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‘Leaders Alliance’ on Hunger and Sustainable Agriculture

Project Objectives and Research Questions

This project assessed the potential of a new ‘Leaders Alliance’ on hunger and sustainable agriculture. The project analysis draws lessons from previous similar endeavors across a range of substantive issue areas in international development and global politics, and assessing where a new Leaders Alliance might fit in the current FNS institutional landscape.

The project considered three specific research questions:

  • Why have Leaders Alliances formed in the past? What purpose(s) do they serve? How can they influence policy outcomes?
  • How do the design choices in creating a Leaders Alliance influence its operations and effectiveness?
  • What lessons do previous Leaders Alliances suggest for the potential and limitations of a new Leaders Alliance in hunger and sustainable agriculture?


The world is severely off track to meet SDG2 on ending hunger and promoting sustainable agriculture. In fact, the number of undernourished people in the world increased in 2018, for the third consecutive year. Meanwhile, citizens around the world cite ending hunger as the most important of the SDGs. Yet despite these clear needs and public interest, international action on hunger and sustainable agriculture has lagged. Indeed, international attention to the problems of food security has historically followed a clear cyclical trend, peaking when food prices soar (as occurred in 2007-08) and then waning once prices subside. Such a reactive, crisis-driven approach is ill-suited to delivering the long term, sustainable and transformational changes that are needed.

A core problem with international action to end hunger is a lack of accountability and urgency. One potential mechanism for improving accountability in the international FNS system is the creation of a ‘Leaders Alliance’, or prominent group of high-profile individuals committed to catalyzing action on SDG2. A number of similar campaigns and operations, both within and beyond the food / agricultural sectors, have had some success in galvanizing greater ambition and prompting reforms. At the same time, there is a risk any new endeavor will end up distracting attention and ultimately further fragmenting global governance in food security. Indeed, there is already a large number of transnational organizations and alliances operating in this sector, such as the Committee on Food Security and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Report Summary

Key Takeaways

Many high level commissions have only modest impact

Tracking the causal impact of high level commissions is challenging, as their influence can be diffuse and only appear years after the fact. Yet whether judged by the uptake of their recommendations or the frequency of citations and mentions in academic literature, policy reports, and the media, the typical commission does not leave much of an impact. Many commissions, even those made up of very famous members, come and go without much of a trace. This perhaps reflects the fact that, as one interviewee noted, “forming a commission is what you do when you want to look like you’re doing something but don’t actually want to do anything.”

Yet a few commissions have had clear, substantial impact

While many commissions have minimal lasting effects, a few have had transformative influence on international cooperation. Some, such as the Brundtland Commission and the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, have had wide-ranging influence in shaping discourses through defining and popularizing new concepts (in these cases, “sustainable development” and the “responsibility to protect”, respectively) Others have worked more behind the scenes, leveraging their networks and close access to influential policymakers to press the case for their recommendations.

Many factors determining whether a commission is influential are outside of its control

A commission’s efforts can be easily overtaken by larger structural political forces that hinder international cooperation. Even well-designed and executed commissions may be thwarted by shifts in the global political environment. Conversely, other commissions will find themselves at the right time and the right place, with windows of opportunity to have a lasting impact—but commissions cannot necessarily create these windows through their own efforts.

Demand-driven commissions tend to be more successful than supply-driven commissions

Commissions that arise in response to a clear external demand and are reactive to the global political environment have a built-in audience that is likely to be receptive to the commission’s recommendations and at least seriously consider taking up its proposals. Supply-driven commissions, those that emerge out of commission chairs or sponsors taking independent initiative to advance an agenda, face a tougher uphill battle in shaping policy outcomes.

Commissions are most successful when they have a clear problem statement and theory of change

Many high level commissions were formed without clarity on the precise problem they wanted to resolve, what actors they needed to influence, a theory for how they would achieve their objectives, or metrics for gauging success. Without these factors in place, commissions can serve as useful discussion forums, but rarely have much traction with broader audiences. A clear mandate facilitates cohesive discussion and action. When a commission does not have a consensus problem statement, much of the commission’s time and effort will likely be taken up seeking to define one.

