The UN’s most inclusive body at a crossroads

By Matheus Alves Zanella and Jessica Duncan

Posted also at 

The world food price crisis of 2007/08 shook global food governance. Pressured to find solutions for unexpected prices increase of several food products, many initiatives were launched at the global level.  One of those was the reform of the United Nation’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS), who transformed itself from “the most boring UN body of all” – in the words of an experienced diplomat based in Rome – to the foremost inclusive international and intergovernmental platform for food security, with substantive participation of different actors including member states, civil society and private sector.

That was 2009 and there was a general sense of urgency in addressing claims that over 1 billion people were going hungry worldwide. The reformed CFS was well positioned in this debate, by giving voice to all actors, notably those most affected by food insecurity, and transitioning from an inactive talk-shop to a leading intergovernmental body. Through the Committee, member States were able to endorse key policy documents on two major food security issues: land tenure (the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Tenure of Land Fisheries and Forest in the Context of National Food Security – VGGT) and investments (Principles for Responsible Investments in Agriculture and Food Systems – CFS-RAI).

Now, five years after the reform, the CFS just had its 42nd Plenary last week and we, as well as many other participants, sensed a change in the air. First, the initial ambition of the CFS seems to be fading away, and it appears as though the CFS is now entering a phase characterized by a lack of clarity on the future relevance of its decisions. Second, members continue to disagree about which direction the CFS should take – illustrated by relatively weak decision on Monitoring and Evaluation and the mild debates on the positioning of the CFS vis-à-vis the new development agenda launched by the approval of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The decision will not see the CFS featuring prominently in the SDG agenda for another two years, as some have expected. Third, the multi-stakeholder format of the reformed CFS is being put into question, as demonstrated by one very important intervention of the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) in the closing session of the CFS plenary.

It is up to debate whether the CFS is losing influence or importance, or whether it had much to begin with. Considering that undermining one of the most inclusive UN bodies would consequently further open the door to less-inclusive governance mechanism to occupy its space, we prefer to see a strong and active CFS for years to come. In order to remain relevant, the CFS could avoid two major risks:

  1. Shifting back to the Committee’s pre-reform role of only monitoring international commitments, and
  2. Failing to address controversial topics, such as agroecology or bioenergy, as its strength is based on forging consensus such as those achieved on land tenure and on investment.

In what follows we provide some initial reflections on how the CFS currently finds itself at a crossroads.

Continue reading “The UN’s most inclusive body at a crossroads”

Pecha Kucha: Governing the Doughnut

Today I gave a Pecha Kucha. A Pecha Kucha is a presentation of 6:20 with a series of 20 slides that change every 20 seconds. It is an unforgiving format that is admittedly probably engaging and potentially energizing for the audience but as a speaker it offers no space to engage with, or respond to, the audience and no room for error in your speech as the slides keep rolling even if you are not quite ready for them to! I get the appeal and the value but for an academic presentation, this is a terrifying format. Indeed, I found it so challenging to frame an academic paper/idea this way that I instead opted to give what amounts to more of a political speech.

I struggled to develop my talk for today, more so than any talk I have given in recent (maybe even distant) memory. I was intimidated by the audience (mostly soil scientists) and riddled with doubt: “Will they understand what I mean by governance?”;  “Do I even understand what I mean by governance?”

To further prepare, while on the train to the conference, I tried to write out the key ideas of the talk, without the limitation of having to shape ideas into 20 second with accompanying images.

Point 1: We need a transformation in the food system and this required attention to governance The talk starts from the position that we need a transformation towards sustainable and just food systems. I then argue, taking from transition theory, that governance plays an important role in facilitating or blocking such transformations.

Point 2: The doughnut offers a framework to consider environmental and social factors I then present Haworth’s idea of a doughnut: the space that is made between the planetary or environmental boundaries (outside the doughnut) and the social values or foundation (inside, or the doughnut hole- always the best part: Tim Bits, anyone?). The doughnut is a framework that serves to identify the safe and just space for us to work within to respect people and the planet.

