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Opportunities for the Committee on World Food Security – Post Food Systems Summit 2021

Published: April 2022
Authors: Jack Daly, Sarah Zoubek

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This paper is a think-piece on the role of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in supporting outcomes associated with the Food Systems Summit (FSS). It explores key questions the CFS and its advocates are likely to grapple with moving forward. The goal of the analysis is to identify potential pathways for the CFS within the global governance environment, as policymakers attempt to spur action toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The CFS is a multi-stakeholder, intergovernmental forum in the United Nations (UN) system that develops and endorses global policy recommendations related to food security and nutrition. It does this by supporting and advising member states, promoting accountability, sharing best practices, and developing global strategic frameworks. It holds an annual plenary session that serves as the central mechanism for creating global consensus on voluntary policy recommendations.

Its most prominent strengths include an inclusive structure that provides formal mechanisms for both civil society (the CSM: Civil Society Mechanism) and the private sector (the PSM: Private Sector Mechanism) to participate in discussions with member states and diverse stakeholders (academia, UN agencies, others). The CFS’ science-policy interface―the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE)―provides knowledge-based guidance to guide policymaking.

In 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened the FSS as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the SDGs by 2030. The FSS was intended to catalyze action on all 17 SDGs, each of which connects in some way to food systems. This is a broader set of goals than the CFS, which focuses primarily on food security and SDG2 (“end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”).

This project was an outgrowth of conversations in 2021 between the World Food Policy Center at Duke University and other stakeholders with interests in the global food governance architecture. Animating questions for the report include the following:

  • What role could the CFS play in implementing or supporting the policy initiatives that emerged from the FSS?
  • What within the CFS structures or procedures could be optimized to allow it to meet the opportunities associated with the FSS?

The analysis in this report draws from: 1) a literature review; 2) semi-structured interviews with key officials and academics familiar with the CFS, FSS, and the global food governance landscape; 3) an expert roundtable; and 4) an advisory group of faculty with expertise in global health, defense, international development, and international organizational design.

The CFS can have only limited engagement with the outcomes of the FSS without more capacity support.

Interviews with this study’s sample of officials, academics, the roundtable, and the advisory group revealed a nuanced assessment of the FSS. Some were encouraged by discussions on sustainable food systems or specific Coalitions of Action. Others thought the Scientific Group’s work might lead to lasting changes on issues such as data collection frameworks or science-policy frameworks. However, many sounded a note of caution and were skeptical the FSS would have significant value.

Stakeholders have taken steps to ensure inertia is not the FSS’s legacy. The UN Secretary-General called for a Coordination Hub led by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to ensure collaboration across the UN system in response to the FSS. The Coordination Hub has, in turn, incorporated elements of the CFS into its structure in two places:

  • The CFS chair will liaise with the chairs of the Rome-Based Agencies (RBAs) to help oversee the implementation of the national pathways (national action plans developed by countries in coordination with FSS) as well as to monitor their progress.
  • The HLPE will build upon the work of the FSS Scientific Group to develop a science ecosystem of support in support of FSS aims.

The CFS met in October 2021 to wrestle with the implications of the FSS. There were three schools of thought among members and participants on how the CFS could engage with the FSS (Figure 1. Three options for CFS action; Table 1 provides a deeper summary):

Figure 1. Three options for CFS action

Three action options for the CFS

Table 1. Potential Options for CFS and FSS Engagement

Table of choices for the CFS

As a political body, the CFS’ response to the FSS will be driven by political considerations. Based on our survey of the landscape, Option #2 (limited engagement) appears to be the most likely scenario. There are multiple reasons for this conclusion:

  • Option #3 (no engagement) does not have wide-ranging support
  • Option #1 (maximum engagement) requires elevating the CFS’s authority and resources, which has historically been difficult
  • Option #2 (limited engagement) has powerful advocates among CFS member states
The CFS is positioned to be an intermediary for the Coordination Hub, providing ideational support, convening and coordination.

The report utilizes the orchestration framework to examine the CFS’ method of governance. Orchestration literature provides insight into how organizations with limited resources and authority can meet broad mandates and ambitious governance goals. An “orchestrator” is a lead actor that possesses certain features―legitimacy, focality (a central place in the issue area), financial resources, and a collaborative culture―and works through “intermediaries” to influence the behavior of targeted actors (Abbott & Bernstein, 2015; Abbott & Hale, 2014).

