Why successful transformation needs strong governance?
The special initiative One World no Hunger (SEWOH) is one donor nation's attempt to decisively push forward the achievement of SDG 2. Observations and conclusions from the accompanying discourse.
In the summer of 2019, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), raised the alarm on the growing number of people going hungry. A “World Food Systems Summit” (UNFSS) in the autumn of 2021 intends to draw the necessary public attention to the issue of combatting hunger and increasing sustainability and provide fresh impetus for transforming the entire food system.
In 2014, Germany’s Federal Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development, Gerd Müller, launched a remarkable experiment: SEWOH, the Special Initiative ONEWORLD No Hunger. The idea was to drastically advance UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2) with a sector approach initially driven by a single donor nation. Germany has invested around 1.5 billion euros annually towards achieving the UN goal, becoming the world’s second-largest donor in the fields of food security, rural development and agriculture. The initiative has explored new possibilities, yet it also had to face its limits. Vastly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it had to realise the vulnerabilities of global food security.
With its public funding, development cooperation can only be one factor in transforming global food systems. It can and must help bridge the gap between ensuring food security – particularly for disadvantaged groups – and transforming food systems with a view to sustainability. Development cooperation can create the stimuli markets and many national government programmes fail to provide and can also contribute a wide variety of substantial results and learning experiences. For SEWOH, a broad-based approach has proven especially successful: food security, protecting natural resources, strengthening and organising farmers, making cooperatives effective, innovating value chains, securing land rights, supporting start-ups and small businesses, incomes, employment and advancing and applying women’s rights are each only individual parts in the spectrum of equations. There are no simple solutions. Narrowing the issue down to a single subject, such as agricultural production efficiency, proves inadequate to the complexity of the problem.
Why is governance the key concept?
A major success factor for SEWOH has been the establishment of a Strategic Advisory Board that convenes regularly. From the start, it has involved and engaged many significant stakeholders from, civil society, business, associations, academia, politics and implementing agencies. The Advisory Board managed to find formats for discussing also controversial issues. Agreeing on the same opinion is not a condition for membership. Debates focus on the issues in a respectful and constructive manner, even when opinions differ clearly. This allows for reaching new common ground on crucial topics, including a dialogue on the requirements and challenges of global governance for food security.
However, an initiative like SEWOH only has limited options. On the one hand, the political will of the partner governments is ultimately a decisive factor. On the other hand, because the influence of the global donor community has waned, and is still weakened, due to the loss of key actors such as the United States, and due to Brexit related changes in the EU. SEWOH could not compensate for these losses. The absence of certain partners in the debate on enhancing global food system governance has been noticeable. An unanticipated, yet key result of SEWOH, was to realise that realigning governance in food systems is crucial. Doing so will require new answers and approaches locally, nationally and throughout Europe, but most importantly on a global level. António Guterres’s appeal comes at the right time.
There has been no lack of summits and resolutions on hunger and sustainability. So why are people still starving? Without robust analysis of insufficient progress to date, the results of the upcoming summit could run the risk of losing more time – and confidence in the UN system along with it – or, depending on your point of view, buying more time to plough on with the old system.
What opportunities does the UN summit hold?
The UNFSS could initiate structural changes needed for every human being to have access to healthy and adequate nutrition and for food to be produced sustainably in 2030. Which resolutions would Heads of states have to adopt? What changes in governance are essential?
To be a success, the summit will have to
- Highlight beforehand why the fight against hunger has had so little success so far
- Incorporate climate crisis and destruction of natural resources in a new effective strategy for fighting hunger
- Determine the type of governance needed to launch a necessary transformation in the food system
Many states lack the political will to eradicate hunger definitively. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognised the right to food as a human right, and in 1976 the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enshrined it in international law. The covenant states that humans must either have the resources to produce enough food or enough money to purchase it.
Why is everything based on the right to food?
The human rights context is crucial, as it draws attention to government obligations and responsibilities for all other actors. Most people who go hungry live in rural areas. For over 500 million smallholder families – and, in turn, over 2.5 billion people – access to food depends on whether farming can generate enough income to feed their families themselves. Without social security in many parts of the world, the issue of secure access to productive resources, such as land or seed, determines whether families can produce enough food themselves or make a living income through farming. Similar circumstances apply to a further one hundred million pastoralist and fishing families. The living and working conditions for these groups are crucial to explaining why hunger is so persistent. Access to land use is often unsecured, and support services for smallholder families are largely non-existent – from weather forecasts to help with warehousing, access to agricultural advisory services or banking. Minority groups, women and female-led households are especially affected.
In 2003, the states of the African Union agreed to spend at least ten percent of their national budgets on rural development. To date, only ten countries have met this commitment. Neglect of rural areas in national policymaking is a decisive factor why agricultural family businesses as a group account for 70 percent of those going hungry around the world. State and institutions rarely function effectively in rural areas. It would be apt to describe the affected populations as marginalised. Functioning and responsible governance is central to the concept of resilience, which in terms of human rights needs to be understood as overcoming discrimination and exclusion.
