During the third week of November 2009, Rome hosted the United Nations' World Summit on Food Security, coordinated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and a parallel People’s Food Sovereignty Forum. The “People’s Forum” is a civil society event that hosted more than 600 people from 93 countries, bringing together 450 organizations representing  farmers, fisher folk, pastoralists, urban consumers, agricultural workers, and local and international food-focused NGOs.  The forum’s agenda focused on pressing questions about global food security in a series of working groups. Participants debated the structures of global food and agriculture governance in the forum’s “who decides about food policies?” working group, where much of the discussion centred on the recently reformed UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS).

Background on the CFS Reform

In response to the 2007-2008 food crisis and the 2008 economic crisis, which severely compromised global food security, nations agreed at the 34th Session of the CFS in October 2008 to FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf’s proposal for a reformed CFS. The reform emerged alongside and in response to the development of several other agri-food governance initiatives.. These include the following: the 2008 UN High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis (HLTF), which brought together UN institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; the 2008 Global Partnership for Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition (GPAFN), proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and adopted by the G8 and G20;  proposals for a multilateral Financial Coordination Mechanism (FCM) to support GPAFN’s program and to oversee rich country donations, which received major support at the L’Aquila and Pittsburg Summits (and which the G20 has since asked the World Bank to oversee). However, unlike these mechanisms, which are seen to give disproportionate decision-making power to rich counties, the proposal for CFS reform keeps agriculture and food governance within the UN’s “one country, one vote” system, and provides an institutionalized civil society and stakeholder participation process.

The CFS reform was finalized at the 35th Session of the CFS in October 2009, as “a central component of the evolving GPAFN,” which seeks to eliminate hunger and ensure food security and nutrition for all human beings by coordinating discussion and collaboration at the global level, promoting policy convergence and coordination, and supporting and advising countries and regions.  According to the People’s Forum participants, the reform resulted from rather tense negotiations, with divisions apparent between rich countries, poorer countries and members of civil society. In the final days, all sides offered some concessions to reach an agreement; many at the civil society forum saw the end result as a major achievement. But it was also seen as a beginning rather than an end. Questions of who sets food policies and through which institutions these decisions should take place remained central concerns for many People’s Forum participants. The People’s Forum built on the momentum of the CFS reform. Participants worked to continue the movement towards more inclusive decision-making in the governance of global food and agriculture, with governance led by the most relevant stakeholders and prioritizing transparency, accountability and sustainability, while protecting stakeholders and their livelihoods.

The Promise of CFS Reform

The FAO described the CFS as “the foremost international and intergovernmental platform” to deal with food security issues. The inclusion of civil society representatives on the CFS was seen by some forum participants as a real opportunity for increased influence of governance processes as front-line food producers will now have “a seat at the table.”  The recognition of food producers’ perspectives as relevant to global policy making was also seen as an important expansion of recognized “expertise.” 

Having achieved this inclusion, participants hoped that they would be able to push for policy changes in addition to the reallocation of resources.  Discussants also suggested that civil society is not naive in its engagement with the Rome-based agencies; representatives of civil society promised to be “vigilant” over the next three years, evaluating not only the CFS, but also their own organizations to ensure that this “reformed” platform is actually meeting its promises, and that civil society representatives are meeting the expectations of their constituencies.

Forum participants involved in the consultations leading to the CFS reform spoke of the solidarity of civil society as the process’s greatest success. “Pluralism” was repeatedly articulated as strength for civil society going forward in engagements with the CFS.  Participants described how the four civil society organizations (International NGO/CSO Planning Committee, Oxfam, Via Campesina, Action Aid) tasked with representing civil society in the CFS reform negotiations refused to “work in the corridors,” but rather took public positions on issues. This successful method of operation was seen by some forum participants as an indication that the reformed CFS may produce a space that does not conduct business as usual, but is actually an opportunity for participative, transparent negotiations — assuming it receives the financing it needs to fulfill its mandate and potential.

Outstanding Concerns Regarding the CFS

In spite of their optimism, participants remain deeply concerned about several outstanding issues. Despite CFS reforms, the World Bank maintains a lot of power in shaping global food and agriculture governance. Civil society strongly opposed the trust fund supported at the G8 and G20 summits, and stated in the People’s Forum final declaration  that it “appears undemocratic” and “un-transparent.”  Not only will the CFS potentially be excluded from making decisions about these funds, the trust fund lacks any committed financing; money has yet to be pledged to the committee. Without funding, it is highly unlikely the committee can meet its ambitious mandate.

Continued favouring of the World Bank in multilateral fora has raised concerns that while the CFS has been granted rhetorical legitimacy, the World Bank and donor countries remain the actual centre of governance of food and agriculture. For many, this indicates that powerful, rich countries continue to resist democratic multilateral processes on food and agriculture governance.

Members of civil society were also resistant to having the CFS under the broader umbrella of the GPAFN, suggesting instead the relationship should be inverted. While the GPAFN is not yet clearly defined, there was widespread resistance to locating decision making in a G20-centred system, and a desire for the CFS to live up to its potential as the central site of agriculture and food governance. More generally, there were concerns about integrating private sector members into the CFS.

Participants also voiced concerns over the “schizophrenic nature” of global policies — where efforts to establish policies to support global food security face conflicting international trade and financial policies. The reformed CFS still has no input into the World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO) operations, the dominant institutions shaping agricultural sectors in the Global South and constraining autonomy over national policies. This led some participants to suggest a need for the CFS to actively push for WTO reform as well. As one participant put it, “food sovereignty is not possible without political sovereignty.”

Looking Ahead from the People's Forum

Antonio Onorati, from the International Steering Committee for the People's Forum, said: "Summits are just a few short moments in the life of social movements." That said, the Forum’s participants hope that outcomes of this convergence will influence global food and agriculture governance arrangements going forward. However, Nora McKeon, People’s Forum organizer and former policy advisor on civil society relations at the FAO, noted on the final day of the forum, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, while civil society feels there is a great deal to celebrate, much remains to be seen regarding what and who will shape the future governance of global agriculture and food.

For comparative analysis of the two events please see, The World Summit on Food Security and the People’s Forum: Same Problem, Different Takes, by CIGI Chair Jennifer Clapp.

Kim Burnett, Christopher Rompre and Linda Swanston attended the People’s Food Sovereignty Forum as observers and provide this commentary on the events to present the views of the Forum’s Civil Society participants.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.