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Beyond the World Food Summit: Can Civil Society Organisations collectively rise to the challenge?

Development in Practice Journal, Vol 7, 3, 1997

 By Patrick Mulvany, ITDG*

Las campanas que doblan hoy por los que mueren de hambre cada día, doblarán mañana por la humanidad entera si no quiso, no supo o no pudo ser suficientemente sabia para salvarse a sí misma.

(The bells that are presently tolling for those starving to death every day will tomorrow be tolling for all humankind if it did not want, did not know how, or could not be sufficiently wise, to save itself.)

Fidel Castro, World Food Summit, 16 November 1996

Most speakers at the World Food Summit were united through their deep concern at the injustice that there are still more than 800m hungry people in the world, 22 years after FAO’s 1974 World Food Conference. Thereafter such unity fractured. On the one hand there were those who saw solutions through planned economic and social development giving greater emphasis to the contribution, Rights and needs of small-scale farmers and poor consumers. On the other hand, there were those who claimed that a more liberal market would provide the required food for a growing and increasingly urbanised population.

It was Fidel Castro's statement, however, that uniquely encapsulated not only this concern but also some of the underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition. His was the most challenging and widely reported of all the government leaders' contributions to the Plenary of the World Food Summit. He raised issues that even the, largely excluded, 1200 Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) from 80 countries which participated in a parallel NGO Forum had collectively been too timid to assert. For example, he linked some of the ‘high policy, closed-door(1)’ issues, such as the US$ 700 billion annual investment in the global arms industry, to the injustice of seemingly endless poverty and hunger, for the Summit's Plan of Action has little in it that gives hope to poor people.

Among the commitments adopted by the 187 countries present at the Summit, only one is measurable “to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015” (Rome Declaration, FAO 1996a). The 7 Commitments in the Plan of Action include nonetheless important objectives about sustainable food production, trade, follow-up and so on. They also refer to Special Projects to be carried out in African countries (to be resourced in part by global TV fundraising around World Food Day - the so-called TeleFood initiative). Even these watered-down commitments were objected to by 15 countries which placed formal reservations on the record (FAO, 1997). But many issues relating to the underlying causes of poverty and hunger were given little emphasis or were ignored. An NGO proposal for an eighth Commitment tackling the underlying issues was short-lived, partly because of the dynamics of the NGO forum(2).

Indeed, technical background documents prepared for the Summit blame food insecurity primarily on poverty. While it is important to recognise this link, as Solon Barraclough says in his South Centre paper for the World Food Summit, this is something of a tautology. The benchmark for poverty is commonly determined by estimating the income required for a family or an individual to enjoy a low-cost adequate diet (Barraclough, 1997).

Background documents also proposed that a more liberal market would provide for increased food security (for example, FAO, 1996b). Even European Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler had a problem with this, admitting, “simply liberalising markets cannot be the only answer because there are many people who cannot pay”. CSOs rejected this position as well: “International law must guarantee the Right to food, ensuring food sovereignty takes precedence over macro-economic policies and trade liberalisation. Food cannot be considered [simply] as a commodity, because of its social and cultural dimensions.”(Statement by the NGO Forum to the World Food Summit, point 6; see also, Ecologist, 1996). Barraclough elegantly summarises the arguments against the ‘free market’ solution.

“The notion that market forces can eliminate hunger with minimal state intervention, other than providing a stable legal framework together with macro-economic policies that encourage free trade and private investment, is utopian”.

Despite the low-key Plan of Action, issues about food production and availability, nutrition, food safety and food security are higher up the agenda of producers, politicians and consumers than they were at the start of the World Food Summit process in 1995. The Summit contributed to this, but it is not the main reason that these issues are dominant. It is other events and concerns that have ensured the prominence of food issues in national and international debates. For example:

These issues were not addressed adequately, and many delegates left with a cynical view that this multi-million dollar exercise had only achieved an increased profile for FAO and more backing for the Special Projects in Africa.

