MSPs are ‘fundamentally about participatory decision-making and information sharing’ where ‘[k]ey stakeholders should be represented and decide what issues to focus on and what actions to take’ (FAO 2016). The concept of ‘stakeholders’ emerged in the 1930s to counter-balance the growing importance of ‘shareholders’ and related concerns around the responsibility of corporations to the public at large (Clarke and Stewart 1998; Lindborg 2013). The term came to be defined as ‘any group or individual that can affect or is affected by the achievement of a corporation’s purpose’ (Freeman 1984, 46). Today this includes civil society, the private sector, and even governments (FAO 2016). While form and function of MSPs vary widely, they all recognise stakeholder interests are diverse, stakes are high, and opportunities exist to impact policy (Brouwer et al. 2013).
A common criterion for identifying stakeholders in MSPs builds on the ‘all-affected’ principle (Kuchler 2017, 195). This principle implies that ‘only those who are affected by a decision should be entitled to have a say in it’ (Marchetti 2012, 31). When it comes to food security governance, this becomes challenging as everyone is affected by the organization of food systems. The universalist approach of the all-affected principle can lead to stakeholders facing different opportunities to participate (Boström and Hallström 2010, 2013; Kuchler 2017). This is because the organization of multi-stakeholder processes is an exercise in power; one that often plays out invisibly (Boström and Hallström 2013, 106). A number of authors point to the negative implications of the categorization of stakeholders when it comes to MSPs. More specifically, Kuchler (2017), focusing on the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, found that informal sorting of actors into categories of stakeholders kept civil society actors outside inner circles, and that the absence of a clear definition of stakeholder served to destabilize the distribution of participation opportunities. Echoing these findings, Rancière (1998) has argued that often efforts made at expanding participation fail to adequately include marginalized voices, prioritizing instead actors who show ‘self-discipline’. As such, many efforts at enhanced participation move towards ‘multi-stakeholderism’, effectively upholding narratives of ‘participation’ and ‘consensus’ in ways that ‘neutralize political differences’ (McKeon 2017, 385).
In this paper, we focus on growing critiques that MSPs are increasingly organized in ways that have de-politicizing effects (Clarke 2011; Fawcett and Marsh 2014; Mouffe 2005; Swyngedouw 2011). Concerns around processes of de-politicization have been raised in social science circles, and with relation to food more specifically (Duncan 2016; Moragues-Faus 2017), as part of a critique of globalization and neoliberalism and the maintenance of elite power. Swyngedouw (2005), for instance, has argued that the re-articulation of the state-civil society relationship serves to redefine and reposition the meaning of citizenship and, in turn, the nature of democracy itself. He warns that governance beyond the state can lead to encroaching of market forces, which come to set the ‘rules of the game’. Along similar lines, Lövbrand et al. (2009, 74–75) call such arrangements ‘neoliberal solutions in disguise’ noting that they can enhance problems of ‘transparency, accountability and environmental harm’ (see also Benner et al. 2004; Börzel and Risse 2005). These de-politicizing tendencies across MSPs are not to be equated with a lack of resistance or active political engagement. Indeed, ‘depoliticisation does not represent the direct removal of politics from the social and economic spheres’ (Burnham 2001, 136). Rather, de-politicization means that through MSPs, complex and normative policy processes are minimized, or structured to avoid or conceal the relations of power and conflictual dimensions inherent in them (Mouffe 1995, 262–63).
Conceptually, de-politicization encompasses a wide range of meanings (for summaries of the conceptual development see see Flinders and Wood 2014; Foster et al. 2014; Hay 2014; Wood and Flinders 2015). However, two broad yet overlapping conceptual camps can be identified from the literature: one which takes a narrow definition of de-politicization, and one which takes a more expansive conceptualization (Foster et al. 2014, 227). The narrow definitions see de-politicization primarily as a tool, mostly of governments. This approach considers de-politicization as a set of activities that seek to limit or remove the political domain from the public sphere. Examples include having technical teams define political objectives (e.g. indicators and targets of the Sustainable Development Goals). It also includes activities that replace the communicative rationality of the political domain with another rationality. For example, scientific rationality is often adopted by technocrats who resist disagreement by characterizing it as ignorance or ideological.