Point 3: We need to embrace the idea of multiple solutions pathways The doughnut is not prescriptive. It offers the possibility for multiple pathways, and this is key for a just sustainability transition. These pathways need to be developed with and by people and address peoples’ practices in the everyday world.

Point 4: We need governance arrangements that can empower/support this solution pathways However, the architecture of governance is not able to support such pathways in its current arrangement. Key reasons for this include: lack of coherence and coordination, policy silos, overlapping mandates, competing understandings and interpretations of the problems, strong economic interests and an unreflexive commitment to productionism. Furthermore, governance has entered the realm of the post-political meaning in part that the debate has become polarised, or conversely framed around creating consensus. Both results arguably lead to a situation where conflict and tensions that necessarily exist around the tough decisions we need to make to support sustainability transformations are masked and this is unhelpful to supporting transformation.

Point 5: As scientists, we contribute to the post-political nature of governance In science and academia, there is a culture of studying complex problems and working towards answers that have narrow ranges of uncertainty: we tend to work towards simplicity. The problem is that the results of the research are never simple and if they extend beyond the labs and our offices they are applied to situations that are highly complex and which produce numerous uncertainties. In suggesting there is a final or correct answer to a problem we ignore this complexity. More problematically, we create a body of science that serves to justify almost any policy decision as science based.

Point 6: We need to acknowledge that our work is political. Scientists want their work to have impact but many refuse to acknowledge the political implications of their work. By trying to address complex socio-ecological problems we are engaging in the realm of the political. We need to be aware of this. We do not need to change our science necessarily but rather think about the potential impacts of the science. It means that we need to get out of our own silos and discuss the implications of our work with other scientists and importantly, non-scientists, notably those likely to be most affected.

Point 7: We need to politicise governance Those of us working on governance need to recognise the post-political nature of governance and work towards creating governance arrangements that are capable of addressing complexity, conflict and uncertainty. Such governance arrangements need to be organised in such a way so as to support the multiple pathways through the doughnut.

Point 8: What characteristics should these governance arrangements have? Well this is the big question! I have just written a paper about this with an Australian colleague, Ro Hill. I will post our answer to this big question when the paper is published!

Off to Copenhagen to address another conference on how to feed the world in 2050. This time Prof. David Barling and I are looking at food supply governance and identifying governance trends and challenges for the future.

NEW BOOK: Food Security Governance: empowering communities, regulating corporations by Nora McKeon

A new and exciting book about food security governance is out and it is a MUST READ.  I have just received my copy and will follow up with a more detailed review but in the mean time, check out the summary and the reviews:

Today’s global food system generates hunger alongside of land grabs, food waste, health problems, massive greenhouse gas emissions. Nora McKeon’s just-released book explains why we find ourselves in this situation and explores what we can do to change it. It opens with a brief review of how the international community (mis)managed food issues from WWII up to the time of the food price crisis of 2007-2008. It moves on to contrast the ways in which actors link up in corporate global food chains as compared to the local food webs that we think of as “alternative” but in fact feed most of the world’s population. It unpacks relevant paradigms – from productivism to food security and food sovereignty – and points out the perils of “scientific evidence-based” decision-making when it intrudes on the terrain that properly belongs to political process and value-based debate. The author highlights the significance of adopting a rights-based approach to solving food problems whereby adequate food is not simply a desirable outcome but an inalienable right that governments are obliged to ensure for their citizens. She describes how people around the world are organizing to protect their access to resources and build better ways of food provision and governance from the bottom up, in what is increasingly referred to as a food sovereignty movement. She discusses how the Committee on World Food Security – a uniquely inclusive global policy forum since its reform in 2009 – could be supportive of these efforts. The book concludes with a call to blow the whistle on speculative capitalism by building effective public policy instruments for accountable governance and extending their authority to the realm of regulating markets and corporations.

