Democratic decision-making in global food security policy

by 16th Oct 2013
A young female farmer from Malawi. Investing in female smallholders can make a massive difference to food security, yet this issue was skirted over at the the Committee on World Food Security. © CARE A young female farmer from Malawi. Investing in female smallholders can make a massive difference to food security, yet this issue was skirted over at the the Committee on World Food Security. © CARE

After the annual meeting of the world’s largest and most important body for agreeing international food and nutrition security policy, Larissa Pelham questions on World Food Day whether NGOs really have a voice in the process.

This year, the first plenary session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) was the launch of its report on investment in smallholder agriculture. Three hours passed without a single mention of nutrition. Investing in female smallholders was skated over perfunctorily; it wasn’t about genuine gender change at all. Yet these are both issues that CARE – as many other NGOs – have consistently raised in our feedback on this topic in the past year. It begs the obvious question, do we as NGOs, really influence this policy-making process?

Reform process

The UN-mandated CFS is run out of Rome by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Food Programme. Following the 2008 food price crisis, it underwent a fundamental reform process to turn the CFS into an effective, inclusive policy-influencing body. Each year, the CFS takes forward two streams of work, from which follows a robust report and from this a set of draft policy recommendations. These recommendations are debated and hopefully, endorsed by the CFS at its annual meeting. Civil society, the private sector and the philanthropic sector have all engaged with the CFS more earnestly since the reform process. Such a consultative process gives legitimacy to decisions taken.

It is a consultative process. As an NGO, CARE can provide feedback to the terms of reference for the thematic reports, to the draft reports, to the draft policy recommendations and during plenary discussions. At the annual plenary meeting, we sit alongside member states and are entitled to give comments from the floor, with all the governments of the world. The scores of NGOs, farmers’ groups and social movements present, means that the voices of the most vulnerable and marginalised can be heard at every stage of the CFS process. To maximise the strength of our voice, civil society organises itself under the Civil Society Mechanism. We meet prior to the CFS and agree revisions and ‘red lines’ for the draft policy, to submit to the CFS. It’s pretty inclusive all in all.

The inclusivity of the design doesn’t necessarily match the reality.

Let’s just take three examples:

    1. The application process quietly shifted this year. It took me over three hours to complete on a poor internet connection and decisions were only to be made ten days before meetings commenced. This is particularly insensitive towards low internet bandwidth, visa-requiring partners. The application specified opaquely only one member per NGO could attend, potentially another way to limit overcrowding from civil society. But many civil society groups and NGOs had 5 or 12 colleagues. If you know who to make the call to, you can just ask for more to come along, it turns out. This sets the scene for who’s in and who’s out.


    1. Plenary sessions – be they for civil society or the entire CFS, contain very little – or no – spirit of debate.  This isn’t the same game as national political processes and much time seems taken up with diplomatic niceties. Real dialogue takes place outside the room - last minute opportunities to persuade a voting member to keep certain priorities in its vision.


  1. Then there’s the document drafting process. With no opportunity for real debate in either the CFS or CSM plenary, drafting teams decide which of the plenary comments to include. This puts the powerful fine-tuning in the hands of a few, who will sit deliberating in English phrasing and syntax well into the early hours. These groups have been meeting throughout the year, so if you really want to get involved, there are plenty of opportunities, but at the 11th hour, it depends on your English being good enough.

So I’ll settle on three suggestions:

    1. It is imperfect, but there are multiple ways to engage with the CFS if an organisation wants to. It still remains the most legitimate and inclusive body for influencing food and nutrition security policy. Hence, all related global processes should be inclusive of the CFS.


    1. When it comes to influencing governments, NGOs have moral sticks to wield, whereas the private sector can offer big juicy carrots. NGOs have to become more savvy and better coordinated: we need the stats and figures to support our case, beyond qualitative case studies; we have to recall that our supporters form part of the electorate; and we must ‘sell’ government support to the most vulnerable now as a means to secure trading markets for, and saved costs in disaster recovery for the UK in the future.


  1. If we truly value all in the CFS equally, then CFS plenary and drafting sessions should be conducted in all three of the main CFS languages in turn.
Larissa Pelham

Larissa was formerly CARE’s Food Security Advisor responsible for providing technical advice on any aspect of CARE’s work that involves food security. Her role involved advising country offices on their food security programming; coordinating knowledge and response in food security with other NGOs and the UN system; and guaranteeing that CARE and others learn from how CARE’s work with climate change, adaptation and resilience, governance and private sector engagement impacts on food security, in order to continually improve our work.

Her previous work has covered research, programming and advisory roles across a range of NGOs, UN, multilateral institutions and think tanks. She has specialised in how social protection, safety nets and disaster risk reduction contribute to food security and poverty reduction. Her work has covered Asia, Africa and Latin America, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, in particular.