The expansive definitions of de-politicization look at the broader processes that may limit the availability of spaces where the political can play out; where political agency can occur. This includes the implementation of processes that seek to replace disagreement and a lack of consensus with consensus among so-called disciplined stakeholders (i.e., those willing to play the game) who are invested in avoiding being labelled as ‘extremists’ (Swyngedouw 2009; Walters 2004). Those who apply these definitions are centrally concerned with the relationship between processes of de-politicization and politicization (Foster et al. 2014, 227). In this paper we apply an expansive definition of de-politicization as a process.
In terms of assessing the politicization of the CFS, we draw from Rancière (1998, x–xii) who perceives political deliberation – the antidote to de-politicization – to be founded on disagreement. In this context disagreement is not meant to denote general misunderstandings but refers instead to making visible unequal relations of power within consensus-driven policy spaces. That is, disagreement must be over the very nature of the situation itself: about the assumed arrangement of things (Rancière 1998). This points to disagreement being based on different, often competing, worldviews, one of which will be hegemonic and thus upheld by traditional elites. Given this, it is not simply disagreement that is a key condition for politicizing, but also ensuring that there is space for disagreements which highlight competing experiences and understandings of the problem while simultaneously recognizing the relations of power associated with each worldview. Following the theory, disagreements of this nature are unavoidable and even necessary since they are a representation of the varied global society (Mouffe 2005). Only by creating spaces where these fundamental disagreements can be articulated can we start to find shared meanings and ultimately design global policies in which a broader range of the global population can benefit (Clark et al. 1996).
Towards this end, Rancière (1998) argues that to re-politicize policy spaces, actors need to: a) agree to a common set of rules of engagement; b) ensure a diversity of views are represented; and, c) ensure everyone, including ‘extremists’, have the right to speak. Recognizing that these conditions are overlapping and interconnected, in what follows we use them to guide our analysis of processes of politicization across the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). In the next section, we look at the common set of rules that instituted the CFS as an MSP following the 2009 CFS reform. We then turn to the second condition and discuss the mechanisms that enable a diversity of views to be represented through categorizing the participation of different non-state actors within the CFS. Our exploration into the third condition looks at how the ‘extremists’, who in the case of the CFS would be the social movements representing the most affected, have self-organized through the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM).
Reforming the CFS: Establishing a set of common rules
In October 2009, 101 member-country delegates met at the headquarters of the United Nation’s (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to approve reforms to the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) so that the Committee could ‘fully play its vital role in the area of food security and nutrition, including international coordination’ (FAO 2013, 207). Through the reform the CFS declared itself to be a ‘multi-stakeholder platform that enables all viewpoints to be considered’ (CFS 2011). The reform, along with the CFS Rules of Procedure, represent the set of common rules of engagement that actors agree to when they enter the CFS policy space. In what follows, we explain the rationale and structure of the reformed CFS, with particular consideration to the common rules that inform two of the key pillars of the reform: inclusivity through participation and evidence-based policy outcomes.
The reformed document of the CFS outlines clear rules for participation organized around three categories: Members, Participants and Observers. Membership is open to all member states of the United Nations. Observers are other entities and individuals (such as academics) who can request to be invited to observe entire sessions or specific agenda items. Participants are non-state actors, specifically civil society actors, the private sector, philanthropic foundations, financial institutions, international research bodies, and UN institutions. Member states are to ‘take into consideration the views of all participants and stakeholders to the fullest extent possible in order to foster ownership and full participation’ (CFS 2009, para. 18).
