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.



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.



Goals can be achieved as part of a human-rights approach. Indicators have certainly become a marker for assessing the realization of the right to food and have a role to play in measuring food insecurity, but what could it mean if the CFS grounds policy decisions around goals over rights? Or if the SDGs become the frame of action over rights? Recognising that rights are included in the Agenda 2030 (see for example paragraph 10) but notably absent from Goal 2, how could this impact the CFS and its effectiveness going forward?

1) Empowering new actors, but alleviating state duties?  

One possible implication of the shift from rights to goals, is that a different set of actors are emboldened and empowered under each approach. The SDGs call on a variety of actors, including the private sector, to participate in reaching targets. This is not necessarily a bad thing – but increased corporate consolidation in the supply chain and increased corporate capture of food governance fora are worrisome trends. They are worrying because corporate interests are not aligned necessarily with the public good – indeed corporations, unlike states, are not accountable to right-holders, they are accountable to their shareholders.

At the CFS this year we attended a Private Sector Mechanism side-event, curious about their take on innovation in addressing food insecurity.  The SDGs were a recurring theme across the presentations, with one company – a leading transnational corporation widely associated with credit cards –  asserting, in a tongue-and-cheek way, that they were the number one contributor to the SDGs because they were insuring women had access to credit cards containing identifying data  (contributing to the SDGs … priceless). While these cards may assist women in accessing credit, and can provide women with identification (processes which we are certainly supportive of), we remain concerned that this for-profit model could also have negative impacts including indebtedness. We would also raise concerns about linking of national identification cards to credit cards. Consider that in 2014 an agreement was signed between MasterCard and the Nigerian Government’s National Identity Management Commission. The Nigerian ID cards will be branded with the MasterCard logo, contain personal database data and double as payment cards.

In contrast, the rights-based approach makes states the primary duty bearers.  The right to food places a set of delineated obligations on the state to act in the public interest and to uphold individual rights.  Will states pass responsibility off onto non-state actors if the SDGs become the main frame of action?  Will this chip away at basic protection states should providing populations?  Will states be willing to compromise on social protection schemes or environmental protection when they frame their commitments to food security only through the lens of the SDGs and not the right to food?  Will states use the SDGs to deflect from their obligations under international human rights law to approach hunger from a broad systematic approach? All of this is very possible.

2) Governing by Indicators

The search for indicators has been a constant presence in the evolution in thinking about food security.  Multiple sets of indicators and related measurement tools are now used by a variety of actors.  The Inter Agency Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) have already “identified key indicators in the areas of food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture for a universal, transformative agenda that is ambitious but also realistic and adaptable to different country and regional contexts”.

While measurement is a key component of understanding and addressing food insecurity, there limitations associated with indicator-based measurement tools including:

  • Indicators have analytic limitations and the selection of indicators is never a neutral process.  
  • There are limitations to imposing indicators designed in one context (i.e. global) to another (i.e. local)
  • Indicators are often developed on the basis of what data exists and not on how to best measure progress towards normative goals
  • Emphasizing quantifying change can lead to mistaking means (quantitative measures for tracking social change) for ends (qualitative transformations)
  • There is a tendency to confuse political discourse with technical knowledge, enhancing the power of select experts over political actors and over the wider population

For a more comprehensive discussion see the paper referenced here.

The CFS vision is to strive for “a world free from hunger where countries implement the voluntary guidelines for the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security”. Having a global goal and relevant commitment to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture” is important and complementary to this vision. However, we argue that a rights-based approach must be prioritized, and that there is a need to ensure balance between process and outcome.

A rights-based approach places focus on systemic change that can result in qualitative changes to achieve desired outcomes, rather than focusing just on quantitative outcomes. It is the difference between developing sustainable and accessible systems of food provisioning and the delivery of food assistance. Both reduce hunger and can help meet the SDGs, only one is a sustainable option.

  • Susan Bragdon
    Posted at 18:17h, 29 November Reply

    Thanks for a great piece helping to shed light on the rights-based versus goal-oriented approach. Thank you for also raising concern about developing indicators. With both (one, the SDG vs the CFS’s attempt to have a rights-based approach; and two, the development of indicators) I worry that we continue to talk about coherence but don’t have mechanisms that ensure it.

    Indicators are being developed for the SDGs, but I have yet to see anything (and I would appreciate being pointed to work that does explore this) that helps illuminate and measure the impact of implementation of one SDG on another. If we create indicators in SDG silos, how can we avoid problem-shifting where we solve one problem and exacerbate another?

    It is certainly possible to see indicators for SDG2 that achieve some goals at the expense of others (e.g., a focus on nutrition that does not recognize the importance of where food comes from, what the basis of dietary diversity is; and without intent we will continue to see a continuing erosion of agricultural biological diversity on-farm and in situ and marginalization of small holder farmers.) The agricultural biological diversity index being developed by Bioversity International seems like one tool to help achieve coherence across the SDGS in a critical aspect for food and nutrition security.

    Is there other work that is trying to develop similar tools? At QUNO (where I work) we talked at one point of developing a food security and nutrition vulnerability index to be able to show and support countries in asserting the need for policy space and flexibility in trade agreements. We were finding countries under enormous pressure in what appeared to be “good” years to cede policy space despite remaining vulnerable in terms of food and nutrition security over time.

  • Caroline Ledant
    Posted at 20:50h, 29 November Reply

    This is highly interesting. Thank you ! I posted a short summary in French on my facebook page (Caroline Levent).

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