To obtain a 20% discount visit the book’s page on the Routledge website and enter the code FDC20 at check-out.

‘Nora McKeon does a superb job at describing how governments have allowed markets and corporations to take control of food systems, and which tools could be used to provide healthier diets, ensure greater resilience, and empower communities.’– Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
‘At such an uncertain time in global food provisioning, Nora McKeon’s book offers an exceptional perspective… a lively account of food system crisis, competing paradigms and new questions of governance in an accessible and forward-looking analysis.’ —Philip McMichael, Cornell University, USA
‘This book is an overdue account of the fight over reform. It is a fine reminder that food democracy is the key to feeding everyone equitably, healthily, affordably and sustainably.’ – Tim Lang, City University, London, UK
‘..a wonderfully readable account of the world food crisis, distinguished by its grounded faith in the capacity of organizations – of people and governments – to prevent future hunger.’— Raj Patel, Research fellow at UCB and author of Stuffed and Starved, and The Value of Nothing
‘Nora McKeon understands the Byzantine world of global food politics better than anyone I know …. Everyone fighting for Food Sovereignty has to read this book.’ —Pat Mooney, ETC Group
‘Brilliant! An eye-opening tour of the march to democratize global food governance… A must-read for all who want to go beyond competing “issues” to governance itself — and real solutions.’ — Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet
‘A must-read for food activists seeking to go beyond slogans, techno-administrative fixes or business as usual into the realm of active, popular democracy.’ — Eric Holt-Giménez, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy

Global Food Security Governance: Civil society engagement in the reformed Committee on World Food Security

I am most excited that my book Global Food Security Governance: Civil society engagement in the reformed Committee on World Food Security is now available for pre-order!

It is part of the  Routledge Studies in Food, Society and the Environment

It is not exactly priced for accessibility so I encourage you to request your library to order it instead. That way you can access it for free!

You can do that at this using this link and click on “Recommend to Librarian”.

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Some reviews:

“In Global Food Security Governance, Jessica Duncan provides a timely and thoughtful analysis of the recent reform of the Committee on World Food Security and its evolving role in international policy-making on issues of hunger and nutrition. Both empirically rich and theoretically grounded, the book highlights the central role of civil society in reshaping food security governance and assesses the challenges facing the CFS as its work moves forward.”Jennifer Clapp, Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability, University of Waterloo, Canada.

“The Committee on World Food Security inaugurates a new breed of global governance: one in which civil society co-design institutions with governments. This is a superb assessment of this transformative moment.”Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food (2008-2014).

“The inadequacies of the world’s food system became only too clear when the banking crisis unfolded in 2007. Prices went volatile; hunger rose; politicians floundered. In this book, Jessica Duncan gives a wonderful account of the pressures in, on and around the UN’s Committee on Food Security, reformed as a result. The account she gives us both celebrates democratic attempts to make the food system more accountable, and points to tensions which remain. It’s a great read with sober messages.” – Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, City University London , UK.

“With global food security emerging as one of the issues of the twenty-first century it is essential that obstacles to improved food access be identified and addressed. In her timely and engaging account of the Committee on World Food Security, Jessica Duncan reveals how powerful global actors are undermining the Committee’s attempts to develop and pursue progressive policies aimed at assisting the world’s hungry. Importantly, she also demonstrates how civil society is confronting global neoliberalism and – through the Committee on World Food Security – is helping to create a new framework for improved food security governance. This illuminating and very well-documented book is a ‘must read’ for those who are hoping for, and working toward, a fairer, more food-secure world.”Geoffrey Lawrence, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, The University of Queensland, Australia and President of the International Rural Sociology Association.

