feed the world and its high environmental costs are becoming increasing evident. The entry of new governmental players has upset the previous balance, while mobilization by social movements is increasing the pressure for change.  An interesting juncture in which to examine the promises and perils of multistakeholderism, and what better site than the Committee on World Food Security?

 

 

noraNora McKeon studied history at Harvard and political science at the Sorbonne before joining the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations where she worked for many years, opening FAO up to organizations of small-scale producers and civil society. She now engages in research, teaching, and advocacy around food systems, food governance, small-scale farmer movements, and UN-civil society relations. She closely follows evolutions in global food governance including the reformed Committee on World Food Security.  She teaches at Rome 3 University and the International University College of Turin. Publications include:  Peasant Organizations in Theory and Practice (with Michael Watts and Wendy Wolford, UNRISD 2004), Strengthening Dialogue with People’s Movements: UN experience with small farmer platforms and Indigenous Peoples (with Carol Kalafatic, UN NGLS 2009), The United Nations and Civil Society: Legitimating Global Governance-Whose Voice? (Zed 2009), Global Governance for World Food Security: A Scorecard Four Years After the Eruption of the “Food Crisis” (Heinrich-Böll Foundation, 2011), and Food Security Governance: empowering communities, regulating corporations (Routledge 2015).  She has co-edited a special issue of Globalizations on land-grabbing and global governance (Vol. 10, Issue 1, 2013), contributing an article on land grabbing, transnational rural social movements and global governance.

Works cited

Gleckman, Harris (2013). “Multi-stakeholder Governance seeks to Dislodge Multilateralism”. Policy Innovations. http://www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/commentary/data/000269

McMichael, Philip (2013). Food Regimes and Agrarian Questions. Halifx & Winnepeg: Fernwood Publishing.

World Economic Forum (2010). Everybody’s Business. Strengthening International Cooperation in a More Interdependent World. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GRI_EverybodysBusiness_Report_2010.pdf

[1] This piece draws on an article to be published in 2017 in a special issue of Globalizations on the SDGs.

Going for the Goal: The Rise of the SDGs as a Policy Frame at the CFS

By Nadia Lambek and Jessica Duncan

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here. This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

This week we continue with the cluster CFS, a rights-oriented body? In this post Nadia Lambek and Jessica Duncan reflect on potential implications for the CFS policy interventions revolve around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and related goals, and not explicitly around rights.

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This year we noted with interest that many interventions at the CFS (from governments, but also the private sector) were made with reference to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in particular SDG 2. While it is hard for us to assess the relevance of this for CFS policy outcomes as these were negotiated before the main meeting, it is clear that links to the SDGs are being used to legitimise interventions within the CFS and to ground (at least publically) policy recommendations.

What is noteworthy about this development is that SDGs are being referenced to not only ground interventions and policy recommendations, but also to highlight the importance of combating hunger. In many respects, this points to a degree of coherence and commitment within this international space. However, it also raises questions about what it means when interventions are linked to goals and not rights.  

We are interested in understanding the potential ramifications of this trend and how might it impact CFS policy making. It is not clear yet – but we offer some initial reflections here.  We begin by comparing and contrasting the SDGs and the right to food as framing and policy tools.  We then examine two implications of the trend that give us cause for concern.

Rights vs Goals

While the SDGs and the right to food both seek to end hunger, they have different purposes. To understand these, it is important to first distinguish between rights and goals.

A goal is a desired aim or ambition. The SDGs are said to represent a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity”. The SDGs are interconnected and provide guidelines and targets for all countries to adopt.  SDG 2 aims to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030. The SDGs are to be implemented through the “Global Partnership for Sustainable Development”, bringing together Governments, the private sector, civil society, the United Nations system and other actors and mobilizing all available resources (see paragraph 39).

Human rights are inalienable rights that we have by virtue of being equal and having dignity.  The right to food is “is realized when every man, woman and child,alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” Adequate food is not about a “minimum package of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients”, rather it is determined with reference to the “prevailing social, economic, cultural, climatic [and] ecological” of the concerned population. The right to food is recognized throughout international law, most notably in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (Article 11). It places a series of obligations on states to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food.  

A rights-based approach represents a longer-term and structural approach to addressing food insecurity and malnutrition that encourages states to pass legislation and national policies, to ensure recourse mechanisms are available to hold the state accountable, and to progressively realize the right to food (which ensures a continual and growing commitment to addressing the realization of the right to food).

We note that the preamble of the SDGs does contain rights-based language, however this language is not translated into the goals themselves, where human rights, at least for SDG 2, are not mentioned. Continue reading “Going for the Goal: The Rise of the SDGs as a Policy Frame at the CFS”

Agroecology for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems

This week I am in Budapest attending the Regional Symposium on Agroecology for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems in Europe and Central Asia. There are over 170 participants registered representing 41 countries. The meeting will be web-streamed with simultaneous interpretation into English, Spanish, French and Russian.