Following best practices in the design, execution, and follow-through for commissions improve their odds of success

Our case studies, interviews, and reviews of previous literature reveal several key lessons for launching a new commission, including:

  • the importance of a highly engaged and committed chairperson(s)
  • how to strategically choose commission members
  • the need for adequate funding and staffing, including a well-resourced secretariat
  • how to foster networks and relationships and focus attention through in-person meetings
  • how to manage internal dissents and political controversies within the commission
  • why commissions need extensive (and often expensive) communications strategies, beyond simply publishing a final report
  • how to lay groundwork for longer-term action and follow-up, thereby extending the reach of a commission

A New Commission for SDG2?

Putting together everything we know about the strengths and weaknesses of high level commissions and the current gaps and needs in FNS and agriculture, would a new commission help? There are reasons to be skeptical. For instance, there are already multiple efforts to coordinate global donors in the sector, and it is not clear a high level commission would add anything new. Similarly, a commission seeking generally to raise awareness or catalyze political action on FNS and agriculture would lack focus and a clear theory of change for achieving practical results. And many of the most important constraints to progress on SDG2 need to be addressed at the country level, rather than the global level. Despite these concerns, however, our research does suggest a commission with a clear mandate and focus on a tractable agenda could be fruitful. We identify three options for further consideration:

Option A: Commission Designed to Carry Forward the Work of the UN Food Systems Summit

In 2021, the UN will convene a global Food Systems Summit to raise awareness and encourage political commitments for transforming food systems. The Summit is the clear focal point for political action and advocacy in the FNS and agriculture sector for the next year. A new high level commission closely aligned with the Summit process—with an explicit mandate on carrying forward the messages and objectives of the Summit into the future—could valuably complement the efforts of the Summit committee and help ensure its lasting legacy. The commission’s purpose would be to promote high level political commitment and follow-through for the Summit’s action plan, so that issues related to transforming food systems do not fall off the global political agenda once the Summit is over.

Option B: Commission Designed to Propose Reforms to the Institutional Architecture for FNS and Agriculture

There are longstanding debates over the need to reform the complex web of multilateral institutions, initiatives, and partnerships that govern global FNS and agriculture, but such efforts have struggled to gain traction. Many experts we spoke with agreed that reforming and streamlining the institutional architecture might be valuable in theory, but would be a difficult and arduous process. A high level commission convened to propose reforms to the architecture would be stepping into a politically fraught environment, and would face steep obstacles. But were such a commission able to unblock the process of architectural reform, it could produce real benefits, and there is a potential window of opportunity in the wake of the Food Systems Summit. The commission’s mandate could involve analyzing whether the current multilateral architecture is fit for-purpose for achieving SDG2, and it could serve as a forum for coalescing around a common reform agenda. To be effective and achieve buy-in, such a commission would need a clear mandate from high placed actors, most likely the UN Secretary General, and be supported by several powerful national governments. This effort is only worth pursuing if these actors actively support it.

Option C: Commission Focused on One Specific, Tractable Topic

Rather than focusing on the entirety of SDG2, a commission could focus on one narrow, more specific topic within the broader FNS ecosystem. This would provide a greater chance of delivering an actionable policy agenda with a clear theory of change. Based on our discussions with experts in the sector, we believe two important topics that could be helpfully addressed by a new high level commission include the intersection of conflict and FNS and the case for investing in agriculture. Crucially, even a more narrowly defined commission should still be ambitious in its vision and recommendations and seek to build connections across the food, nutrition, agriculture, finance, and environmental communities. And even if the commission is not explicitly focused on food systems, any such commission should still seek to coordinate and align with the Food Systems Summit process in some fashion, given its centrality in contemporary policy and advocacy debates in the sector.

Related Podcasts

Podcast Geoffrey Gertz and Sarah Zoubek

E97: Can a New Commission Jumpstart Progress Towards Zero Hunger?
Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger is stalling, and the Covid-19 Pandemic is erasing the progress of the last decade in many parts of the world. Is it possible to re-energize on this issue? Could a new commission make a difference? Today, we’re talking with the authors of a new report entitled "High Level Commissions and Global Policymaking Prospects for Accelerating Progress Toward SDG2." Geoff Gertz is a fellow in the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution. And Sarah Zoubek, is the Associate Director of the World Food Policy Center here at Duke University.