The CFS includes a number of structures where members and participants interact (Fig. 1). The Bureau, made up of only member states, is the executive arm of the CFS and is supported by the Advisory Group, made up of representatives from the participant categories. Intersessional work is organized around Technical Task Teams and Open-Ended Working Groups made up of member states and participants. The Plenary is the central body for decision-taking, debate, coordination, lesson-learning and convergence by all stakeholders at a global level on food security issues. Plenary sessions are held annually and attended by members, participants and observers. The CFS has a permanent Secretariat made up of staff from three Rome-based UN agencies: FAO, IFAD and WFP. It works to support the Plenary, the Bureau and Advisory Group and the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). The Secretariat is currently hosted at FAO in Rome Fig. 1.
In terms of decision-making, the CFS has formal rules but also makes use of non-formalized procedures. In practice, when developing policy outcomes, the CFS aims to achieve consensus amongst all members and participants. When consensus is not possible amongst these actors, consensus is sought from member states. In the formal CFS rules and procedures, states maintain the right to vote and voting could be used if consensus is not found. At the time of the reform, one of the arguments put forward by supporters of the CFS, notably the FAO, the Latin America government regional grouping and civil society organizations (CSOs), was the commitment to the principle of ‘one country, one vote’ (Duncan 2015, 70). With regard to politicization, the fact that the 2009 CFS reform maintained accountability with states runs counter the neoliberal tendency to reduce the role of states – the so-called hollowing-out of the public sphere (Flinders and Wood 2014, 137). Proponents of the CFS argued that one-country, one vote served to even out geo-political power imbalances, which would only be reinforced through for example, G8- or G20-led initiatives that were competing with the CFS for influence at the time. Because of the commitment to one country, one vote, weaker states can play an important role and have had important influence in shaping policy outcomes (Duncan 2015, 216). This has been further supported by the presence of participants, particularly civil society actors in the negotiations, enabling states and participants to create alliances. As a result, some traditionally weaker countries have been able to push forward or support issues that go against the status quo (Duncan 2015, 216).
Addressing politically contentious issues is fundamental to identifying appropriate solutions for rebuilding food systems (i.e. access to land and natural resources, right to water, women’s rights, food sovereignty and access to local or territorial markets). Within the unique participatory space of the CFS, the commitment to achieve consensus raises interesting tensions when it comes to theories of de-politicization. Following these theories, consensus-based processes have been actively critiqued for eliminating the voices of those who do not follow the status quo, and for masking apathy (Mouffe 1993, 2005; Swyngedouw 2009; Walters 2004). Related to this, a central strategy of de-politicization is to make use of consensus processes to avoid the discussion of contentious issues: that is to limit disagreement. As such, in many governance processes, contentious, conflictual and difficult issues are set aside in favour of issues on which actors can reach consensus (Coglianese 1999). However, as we elaborate below, in the CFS the commitment to finding consensus among states and autonomous participant groups has had the opposite effect and the inclusion of participants across the work-streams of the CFS has established clear pathways for the introduction of contentious issues onto the CFS agenda (Duncan 2016).
To summarise the first condition for politicizing participation, within the reformed CFS there has been agreement around common rules, and importantly, these make space for the next two conditions for politicization in that they set out criteria for the inclusion of a diversity of perspectives. The rules of engagement at the CFS challenge the idea that consensus-based decision making is necessarily depoliticizing by ensuring active engagement of a diversity of participants but also by placing ultimate decision-making power in the hands of states (in case there is no consensus). Further, the CFS reform upholds the principle of one-country one-vote, which gives traditionally weaker states a stronger voice and supports alliances that might normally be overlooked. At the same time, these rules reinforce the key role of states, making them accountable to address food insecurity and implement the right to food, which is at the heart of the CFS mandate.