I am presenting on Friday afternoon in Module 6: Transformative policies and processes where I am mean to give an introductory speech on “Reflexive governance for environmentally sustainable food security policies”.

Read more about the symposium here (you can also find the link to the webcast).

Click here to review the Participant Handbook.

Squaring the Universality of Human Rights and Hunger with Delegate Representation at the CFS

By Nadia Lambek

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

This week we inaugurate the thematic cluster CFS, a rights-oriented body? Nadia Lambek’s provocative entry discusses universality – a key principle of international human-rights body and other global processes, such as 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The North-South divide found at CFS representation carriers important implications for the effectiveness and legitimacy of the Committee, she argues.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

At the opening session of the 43rd CFS, in a room crowded with representatives of ministries of agriculture, food and livestock, the United States representative to the CFS made her introduction.  The head of the US delegate was not from the US Department of Agriculture or from the Food and Drug Administration. She was the Director of the Peace Corps – a volunteer program run by the United States government, which sends volunteers (mostly recent university graduates) to the Global South to live and work in communities.

 

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Hunger is not a new problem in the USA

By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This made a stark impression on me. Why was the head of the US delegation from the Peace Corps?  In fact, not one of the US’s 23 person official delegation to the CFS had a mandate concerning domestic issues within the US. Certainly the US is no stranger to food insecurity within its own borders. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 12.7 percent of American households were food insecure at some point during 2015. Yet it didn’t bring any delegate knowledgeable about domestic food insecurity or with any mandate to address it.

The US is not alone in this respect.  Looking at the official delegate list of people attending the CFS, one thing is clear: countries in the Global South send representatives from their ministries of agriculture, fisheries, livestock or food, while countries from the Global North tend to send representatives from foreign affairs or international development agencies.

This divide tells us a lot about how countries view food security, the role of the CFS and their human rights obligation – but it also has a lot of implications for the CFS and its effectiveness, particularly as a body with a human rights mandate.  I highlight some of these concerns below: Continue reading “Squaring the Universality of Human Rights and Hunger with Delegate Representation at the CFS”

Nitty-gritty details that matter: Evolving decision-making process at the CFS

By Jessica Duncan and Matheus Zanella

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) – The Future of the CFS?: Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

This week we continue with the thematic cluster The CFS: What for? We reflect on the process of policy negotiations at the CFS and consider tradeoffs between having negotiations completed in advance of the Annual Sessions or giving space to the final negotiations during the Annual Sessions.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

Last week, Josh’s contribution focused on how broader aspects of discourse and framings influence CFS debate. This week, we will discuss more specific aspects related to the negotiation process. Certain details can actually mean a lot for a key function of the CFS: to develop and endorse policy recommendations and guidelines on a range of food security and nutrition topics.

Since its reform, CFS’ Annual Sessions have included negotiations on the final policy text to be endorsed in Plenary by the Committee – that is, during that key week in October where all members and participants meet. This year, all the negotiations were completed before the Annual Session.

What are the implications of this change?

In what follows, we discuss some reflections on opportunities and risks.

Before that, let’s briefly review how the CFS has functioned as a policy body. If you already know the standard CFS negotiation process, you can jump directly to Potential Limitations below.

One of the primary roles of the CFS is to

“[p]romote greater policy convergence and coordination, including through the development of international strategies and voluntary guidelines …” (CFS 2009:para 5.2).

After the reform, policy roundtables were established to support these aims. It generally works as follows, as also illustrated in the graphic below:

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The CFS identifies a theme (step 1) and tasks the CFS’s independent High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) to produce a related report with recommendations (step 2). In preparation for the roundtables, the CFS also forms Task Teams (step 3). These Task Teams draft discussion papers and compile “decision boxes” informed by the report of the HLPE (step 4). Decision boxes (sets of actionable policy recommendations) preface the discussion papers and form the starting point of the policy negotiations, although this year “Proposed draft recommendations on sustainable agricultural development for food security and nutrition, including the role of livestock” were issued as a separate document. Open-Ended Working Groups (OEWG) are formed where interested parties start negotiating the recommendations in the inter-sessional periods to prepare for the larger negotiations (step 5).

Each roundtable begins with a panel of experts, including experts identified by civil society and private sector actors (step 6). These experts provide context from multiple scientific perspectives to help frame the negotiations. Still, the negotiations are facilitated by a Chair (a country delegate) and chronicled by a Rapporteur (these are usually volunteers from country delegations or experts in the area), and a scribe. The Rapporteur is responsible for identifying key outcomes, points of agreement and advancing recommendations. As noted above, the negotiations start from the text included in the decision boxes, or the draft recommendation.

