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October 21, 2010

UN Committee on Food Security concludes on positive note

IATP's Sophia Murphy was in Rome last week for the Food and Agriculture's Committee on Food Security meeting. A version of this report also appeared on the Triple Crisis blog.

The 36th meeting of the FAO’s Committee on Food Security (CFS) concluded in archetypal U.N. fashion: one and a half hours of apparently aimless milling about followed by a call to order, a 10-minute exchange during which it becomes clear that the milling about was actually about last—very last—minute negotiations, and, finally, adoption of the report by acclamation. So ended the first meeting of a revamped piece of the U.N. system—a small but fascinating piece.

Why fascinating? Because last year governments agreed to a major overhaul of the way the committee works, and to give the committee a preeminent role in the coordination of U.N. food security policy. The FAO, World Food Program (WFP) and the International Fund Agriculture and Development (IFAD) jointly run the CFS. There are several new mechanisms alongside, including one defining a Civil Society Mechanism to ensure adequate and accountable participation from the nongovernmental sector writ large, and a recently constituted High-level Panel of Experts (yes, another acronym: HLPE) that will be commissioned by the CFS to write reports and more generally to provide the benefit of independent advice and thinking.

The mood was upbeat at the end. Government officials seemed tired but satisfied. And the CSOs did, too. Not excited or exhilarated, but not angry or bored, either. A few governments seemed determined to damn with faint praise (sadly for this Canadian, Canada comes to mind). But others engaged. The United States, for instance, while hardly visionary, was constructive. The budget discussion was a painful rehearsal of so many of the U.N.’s budgetary discussions, along strictly North-South lines. On the other hand, on substance, the divisions were not so predictable.

There are procedural issues to work out for next year. The governments spent hours (and hours) negotiating the outcomes from a roundtable, which seemed a bit tangled. Why not just adopt the report, and spend the negotiating time on outcomes the governments themselves will have to implement? As it is, the HLPE will have its work cut out to make sense of the many proposals and to pick among them because it has nowhere near enough resources to do them all.

On the other hand, there has never been anything like the CFS before—no intergovernmental body was even attempting to concert governments’ responses to food security. Let alone an intergovernmental forum so open to CSO contributions. Particularly in an age when governments have accepted that food security is not a simplistic equation of total availability of grains worldwide divided by the total global population, the need for a CFS in the U.N. system is clear. It is a hopeful sign that so many governments came prepared to engage.

The biggest fight during the meeting was probably around land grabs and how to tackle them. Two processes have somehow emerged, in parallel, serving different audiences. One is under FAO auspices and is known as the Voluntary Guidelines on the tenure of land and other natural resources. The other as RAI, or the “Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment that Respects Rights, Livelihoods and Resources,”— an interagency process (FAO, IFAD, World Bank and UNCTAD). It has angered many NGOs and CSOs because they have emerged without consultation and instead of starting with the universal human right to food, they build on various corporate social responsibility initiatives.The VG emerged from the 2006 International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development and have a better pedigree in terms of consultation and broader ownership by NGOs. Take a look at what the Special rapporteur on the right to food had to say: he should know.

For now, whatever happens next must happen soon. The international community has already sat by for too many years as national governments and investors have muddled and meddled in the highly (and rightly) sensitive issues of land ownership and land use. It was encouraging to see a fight in Rome, but it will be far more encouraging if the governments can actually act, and fast.

Sophia Murphy

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