However, CSOs raised all these issues in the Summit process, and continue to do this, and as a result the issues are on the table and can no longer be ignored (see, for example, Mukherjee, 1996). Perhaps CSOs are more effective now, because of the improved networks set up for the Summit, and it may be that it is this enhanced co-ordination of CSOs which will prove to be one of the most positive outcomes of the World Food Summit process. Indeed, much of the discussion at the April 1997 meeting of FAO Committee on Food Security (the UN body charged with implementation of the Summit Plan of Action) was about improved CSO participation in follow-up and monitoring and in running the proposed Food for All Campaign, the flagship PR activity arising from the Summit.

CSOs comprising southern farmers’ groups (notably Via Campesina), consumers' groups and NGOs were unified in the Summit process under the themes of the 'Right to food', the 'Right to productive resources' especially, land, water and seeds, and the ‘Right to feed oneself’ (see for example, Via Campesina, 1996; RAFI, 1997). At the many parallel events - the NGO Forum, the Hunger Gathering and numerous workshops, caucuses and spontaneous activities - the issues were aired in this context. The CSOs brought with them myriad examples of good practice and evidence of how food security could be improved, through written and oral presentations, publications, videos and banners. An active WebSite published the main outcomes of the NGO Forum. Some of materials were even published by FAO, for example the papers prepared by the EU NGO Liaison Committee (FAO, 1996c). Many statements were prepared and challenges made to governments (see, for example FIAN, 1996). Demands that the Right to Food, first agreed within the UN system in 1966 be given effect (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11.2) is making progress. A task force including CSOs, such as FIAN (The Food first Information and Action Network), will be set up and there will be an expert seminar examining options in July 1997.

Trade issues raised in these events will continue to be developed in the context of the promised reforms of the UN system and the deliberations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). CSOs will not only propose alternatives on trade and intellectual property issues but will also challenge, as Binu Thomas puts it: the ‘unholy trinity comprising transnational corporations, global capital and international crop institutes’ that determines what we eat (Thomas, 1996).

Sustainable agriculture and biodiversity lobbies emphasised the need to recognise and value local knowledge about the provision of food and the genetic resource base on which it depends, the need to implement Farmers’ Rights as well as support the development of diverse production systems.

But Summits, resolutions, Plans of Action, words are not enough. Action is needed and it is a moot point if the global instruments developed in the World Food Summit are up to the task. Will the FAO have sufficient power within a slimmed down and reformed UN system to do this? Perhaps the initiative will have to be taken by CSOs who will have to set a new agenda for the formal sector - an agenda which encourages the development of new institutions and new global forums in which CSOs, governments and industry jointly determine the global framework for food security - the Right to Food, an International Convention or Covenant on food security, the Right to Productive Resources. Will CSOs be able to develop this agenda in, for example, the wake of the UN General Assembly’s review of Agenda 21 in June 1997, through the reform of the Common Agriculture Policy in Europe, and in the development of the World Trade Organisation? Are CSOs ready for this challenge?

As Alison Von Rooy notes in her comparative review of NGO lobbying at the 1974 World Food Conference and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, there have been some, limited, successes. But there are changes happening in the post Cold war era that will impact on future NGO capacity to influence the emerging institutions of global governance. She advocates for research in this area - how NGOs are gearing up for, or abandoning, their international role and what repercussions this will bring.

NGOs have gained remarkably in prominence and influence on the international stage, but ... there nonetheless remain significant limits to their capacity to compel policy change. Their success in influencing their own governments has been greatest in highly salient, low policy and open door areas...of gender, social development, environmental policy and development practice. ...we may thus need to focus more seriously on the complex realm of issues and networks among NGOs, institutions and governments – a realm where the line between public and private, official and altruistic, is already difficult to discern (Rooy, 1997) .

It remains to be seen if CSOs including NGOs will learn from the World Food Summit process and develop their capacity so that they can influence ‘high policy, closed-door’ issues, for the benefit of the food security of the majority of people in the world.