Member states and participants identify themselves to the Chair and then the Chair calls on them to make interventions in the order they are seen (step 7). It is not uncommon to hear the Chair say “Civil Society Mechanism please, to be followed by Canada, and then the World Bank” illustrating not only a fundamental change in the way the CFS operates, but also in the ordering of intergovernmental negotiations.

The text being negotiated is projected onto a large screen. Scribe make use of Microsoft Word track changes to note the contributions and changes.

The Chair works with the members and participants to come to consensus. With consensus on the text, a roundtable is concluded and the negotiated decisions submitted to the Plenary for approval (step 8).

The important change is that this year, there were no side negotiations during the Annual Session. The negotiations took place in the Open-Ended Working Groups and were completed in advance so that the CFS plenary only needed to approve them.

So let us turn now to the tradeoffs we see with this change in CFS procedure. Let’s consider three potential limitations, then turn to opportunities (although these are, as you will read, not clear cut categories).

Potential Limitations

  • Restrictions on number of people participating in policy-making: The clearest impact is that having negotiations during the year restricts the number of people that can participate, for time, and for financial reasons.  While this could challenge the inclusive vision of the CFS, it could also mean more committed participation (see more on potential opportunities).
  • Limited visibility: During policy roundtable negotiations, all participants can watch, understand and react to the negotiations. Moving to a format focused on inter-sessional negotiations might limit the visibility of these political dynamics. Part of the excitement around, and hope for, the reformed CFS until now has been linked to the political debates between member states (who even if not actively negotiating, were at least present) and participants.
  • Reduced engagement: Associated with a reduced number of participants, engagement might also be reduced. This is particularly important because engagement is key to the uptake of CFS outputs. By having a wider group of actors involved in the negotiations, you get more organizations aware and invested in the outcome. The debates and discussion are also central for members and participants to gain insight into the politics and concerns embedded within the policies. This insight and enhanced awareness, we argue, is key to ensuring that these policies move beyond the CFS.

Considering the above, we wonder what value the participants now see in taking part in the CFS annual sessions if political negotiations are left to inter-sessional activities. We see the possibility of participants shifting their attention from the political negotiations to side-events and networking activities. Many participants that we spoke this year refer to the CFS not only a negotiation platform, but also as a true meeting point for those working on food security and nutrition.

Besides simply changing the negotiation dynamics, shifts in decision-making processes have implications for how member-states representatives understand interactions with non-state actors, as each year, new people come to the CFS. These people may not be aware of the CFS processes. The opportunity to engage in the policy roundtables presents in some ways a “crash course” in the inclusive and deliberative methods employed by the CFS to arrive at decisions.

This can be a very frustrating process (especially, for who are not used to being challenged by non-state actors), but we have also seen that many of those who experience this approach come to see the value of it. We have interviewed and witnessed several higher-level diplomats express deep frustration at their first CFS event, only to become proponents of the CFS and its participatory approach in a later stage once they saw the benefits of greater interaction.

Potential Opportunities

  • More efficient and reliable plenary: Since the reform, it has been common that policy negotiations go on late into the night. This is certainly exhausting for the participants, leaving some unable to engage in the CFS plenary the following day (a key issue for countries with small delegations). Additionally, it is also exhausting for the budget of the CFS, as when a session is extended, interpreters and staff must be paid and the buildings need to be kept open. Completing negotiations in advance of the annual session might result in a more reliable schedule and reduced costs for the Annual Plenary.
  • Increased commitment: It is expected that those participating in Open-Ended Working Groups are invested in the process and not last-minute arrivers that can express dissent on recommendations that were already crafted through careful negotiation and consensus. Yet this calls for reflections on representation within Open-Ended Working Groups, for example,  shifting the balance of power since some organizations cannot afford participating in all meetings.

From interviews and discussions we had at the CFS, we noted that some participants appreciated the time that was freed up by not having to be preparing for negotiations during the Annual Session. They noted that this provided more opportunities to network, strategize and organize.

In Conclusion

We have here focused on questions related to process, with little regard for content. Much more time and care is required to be able to make claims as to the implications of this approach for policy outcomes. You can however judge the results of the negotiations yourself by reading the final report of the 43rd Session, available here.

The Civil Society Mechanism also has an archive of the policy negotiation processes:

  1.   Sustainable Agricultural Development, including Livestock
  2.   Connecting smallholders to markets with an analytic guide is available here

We would be most interested to hear your thoughts: What are the opportunities, benefits and risks associated with having the policy recommendations negotiated entirely in the inter-sessional period?