World Food Day: What hope for a new era of global action on food security?
Progress on tackling hunger may be better than we thought. The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI), formally launched today for UN World Food Day, presents new estimates of undernourishment which show that efforts to reduce hunger over the past 20 years have been more successful than previously believed.
Significantly, the recent global crises do not appear to have increased hunger, but progress has slowed, especially in poorer countries. With renewed effort, it may be possible to reach the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving global hunger by 2015. Nevertheless, the figures on undernourishment are still unacceptably high and remain a major global challenge.
Achieving ‘nutrition-sensitive’ growth
Part of the key to reducing undernourishment is economic growth – particularly growth in the agricultural sector. Sustainable agricultural growth can often reach poor, hungry people because many depend on agriculture for a large part of their livelihoods. But growth will not necessarily lead to better nutrition. For this to happen, argue the authors of SOFI, poor people must participate in the growth process, and use the additional income for improving their diets and health. Agriculture-led growth must be ‘nutrition-sensitive’ – that is, it should offer poor people more diverse dietary options. And governments must also use additional public resources for public goods and services to benefit the poor and hungry.
These points are robustly argued in the SOFI report. However, it falls short in a crucial area: discussion of the ‘purposeful and decisive public action’ needed to create a supportive environment for pro-poor long-term economic growth. Here, we get the usual policy wish list: provision of public goods and services for the development of the productive sectors, equitable access to resources by poor people, empowerment of women, design and implementation of social protection schemes and, above all, ‘an improved governance system, based on transparency, participation, accountability, rule of law and human rights’. Fair enough: but how?
Hope for a new era of coordinated action?
The good news is that some of these thorny governance issues are addressed in the latest draft of the Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition – a ‘dynamic framework’ which is supposed to foster aid cooperation and policy coherence between countries. The Framework will be submitted to the Plenary of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in mid-October.
The CFS is a reinvention of a long-standing UN committee with a less-than-impressive track record. In its current incarnation, however, the CFS unites the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and provides a new space for civil society to engage actively in inter-governmental negotiations. Today, it is formally recognised by most institutions as the appropriate body to coordinate responses to the food and nutrition security challenges identified in the 2012 SOFI report.
Nevertheless, the CFS still faces resistance from some governments. In particular, the G20 has launched its own competing process. In June 2012, Mexico, as G20 President, presented the report Sustainable Agricultural Productivity Growth and Bridging the Gap for Small Family Farms, which called for investment in new research and technologies for agriculture in the developing world. For the report’s authors, success depends heavily on a free flow of goods, ideas, knowledge and services across borders. The G20’s focus has been on increasing production to reduce food insecurity, rather than on addressing access and entitlements issues. This ‘supply-side bias’ is deeply rooted in domestic priorities in the G20 countries, particularly in difficult economic times, which encourage a focus on production increases at all costs.
Despite being a self-appointed body with little formal authority, the G20 has sought to systematically bypass the reform agenda of the UN and CFS. Similar actions by the most powerful countries have also helped derail progress on climate change and trade, with potentially dire implications for agricultural development and food security.
While the CFS was established under international law with formal governance systems and a clear mandate, the G20 has none of these features. It is an invitation-only club. The emerging and developing countries in the group have no mandate to speak for larger blocs of countries.
Much of the G8’s work is hidden from public view. Its assertion of the role of leader in development finance – including in the response to the global food crisis – undermines accountability in the international system, and weakens the efforts of the international organisations and inter-agency processes that should be addressing these problems. What is more, too much of the G20’s food security agenda is focused on addressing the mismatch between supply and demand in international markets while too little attention is paid either to the imbalances of power in food systems, or to the failure to support small-scale farmers to feed themselves, their families, and their communities.
Looking ahead, if we are to address the food security needs of the 870 million people who remain chronically undernourished, the CFS and its emerging Global Strategic Framework holds out the best hope of a new era of cooperation and coordinated action.
However, even in the CFS, the deep structural issues that are so central in the daily creation and re-creation of poverty, food insecurity and undernutrition are not on the agenda. We should all be very clear: until these structural issues are put at centre stage, better cooperation and coordination will do little to address food insecurity and undernutrition in ways that do justice to the spirit and aspirations of World Food Day.
Dr John Thompson and Dr Jim Sumberg are IDS fellows and members of the STEPS Centre and the Future Agricultures Consortium. They are editors of the book Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World (Routledge), part of the STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability book series.
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