A test of this will be the effectiveness of the CSO lobby at the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) 1999 review of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights regime (TRIPS), especially as it applies to living matter and genetic material. The challenge here is to achieve acceptance of collective and community-oriented rights regimes, and to introduce the option to exclude life forms and processes from the scope of intellectual property. And in the year 2000 the WTO will review of the Agreements on Agriculture, negotiated originally in the GATT Uruguay round. The challenge will be for CSOs to achieve recognition of the multiple purposes of agriculture beyond the production of commodities, and redefine food security in terms of local and national production, access and availability. As these positions may well conflict with the interests of multinational corporations, which control an increasing proportion of the world food system, there will be a need for CSOs to find new ways of developing collective positions and lobbying if they are to be effective. Global food security depends on this.

As CSOs said at the end of their statement to the Plenary (NGO Forum, 1996): “Hunger and malnutrition are fundamentally a question of justice. Unless we agree that the right of every human being to the sustenance of life comes before the quest for profit, the scourge of hunger and malnutrition will continue. Our message is simple: Queremos una tierra para vivir.”

CSOs must organise to take the initiative: no one else will.


(1) There are indications that NGOs have been more effective in campaigning and lobbying in areas of policy which is perceived to be of less importance to governments and for which many governments have instituted consultative processes - these are sometimes referred to as low-policy open-door issues, for example, environment, gender, development assistance. Conversely, NGOs have had little impact in areas of policy that are more politically or economically sensitive or impact on security policies, which governments are reluctant to discuss openly - the so-called ‘high-policy, closed-door’ issues (Rooy, 1997).

(2) Commitment 8 was an attempt to give disillusioned government delegates the opportunity to adopt a statement of personal dedication to a just and sustainable world free from hunger, as a supplement to the Rome Declaration and the Plan of Action. It focused on ensuring that food security should begin with people and communities and that they should be the starting point for international dialogue. Among other points it included: the Right to food; Farmers’ Rights; full participation of women; the centrality of indigenous peoples, farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk in conserving and enhancing food security; sustainable food production, trade and innovation systems; and finally, commitment to accountable actions including developing a Covenant on the Right to Food Security developed from household to global levels by 1999.


Barraclough, S. (1996) Universal Food Security: issues for the South. South Centre, Geneva, Switzerland. (Draft)

The Ecologist (1996) Food Insecurity: who gets to eat? Ecologist Vol. 26, No. 6, November/ December 996 - Special Issue.

FIAN (1996) Food Security and the Human Right to Adequate Food. Five demands on the FAO for the World Food Summit and Beyond, FIAN-Dossier, Heidelberg, Germany.

FAO (1997) Report of the World Food Summit 13-17 November 1996, Part One, FAO, Rome.

FAO (1996a) Rome Declaration and World Food Summit Plan of Action, FAO, Rome.

FAO (1996b) Food for All, FAO, Rome

FAO (1996c) Food Security: a domestic approach. Prepared by the Liaison Committee of Development NGOs to the European Union. Development Education Exchange Papers (DEEP), FAO, Rome.

Mukherjee, Dr A. (1996) Miles to go.... Changes, ActionAid India.

NGO Forum (1996) Profit for the Few or Food for All. Report of the NGO Forum, Rome.

RAFI (1997) Guiding Global Governance in 1996... A Civil Society Perspective on Food Security, Agriculture and Biodiversity: issues in a multilateral arena. Http://

Rooy, Alison van (1997) The Frontiers of Influence: NGO lobbying at the 1974 World Food Conference, the 1992 Earth Summit and beyond. World Development, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 93 – 114, Elsevier Science Ltd.

Thomas, B. (1996) The farce that was the World Food Summit. Exchanges, ActionAid India, Bangalore.

Via Campesina (1996) The Right to produce and access to land. Via Campesina - International Farmers’ Movement - statement to the World Food Summit, Rome, Italy.