European Summer University of Social Movements


The European Attac Network invites its partners, all the actors of the struggles and experiences we shared during the last 15 years, to join the European Summer University of Social Movements, initiated by the European Attac Network, in Paris, August 19-23 2014.
Please find the links for call for activities in 4 languages:

– in English :

– in Spanish :

– in German :

– in French :

Towards Implementation: Reflecting on 10 years of the Right to Food

Today an interim report by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, made to the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly has been released. You can download a PDF copy here: Assessing a decade of progress on the right to food

The report – Assessing a decade of progress on the right to food– provides insight into practical aspects of realizing the right to food. It notes that the right to food has “become an operational tool” that is “widely recognised as a key to the success of food security strategies” (para 3).

Focusing on progress made since the 1996 World Food summit, the report identified:

  • Best practices
  • Roles of key actors: governments, parliaments, courts, national human rights institutions, civil society organisations and social movements.

The report also notes that systems of national protection are being redefined in terms of rights, a welcome move away from the understanding social benefits as charitable hand-outs. It argues that the right to food has entered a new phase: implementation. This is key as it moves from theory and law to practice. Grievance redress mechanisms (e.g. courts, social audits) are playing a role in promoting this change.

The report argues that the:

increasing recognition of the importance of a legal and policy framework grounded in the right to food reflects a growing understanding that hunger is not simply a problem of supply and demand, but  primarily a problem of lack of access to productive resources such as land and water for small-scale food producers: limited economic opportunities for the poor, including through employment in the formal sector; a failure to guarantee living wages to all those who rely on waged employment to buy their food; and gaps in social protection (para 47).

Throughout the report, examples of national right to food framework laws and rights-based national strategies are used to highlight best practices and effective processes. The report makes use of these real-world examples to show how a right to food approach can improve accountability, and enable participation of vulnerable people in decision-making and in monitoring results. It also identifies the contributions that various actors can make to support this new phase of the right to food.

Operationalizing the RTF

What’s Useful about a Right to Food Approach?

A Right to Food approach is more about production and distribution than it is about production level alone (para 6). The right to food is linked to the right to access resources (e.g., water, land, forests, seeds), as well as the right to work. It seeks to ensure access to adequate diets. From a policy perspective, a Right to Food approach is more sophisticated and comprehensive than food security which continues to maintain productionist tunnel vision. More specifically, a right to food approach is understood to operate at three levels to contribute to the eradication of hunger and malnutrition (para 8):

1)    As a self-standing right recognised in international law and various domestic constitutions.

2)    Encourages a change in how social protection is understood. A Right to Food approach transformes the social welfare benefits that individuals received under government food security schemes into legal entitlements, moving away from “handouts” or “charity” models. Indeed, policies aimed at eradicating hunger and malnutrition that are grounded in a Right to Food approach must redefine as legal entitlements benefits that have previously been seen as voluntary handouts. This requires processes of identifying the beneficiaries and providing them with access to redress mechanisms is they are excluded.

3)    Requires states to adopt national strategies that progressively realise components of the right to food that cannot be achieved immediately. It thus accepts that the capacity of governments is often limited and the focus is not of immediate change, but sustainable incremental change and longer-term planning (more on this below).

The report notes that the progress achieved across these three levels is due to the interplay of different actors including courts, parliaments, governments, national human rights institutions, civil society and social movements.

Obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil

The report makes notes of an increase of reference to the right to food across national constitutions. A 2011 report by FAO found 24 States where the right to food was explicitly recognised. For example:

  • 1994, South Africa included the right to food in article 27 of the post-apartheid constitution
  • In 2010, the new Constitution of Kenya, approved by popular referendum, states the right of every person “to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality”

Since 2011, Mexico amended its constitution to include the right to food. In Uganda and Malawi, ensuring access to adequate food and nutrition is defined as a principle of State policy.

The report notes that these advances are not symbolic: “victims of violations are entitled to ‘adequate reparation, which may take the form of restitution, compensation, satisfactions or guarantees of non-repetition’” (para 10).

