World Summit on Food Security (UN FAO, Rome, 16–18 November 2009)

It may not be scientific, but it was interesting to hear journalists passing judgement among themselves on the 2009 World Food Summit organised by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ‘A waste of time and money’, one told this author. ‘What did it achieve? Nothing.’ The BBC and other news crews had already packed up their gear and departed well before the final day because, they said, the story had gone: ‘Our editorial desks have lost interest in it’. Journalists had no alternative but to conclude that the Summit was a failure and disappointment. Oxfam rated it two out of ten (a generous rating, they could have given it one out of ten). ActionAid said that the Summit had thrown away a great chance of stopping a billion people going hungry.

The meeting’s host, Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf, said he ‘regretted’ that the Declaration did not mention new targets or deadlines for tackling global hunger; he even went so far as to say that he was out of the room when it had been finalised on Day 1. These were extraordinary statements for him to make. It was taken as confirmation from on high that all action and ambition had been knowingly stripped out of the summit, leaving it as an empty talk-shop. Diouf’s candour made it easy for journalists to savage his Summit but, even so, the UN and country delegates did not seem to have any plan or inclination to defend it at the end. This was more than a PR glitch. Rich countries in particular seemed to have calculated that they did not need to invest much political capital in the Summit, because they would not lose any should it fail. And they were right: the Summit simply whimpered to an end, with everyone and no-one to blame. This kind of political cost–benefit calculation was played out again a month later, but with a far different outcome, at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, where leaders who did personally and substantively invest in a successful outcome emerged severely bruised from another ‘disappointing’ UN process, amid much more noise and hostility. There was never a danger of news crews walking away early from the Copenhagen story, which at least meant that we were left with a better idea of why things happened as they did. So what went wrong in Rome – and did anything go right?

From the beginning the UN, aided by campaigning NGOs, set the context for the 2009 World Summit on Food Security as being the worst moment for human hunger in recorded history. For the first time, the number of hungry people on Earth had topped one billion (in fact well over a billion and rising fast). So there was a general expectation that this was a summit that really did matter. However, behind the scenes a different judgement had already been made: no G8 leader ever intended to urn up to the Rome Summit (bar Silvio Berlusconi, who lived just a short taxiride
away). Before it had even started, rich countries had dismissed it as a potential theatre of action because they had already pledged US$ 20 billion to tackle global hunger earlier in the year at the L’Aquila G8 meeting. Insider wisdom said that the rich-country governments were not prepared to go further than that at yet another summit (and one that they did not want), especially because the potentially big-spending conference on climate change was scheduled to take place in a few weeks’ time. Diouf and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon tried inventing some moral and political momentum (and media coverage) by staging a personal 24-hour hunger strike, but among journalists and others this was seen as a stunt born (at least a little) in desperation. The media were interested in critics saying that absent G8 leaders had caused the imminent failure of the Rome Summit on Food Security, but while this was certainly true to some extent, the G8 leaders did not cancel en masse at the last minute. The UN was long aware that its summit – for all of its life-and-death importance – was not politically popular within the G8. However, in stark contrast, a large number of leaders from developing countries did want this Summit and believed that it mattered enough for them to attend personally.

Even given the high level of disregard by some, and cynicism among many others, the Final Declaration was still extraordinarily bland. Instead of specific plans to halve global hunger by 2015, countries could only come up with a vague statement to ‘take action . . . at the earliest possible date’. Countries could have declared a rescue package for the Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger by finding up to US$ 40 billion a year, with half of it going to farming, transport, and market systems that support smallholder farmers, and the other half to reformed food-aid and emergency interventions and social protections. But all they could manage in the end was to ‘be ready to increase the percentage of ODA to go to agriculture’ if countries wanted that. The meeting should have increased support to the kinds of sustainable farming method that would help poor farmers to feed their families and increase their income. According to Oxfam, that this did not happen tainted the Summit with arguably its worst failure.

However, the Summit did agree to empower the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS). The CFS will, it said, become the foremost inter-government platform for the development of global policies and strategies in support of countries’ plans to enable poor farmers and farm workers and consumers to achieve food security and sustainable livelihoods. Groups and organisations including NGOs, UN agencies, IFIs, the WTO, and private-sector associations will feed into this newly strengthened CFS, whose annual meetings will from now on be ‘mini-world food summits’ with ministerial representation. Although not headline-friendly, the empowerment of the CFS was a significant result from the Rome Summit; indeed, it could one day prove to have been historic. One of the biggest handicaps in tackling human hunger to date has been the complete lack of co-ordination among governments and UN, Bretton Woods, and non-government agencies. A revamped CFS could fix that, if all countries commit to it, both politically and financially. It could increase global co-ordination, coherence, and accountability, especially between humanitarian and development assistance for food security.

But even this one victory of a failed summit is far from secure and harmonious. It could yet all unravel. Some governments are unconvinced that the CFS should have such power, or that it can be effective across 191 member states. These concerns are not groundless. Among the G8 countries, the USA, the UK, and Canada – plus Australia and New Zealand – are pushing for global agricultural funding and strategies to be channelled through the World Bank via the ‘L’Aquila Food Security Initiative’ instead. This raises fears that the beneficiaries will not be poor people in developing countries, but those living in the rich countries. The World Bank is clearly a strong advocate of economic liberalisation and of agricultural methods that may not be wholly appropriate and sustainable for poor farmers. Rich countries have pledged US$ 20 bn over three years to the L’Aquila Initiative – and hence possibly the reason why they did not really want to engage at a high level in Rome; however, only about a quarter of that money appears now to be new. There are a number of other initiatives to tackle global hunger similar to the L’Aquila Initiative which, unless they become part of a CFS-led co-ordination effort, could end up undermining the entire CFS process. The idea of a democratic CFS where all stakeholders have a voice is a good one, but in order to gain credibility it must put paid to a lot of scepticism first.

In terms of who will make the big decisions on global food governance and food security (and in whose interests), the Rome Summit on Food Security left many questions unanswered. Will governments continue to exploit natural resources in an unsustainable way to feed rich-world consumption and profit patterns? Will they choose a greener, fairer path and invest in smallholder farmers in developing countries and encourage responsible business behaviour? How will governments organise themselves to raise and spend to fairly promote food security and sustainable livelihoods in a carbon-constrained world? Who will regulate agribusiness, and how? There remains a lot still to play for in 2010.

The author
Matt Grainger is Head of Media at Oxfam International.