Participants with intervention right: Ensuring a diversity of views are represented
As noted above, the CFS has declared itself to be a ‘multi-stakeholder platform that enables all viewpoints to be considered’ (CFS 2011). One of the most significant elements of the reform was the allocation of participation rights to non-state actors. By way of reform, and through the inclusion of participants, the CFS agreed to ‘seek to achieve a balance between inclusiveness and effectiveness’ (CFS 2009, 7).
Rather than fall prey to an ambiguous categorization of stakeholders, the CFS reform structure seeks out a diversity of participants, while explicitly prioritizing those most affected (discussed in detail in the next section). This has been backed up by formal opportunities for participants to shape policy processes and outcomes. The formalization of such high-level participation is unprecedented within the UN system and food governance fora beyond the UN system. The official designation of ‘participants’ allows these actors to ‘take part in the work of the Committee with the right to intervene in Plenary and breakout discussions to contribute to preparation of meeting documents and agendas, submit and present documents and formal proposals’ (CFS 2009, para. 12). This move was significant. As one civil society actor explained:
the change of our status from observers to participant was a unique change. (…) I think we have really utilized that space at the beginning and also could create some of the good outcomes based on that since we have also this equal footing thing with the governments on our opinions (Interview 34).
To facilitate participation in the work of the CFS, civil society actors and the private sector both created their own autonomous and independent mechanisms. These are the only two categories of participants to have developed such mechanisms. For UN Agencies, philanthropic foundations and research institutes, specific organizations have been identified as participants, for example the Gates Foundation and the global agricultural innovation network CGIAR.
For civil society, there is the autonomous International Food Security and Nutrition Civil Society Mechanism (CSM). Actors who participate in the CSM have organized themselves around seventeen sub-regions and eleven constituencies: smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, agricultural and food workers, landless, women, youth, consumers, urban food insecure and NGOs. Within the governing body of the CSM, the Coordination Committee, quotas are used to ensure balance between constituencies, sub-regions and gender (Claeys and Duncan 2018a). Members of the Coordination Committee are elected by way of autonomous processes. While recognizing International NGOs as one of its constituencies, the CSM makes a clear distinction between NGOs and social movements and prioritizes social movements’ voices (this distinction is elaborated upon below). The CSM is coordinated by a Secretariat based in Rome.
Like the CSM, the private sector established a mechanism to facilitate participation of private enterprises across the agri-food value chain in the work of the CFS.Footnote 2 The Private Sector Mechanism (PSM) is led by the International Agri-Food Network (IAFN) and is open to all those involved in addressing agriculture, food security and nutrition from a business point of view – including farmers, input providers, cooperatives, processors, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and food companies (PSM 2017). It is important to note that at the time of the reform (2009), the CFS was not garnering a lot of interested from the private sector. As a result, the PSM has been much slower in developing than the CSM. It has however grown in size since the reform and is now very active in policy processes. In 2010, in the first post-CFS session, the only participant from the private sector representative was Croplife International (CFS 2010). In 2017, the PSM included representatives from 58 private companies (CFS 2017, para. 1), including Bayer Crop Science, Cargill Europe, Ethanol Europe, Monsanto, Nestlé and Syngenta. Unlike the CSM which receives institutional funding, the PSM offers three types of memberships, linked to a fee structure: supporting members (€12,000); contributors (€2500); and non-paying members. Like the CSM, the PSM organizes around thematic working groups following the CFS’s work streams.
These two mechanisms are fundamental to facilitating the engagement of diverse voices into the policy process. As one state representative noted:
The added value [of the CFS] is the unique nature of this Committee. This is really the challenge but also the advantage of the Committee. That you have much more difficult discussions, of course, together with the stakeholders. It’s much more difficult to discuss it, especially because the two big mechanisms, CSM and PSM, have very different views on specific topics, but at the same time, it’s also a big advantage because the product and also the outcomes in general of the Committee has much more link to the reality, so to say (Interview 57).