Issues of governance take on additional meaning when climate change hits rural areas hard in given countries. Groups already far from the centre of national policymaking attention are now particularly exposed to global warming. The quality of national adaptation policies is a major factor in how to address and mitigate these effects. Preparedness and the quality of government assistance are particularly vital in regions increasingly subject to natural disasters resulting from climate change. Resilient food systems need to serve marginalised groups and individuals particularly and need to be designed to protect and support them specifically.
Why are states accountable?
Hunger and malnutrition are not exclusive to families and individuals in rural areas or to groups of the population who produce food for themselves. Hunger and starvation correlate with income poverty and insufficient opportunities for people to produce their own food or make enough money to survive. A further key factor in food system resilience is to consider transfer incomes and employment. This especially applies where income poverty may be the cause of malnutrition and hunger, i.e. particularly in the growing number of impoverished areas in urban contexts.
Accountability of government action is at the heart of human rights considerations, which also include other actors’ activities. States have a duty to protect their populations by regulating the private sector, so it does not further contravene the right to adequate nutrition. As the Human Rights Council affirmed in 2011 when it unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the private sector itself also bear a responsibility. Its actors are responsible for ensuring their actions do not contribute to violations of basic rights (“do no harm”). Public and private accountability must be a fundamental feature of food system resilience. Many of the necessary changes are already widely accepted. The inadequacy is in their implementation, or rather in the choice of many governments to decline assistance specifically to those clearly suffering from hunger and malnutrition. This circumstance demonstrates why the right to adequate nutrition is so central to reforming and making food systems resilient. It also explains why implementing SDG2 has endured such serious deficits and setbacks.
Why is poverty the main problem and cheap food not the solution?
Globally, food production has kept up with population growth. No one should have to go hungry today. There is enough food for everyone. But not only does the quantity and quality of available food matter, distribution and nutritional practices do too. Poverty – not scarcity of food – is the main cause of hunger. Covid-19 tragically confirmed this. Conflict, economic shocks and inefficient social policies can create new poverty very quickly, making access to food more difficult.
The current strategy is ‘let’s produce more food, and – more importantly – cheaper food’.
This however has far-reaching consequences for individuals and society. ‘Cheap’ food is often produced at very high external cost. It leads to malnutrition through ‘empty calories’, i.e. lack of sufficient nutrients, and ends with the destruction of social structures in rural areas. Non-sustainable agriculture depletes soils and destroys diversity. Farmers only generate minimal revenue from their products on the markets. Even though they produce the bulk of food on the market, many of them live in poverty. Farm workers – especially migrant workers in agricultural production – are subject to significant health risks for abysmal pay. Externalising the high cost to environment and health makes cheap food expensive for society, while farmers and other workers live in poverty. Attempting to fight poverty by dumping food prices while taking environmental destruction and horrendous working conditions into account has long failed. The answers to poverty are decent jobs and social policies! Yes, we need living incomes, fairness in supply chains and in the global trade system. Redistribution is not a dirty word. Where is the benefit to society if the profit in the food chain increasingly accumulates with online suppliers and international corporations, while agricultural businesses and natural capital come under ever greater pressure?
Why must the climate crisis shape the solutions?
A sustainable global food system must also deal with the challenges of a worsening climate crisis and unfettered destruction of natural resources.
- The climate crisis should inform our strategies for finding solutions. Future food systems will have to be largely climate-neutral and adapted to a hotter planet with extreme weather events. This will require guidelines.
- Intensive agriculture is one of the main drivers behind degrading natural resources, soils, water and forests. It also contributes to loss of grain and vegetable varieties (agrobiodiversity) that are better adapted to specific topographies and suited to the cultural habits of the local populations. While legal regulations protect the highly profitable market for hybrid seed, valuable agri-genetic resources are disappearing every day.
- The global economic crisis caused by the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic will further exacerbate poverty and hunger. Around the world, massive funding programmes have been launched to counter the crisis – so money would have been available. Studies presented last year by CERES 2030, the Center for Development Research in Bonn and the FAO show that meeting the G-7 goal of lifting 500 million people out of hunger and malnutrition by 2030 would require around 14 billion US dollars annually. Around 40 billion US dollars would be needed annually to eradicate hunger entirely by 2030.
How to create prosperous rural areas?
The global population is growing, most rapidly in Africa. By 2050, African continent will be home to over two billion people, almost twice as many as today. Two thirds of Africa’s population live in the countryside. This proportion will shrink, but the absolute number of inhabitants in rural areas will continue to rise significantly. Providing millions of young people with prospects for a living income and employment is a major challenge. The fact that many people – young people in particular – will in coming years seek their fortune in rapidly growing megacities will not solve the problems rural areas face. Certainly, some will manage to find a better life in the city. But many will wash up in the slums orbiting the continent’s metropolises.