Key actors

The Right to Food required the engagement of a wide range of actors. Institutional actors include courts, governments, programmes (especially those involved in the provision of food), and grievance mechanisms. Citizens play a key role as monitors. The report notes that social audits have been useful for the poor and illiterate as they are more proximate and involve communities, and not individuals acting alone. Other options include vigilance committees, citizens’ report cards or expenditure tracking surveys to identify diversions of funds in the health and education sectors (ex: Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania) (para 29). The report explains how social audits have effectively empowered women in local communities but warms that to be effective, a number of conditions must be met:

  • Adequate information to beneficiaries on the entitlements they gave a right to claim
  • Wide publicity to ensure broad participation
  • Adequate information in inputs and expenditures, making it possible to track discrepancies with actual delivery of service
  • Technical competence of an intermediary group to facilitate the process
  • Choice of indicators and appropriate level of the community involved.

The report reviews some of the framework laws and national strategies that have contributed to the progressive realisation to the right to food. Latin America has led the movement towards the adoption of framework laws. However, national strategies are recommended by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC) as well as within the FAO Right to Food Guidelines. Such strategies fulfil three key functions (paras 42-46):

1)    Identify measures to be adopted, assigning responsibility and imposing deadlines

2)    Allows for a while-of-government approach

3)    Multi-year strategies make it possible to combine short-term approaches with long-term concerns.

The report also notes that a predictable framework is key to attracting investors and allowing the private sector to adapt to what the strategy entails .

A Right to Food Movement?

As a final thought, the report refers to this as a Right to Food Movement. I am reticent to enact the language of movements in this context, notably because it alludes to other UN-based initiatives, like the SUN (Scaling-Up Nutrition) initiative that framed itself as a movement. There is concern that these top-down “movements” can co-opt not only the language of social movements, but dampen the political weight associated with social movement struggle. I accept that there is something to be gained from framing the Right to Food as an emerging movement. Social movements are groups of people fighting for their rights, so of course, is fits. However, I see the Right to Food as an approach and a set of tools that can be used by social movements to ensure that their rights are realised.

To be clear, my concern is not meant to suggest that Right to Food initiatives are not often driven by communities. I acknowledge that the tools that support a Right to Food approach have been, and continue to be, effectively taken up by social movements. Furthermore, there are increasing and productive interconnections between people working on the right to food and food social movements, and the two are often blurred or inseparable. My own research has identified how this combination makes for a powerful negotiation position, insofar as through a shared commitment to values of consultation, participation and rights, the social movements can provide political legitimacy and grounded experience, and the Right to Food folks provide legal argumentation and tools for inclusive processes as well as monitoring and evaluation. In the CFS, which has at its core the objective of countries implementing the right to food, this Right to Food/Social movement partnership has worked well, especially between La Via Campesina and FIAN International.

Annual Civil Society Forum for Food Security

REGISTER NOW to the Annual Civil Society Forum, 5 – 6 October 2013! 
Join hundreds of civil society actors in preparation for the 40th Session of the Committee on World Food Security and register to the CSM Forum by September 20th! 
The Forum is a space where CSOs can finalise the positions which they have been developing through the CSM working groups during the intersessional process. It is open to all interested civil society participants working in the field of food security and nutrition, although emphasis is put on the broad and inclusive participation of social movement representatives, to ensure that they are able to effectively influence the messaging and eventually, the outcomes of the CFS. The CSM Forum also provides the space for Coordination Committee members to report back to the broader membership of the CSM.
What’s on the table for discussion? 
All policy issues to be discussed during the CFS plenary session!

Two policy roundtables: (1) Biofuels and Food Security and (2) Investing in Smallholder Agriculture and other relevant food security issues for the CFS, including an update on the process for developing principles for responsible agricultural investment (rai), addressing food security in protracted crises, global and regional linkages with the CFS and monitoring CFS decisions.  

Before participating, please read carefully these PRACTICAL GUIDELINES for civil society participation in the Civil Society Forum and 40th Session of the Committee on World Food Security.
More information on how to sign up HERE