In the CFS, policy outcomes are initially informed by reports requested to the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). The HLPE is the science-policy interface of the CFS. It is made up of a Steering Committing of internationally recognised experts in food security and nutrition-related fields as well as ad hoc project teams comprised of experts working on a project-specific basis. The result is a ‘consortium of heterogeneous knowledge and experiences not limited to the usual fields of formal research’ (Colombo and Onorati 2013, 71). The HLPE is tasked with providing ‘scientific and knowledge-based analysis and advice on specific policy-relevant issues, utilizing high quality research, data and technical studies’ and identifying ‘emerging issues’ and helping ‘members prioritize future actions and attentions on key focal areas’ (CFS 2009). The ability of the HLPE to include non-published sources in its reports represents an important step towards broadening the scope of evidence and knowledge that informs food security and nutrition policy. As the Rules and Procedures of the HLPE state:
Non-published sources, reporting of field projects, or other non peer-reviewed sources are accepted as relevant information sources, as far as their content is accessible to the HLPE and their quality is reviewed by the project team before incorporation in the HLPE report (HLPE 2010, 25).
At the same time, this almost inevitably leads to the collection of data that is contradictory, or even conflictual. Yet, the HLPE is not meant to smooth over, select sides or seek compromise, rather its job is to synthesize. As the first chairman of the HLPE, M.S. Swaminathan, stated ‘[o]ne of the key roles of the reports is to help members and participants in CFS to understand why they disagree’ (HLPE 2017b, 2). This commitment to not only accepting disagreement, but supporting enhanced understanding of this disagreement, is central to politicizing a policy-making process. Towards this end, the HLPE serves a political function insofar as it expands the scope of knowledge and expertise beyond traditional categories, challenging the de-politicizing tendencies often associated with discourses of evidence-based decision making. Indeed, the selection of what evidence should inform policy is not a neutral process and research has shown that decision-makers often hide the political nature of decision-making behind claims of objectivity (Duncan 2016).
This section has shown how the CFS reform makes space for a diversity of views to not only be represented, but also heard. Agreeing to work towards consensus on contentious issues in a context of expanded formal interventional rights to clearly defined categories of stakeholders is a key condition for politicizing an MSP. The expansion of this diversity of views and forms of knowledge beyond policy negotiations into the scientific body of the CFS, the HLPE, works to further politicize the policy process.
Everyone has the right to speak: A focus on those most affected
As noted above, a common criterion for identifying stakeholders in MSPs builds on the ‘all-affected’ principle (Kuchler 2017, 195), meaning that all those potentially affected by a decision should be entitled to have a say in it. In the case of the CFS, rather than the all-affected principle, the reform process advanced what we could call a ‘most-affected’ principle, giving priority voice in the policy-making process to those most affected by hunger and food insecurity. As written in the reform document, the composition of the CFS will ‘ensure that the voices of all relevant stakeholders – particularly those most affected by food insecurity - are heard’ (CFS 2009, para. 7 emphasis added). In this way, rather than trying to level the so-called playing field, the CFS set out to account explicitly for different experiences and power relations between and across participant categories. Particularly relevant towards this end is the list of categories of people to receive additional attention. The CFS reform document states that the Civil Society Mechanism will ‘also serve inter-sessional global, regional and national actions in which organizations of those sectors of the population most affected by food insecurity, would be accorded priority representation’ (CFS 2009, 16).
The added value of prioritizing the voices of those most affected by food insecurity in policy-making is well recognized by certain member states. As one state representative noted:
The experience of the most affected, I think, from food insecurity and malnutrition because from the smallholders and the producers of food and it’s very important to hear their perspective. Because in the vision of CFS we have the words ‘the most affected by food insecurity’ and they are the voice of these most affected. This is the most important thing they bring to CFS because sometimes we could lose the central point of what we are doing (Interview 56).
This point of view is echoed by another state representative who commented:
It’s not only governments negotiating it. It’s really people who are most affected by hunger and malnutrition, and also by companies directly, who are engaged in the Plenary, and that, of course, is a very good momentum for everything that comes out of the Committee. It gives more value to the product (Interview 57).