The CFS is primed to be an intermediary and not an orchestrator in the post-FSS environment. However, that does not lessen the CFS’ importance. Successful orchestration involves intermediaries that possess certain tools of orchestration that can be used to influence networks (Abbott & Bernstein, 2015).1 Specifically, the CFS possesses at least two tools that can be leveraged by the Coordination Hub: ideational support and convening & coordinating.

  • Ideational Support: Refers to providing information and normative guidance. The CFS can focus narrowly on specific subjects where the HLPE might allow the CFS to provide ideational support for the FSS. Potential topics where the HLPE could be positioned to provide its voice include data collection frameworks and standardized approaches to true-cost accounting metrics.
  • Convening and Coordinating: The CFS could build off this strength further, perhaps convening an annual forum combining RBA governance meetings with the CFS. One high profile session could provide three potential benefits: 1) attracts heads of state or higher level delegations ; 2) elevates the strategic and political discussions; and 3) increases the profile of the RBAs and the CFS (Winters et al., 2022).

Other tools of orchestration―material support and review mechanisms―are less promising. Insufficient funding has been a constraint for the CFS for much of its lifecycle since its 2009 reboot,so further roles for the CFS must come with increased material support or capacity. Thus, the CFS’ ability to provide funds or serve as a review mechanism is extremely limited. The CFS’ lack of independence also hamstrings its ability to fulfill an accountability role.

The post-FSS environment could enable the CFS to increase its ability to set global agendas and utilize its endorsement tool, if it can make improvements to its internal processes (topic selection and an overloaded agenda).

Two other tools of orchestration—agenda setting and endorsement—require expanded discussion. While the CFS possesses features that suggest it could deploy either tool in support of the FSS, the historical record suggests it will be difficult—the CFS has not demonstrated enduring capacity for either. We see both as key areas where the CFS should ask itself how it can be more effective.

  • Agenda-setting: Agenda-setting can be considered the next link in the chain after ideational support.2 It has both internal and external components. The 2017 evaluation report was critical about the CFS’ capacity to set external agendas, faulting some of the internal processes. It does not appear the situation has changed appreciably—the CFS still covers multiple topics and does not focus on single issues that stakeholders can rally around, and the FSS mostly ignored the CFS’ policy products.

A place to start might be to assess topic selection—those involved in the process question whether the CFS bureau manages the process well. Another focus area could be the CFS’ overloaded agenda and ensuring new interests do not crowd out the topics that have already been selected for the current program of work.

If internal improvements can be made, examples from our discussions where the CFS might help set external agendas included: 1) climate change and food systems; 2) SDG stock-taking in 2025 or the post-2030 agenda; and 3) SDG17.

  • Endorsement: The CFS can provide political endorsement. The emphasis on inclusion and consensus is part of the CFS brand; it ensures the CFS imprimatur has a certain legitimacy. But while this should provide the CFS with  a comparative advantage, the CFS’ lack of external pull and difficulty reaching consensus limits its effectiveness. “I think the basic problem in CFS is the inability to reach consensus,” one interviewee said.
Considerations of consensus, support for the HLPE (with a narrow focus on food security), and focality may increase performance.

Any potential for the CFS in the post-FSS environment rests on it maximizing the tools it possesses. We believe focusing on the following questions could help it be most effective.

  • What are the costs of the emphasis on consensus? The CFS emphasis on inclusivity is critical in lending it authority and legitimacy, but should it elevate efficiency and effectiveness considerations? Could a majority consensus system be implemented? Would changes to the composition of the advisory group materially change dynamics?
  • Can the HLPE leverage new financial resources as part of the “science ecosystem of support?” The FSS’ interest in science policy interfaces could provide an opportunity to improve the HLPE. Possibilities include permitting the HLPE to propose its report subjects. If the CFS can reframe FSS conversations primarily as a chance to revamp the HLPE, perhaps there is an opportunity to access new resources. While some have suggested it expand its remit to consider food systems broadly, we see risk in the expansive frame, basing conclusions on prior projects focused on high-level commissions (Gertz  et al., 2020).
  • How can the CFS increase its focality? Although the CFS is not set up to be an orchestrator in the post-FSS environment, the organization can still consider how it might raise its profile to secure its place in the global food governance landscape moving forward. Other strategies would be to cultivate linkages with would-be intermediaries such as regional development banks and a more systematic engagement with the larger UN system.