Strengthening small and medium-sized towns in rural areas is therefore important. Doing so could prevent that leaving the farming sector becomes synonymous with migration away from the rural areas. Towns could become centres of production, processing and marketing – each individual node in a decentralized network of local and regional value chains. They could provide opportunities for making a living by combining traditional agricultural activities with closely linked, non-agricultural employment in the food industry or service sector.
One of the SEWOH core visions is to make rural areas liveable. For this to work means broadening the focus on the agriculture sector to a spatial rural, regional perspective. Such a territorial approach to policymaking and funding would not pit cities against rural areas. Instead, it would regard small and medium-sized towns as powerhouses specifically representing the interests of rural regions and economies.
Rural areas will only have a future if well educated, creative and highly motivated young people stay put.
Are innovation and digitalisation the solution?
Producing more food using more resources is not an option. Innovation – both unlimited as a resource and climate-neutral in its availability – is a key concept of the SEWOH logic. Innovations can increase yields, reduce resource consumption and at the same time create prospects and jobs. To ensure they truly improve living conditions for smallholders and agricultural workers, technological and scientific advances need to take access and existing power structures into account. A naive belief in technological progress is just as unhelpful as blanket rejection of innovations that could potentially enable leaps in development.
Certainly, current applications of the extensive possibilities of digitalisation in the food economy have created a range of benefits, for example, accelerating various processes such as payments, insurance and information or improving efficiency in handling and controlling complex procedures. Nonetheless, the question worth asking is, which problems does digitalisation solve? Where research and implementation explore how to increase efficiency in the current system, failed systems might become more efficient. However, that does not necessarily initiate transformation in existing, non-sustainable systems.
Why must government action create fair framework conditions?
Social security and the fight against poverty must also play their part in this transformation. That requires government action. Today, markets alone are not responsible for regulating nutrition and agriculture. Subsidies, world trade rules, international treaties (for example on seed), European agricultural policy, sanitary and phytosanitary standards and the like define the economic system. All too often these instruments benefit large agricultural and food corporations, rather than the vast majority of small producers and farmers. At least Germany’s recently adopted due diligence law and the European Union’s plans to promote deforestation-free supply chains are initial steps in the right direction.
Flawed incentives massively misdirect the food system economy. Over 600 billion US dollars a year are spent on disputable agricultural subsidies – especially in the affluent north. Agricultural markets are a complex mixture of
- Market and pricing regulations and structural policy interventions,
- Weak market position for farmers while the market power of large (multinational) corporations grows,
- Import/export duties and strict World Trade Organisation regulations,
- Speculation in agricultural raw materials futures,
- A booming bio- economy with rising demand for renewable raw materials for non-food use, and
- Profitable investments in scarce land.
Why do prices lie?
A full cost calculation shows cheap food is expensive. Pricing fails to take natural, human or social capital into account. Destruction does not cost anything. In the end, the high externalised costs are “socialised”; the taxpayers are the ones who foot the bill. Yet it is the destruction of natural capital, for instance, which hampers the very poorest most in their ability to develop.
The true cost of food production therefore needs to factor into the transformation debate. Findings from a growing number of academic studies on true cost accounting (TCA) show that the current pricing system is misguided. The consequence cannot simply be to make food more expensive and, in turn, unaffordable for the poor. Access to healthy food needs to improve. This will help generate new business models, incomes, employment, and jobs that combine economic activity in transformed markets and sustainability.
Sustainable transformation needs new governance!
The key to transforming the current food system is governance – local, regional, national and global. Involving various stakeholders, putting decisions into action and monitoring implementation are all just as important as political decision-making. The UNFSS will explore a wide range of topics and will surely offer an impressive compilation of best practices in its Action Tracks. Work in the field of governance – the foundation for any transformation – is however not invested with the effort needed to match the urgency of the problem.
What impulses should come from the UN Food Systems Summit?
- The summit must adopt resolutions on fighting poverty and on social security. Otherwise, there will be no end to hunger. In crisis-hit regions, humanitarian aid and conflict resolution must be the answer.
- The human right to food and internationally agreed guidelines for safeguarding this right must act as guiding principles to the summit’s resolutions.
- The summit must address the key issue of regulation of our complex and globalised food system. Pricing and valuation need to change to reflect the true cost of the food system – and make use of new possibilities for leading it towards sustainability. The point is, “It’s the economy, stupid!”
- The summit must present ideas on integrating global management of food system transformation with multilateral coordination in the fight for climate change, an end to destruction of natural resources and wildlife as a foundation for the planet’s survival, and fighting poverty effectively. One of the UN’s main responsibilities is to negotiate agreements on matters of global governance. A coinciding exhibition of civil society and private sector projects may illustrate positive examples, but that alone will not be enough to spark structural transformation. An explanation of what exactly the summit plans to decide is yet to come.
- The summit will have to deal with the coordinated fight against the pandemic and its effects. Transformation and crisis management should complement each other and should not be mutually exclusive. Key debates on the crisis and the solutions we need cannot come at the expense of the agenda that was originally planned. It would not be the first time the urgency of the moment overshadows the need for a better future.