The reform principle of prioritizing the voices of those most affected has been anchored in the governance structure of the CFS, and explicitly translated into specific CFS processes, although it could still be strengthened. At the heart of these processes is the agreement that the CFS would include a variety of different civil society constituencies – e.g., small-holder farmers, fishers, Indigenous Peoples, pastoralists, agricultural workers, NGOs, etc. – (Claeys and Duncan 2018a), and seek to achieve gender and geographic balance in civil society representation (CFS 2009, para. 11). To facilitate the participation of civil society organizations representing the most affected, the CSM has secured specific institutional resources enabling civil society representatives to travel to Rome, and access the translation and interpretation services they need to speak on their own behalf. Most importantly, the CSM has internally organized in ways that give leadership roles to social movement representatives (Claeys and Duncan 2018a) (see below). In addition, the CSM was granted more seats on the Advisory Group to the CFS Bureau than other participants: The CSM has four seats, while the other participant categories only have one seat each.Footnote 3 This decision was justified not only by the argument that civil society actors represent those most affected by food insecurity, but also in recognition of the diversity of actors across civil society. Finally, the CFS commitment to prioritizing the voices of those most affected is expressed through a number of informal, but widely used, practices such as: the allocation of speaking time to CSM participating organizations in Plenary, the choice of keynote speakers from the CSM, and the selection and training of Technical Task Team coordinators coming from the CSM.
One key factor that distinguishes the CFS from most other MSPs should be highlighted here. It is that civil society actors actively politicize the CFS because they have organized amongst themselves through the CSM in highly political ways. Reflecting back on the issue of categorization, civil society actors have implemented categories of participation that explicitly prioritize the voices of social movements vis-à-vis those of NGOs. CSM policy working groups, for example, are all led by one or more social movement representative(s), supported by a technical facilitator coming from an allied NGO. Social movement actors (such as La Via Campesina, or the World Forum of Fish Harvesters & Fish Workers) bring in demands, experiences and perspectives that provoke disagreement within the CFS and in turn, force the Committee to move beyond status quo. The politicization of participation in the CFS thus goes beyond the fact that participants are able to autonomously organize. It relates to the fact that the CSM space is occupied by social movement leaders (Claeys and Duncan 2018b). This shows that while rules and mechanisms are key to supporting politicization, the political agency of actors also plays a fundamental role.
Post-reform, the active organization and participation of the CSM in the CFS, as well as its strong presence on the Advisory Group, helped the CSM establish a balance of power that was favorable to civil society actors, and social movements in particular. As one CSM actor involved since the 2009 reform explained:
With regards to the voices of the most vulnerable, this is also a crucial thing that we have achieved. We were able to make a collective voice and to make our voice more stronger than before as individual organization. That was also a positive impact (Interview 34).
However, as we discuss below, all of these practices are questioned or targeted by some CFS members or participants, forcing the CSM to constantly fight to preserve its ‘space’ and the CFS as a whole.
To summarise the third condition for politicizing participation, the CFS has given priority voice to representatives of the organizations representing those most affected by hunger and food insecurity through what we called the ‘most-affected principle’. By recognizing the right of the CSM to autonomously self-organize, the CFS has secured the possibility for everyone, including ‘extremists’, to have the right to speak. In the case of the CFS, these extremists are social movements representing food producers and other civil society actors defending the right to food and food sovereignty. Following the theory, for a process to be political, those at the extremes need to be included. This is in opposition to many MSPs, which conform to an anti-political condition that encourages people to participate in ways that demonstrate a high degree of self-discipline (i.e., working towards consensus, making ‘relevant’ interventions). Those actors who show this self-discipline are often rewarded by being invited back, or invited to participate in related processes. In the case of the CFS, the autonomous nature of the CSM helps to ensure that more extreme voices from civil society are present and heard at the CFS.