Civil Society-Public Institution Relations in Global Food Policy: The Case of FAO and the CFS

Nora McKeon

Opening Up the United Nations System to Civil Society

Sovereign states alone called the shots when the United Nations was founded in1945, at least in formal terms. Article 71 of the UN Charter did empower ECOSOC to ‘make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence’. However, the rules were fashioned in such a way as to limit access to international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and their status to that of observers of a strictly inter-governmental process in a ritualized relation.

This chapter draws on a recent book by the author, Food Security Governance: empowering communities, regulating corporations (Routledge 2015), to which the reader is referred for further information on points for which other bibliographical references are not cited.

N. McKeon (H)

Independent, Rome 3 University, Italy

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017 71

R. Marchetti (ed.), Partnerships in International Policy-Making, International Series on Public Policy,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-94938-0_4

The UN remained frozen in the same procedures for forty years, despite all the changes that occurred in the post-World War II world. Finally, in the late 1980s a cumulative combination of factors—from the end of the Cold War to the triumph of state-restricting neo-liberal policies and globalization—succeeded in shaking up the situation. Beyond the entrenched INGO universe, new categories of nongovernmental actor began to take interest in the impacts of global decisions. At the same time, popular movements of resistance to the impact of neo-liberal policies emerged. The term ‘NGO’, which had remained dominant for four decades, was increasingly felt to be too narrow to cover the universe it was expected to describe. The concept which began to come into use to replace it was that of ‘civil society’, an extremely heterogeneous and quite possibly un-useful category. For the purposes of this chapter the issues of concern are not definitional but ones of representativity and legitimacy. Who has the right to speak for whom? Under what conditions can the views of the social actors directly concerned—particularly those with least voice—be heard and taken into account in decision-making? An important distinction in this regard is that between NGOs—voluntary, non-profit, and intermediary organizations that provide services to disadvantaged sectors of the population but do not represent them—and what could be called ‘peoples’ organizations’ directly established by and mandated to speak for these sectors: peasant farmers, artisanal fisherfolk, slum dwellers, and others.

The UN system progressively recognized the need to move from strict intergovernmental process towards involving other actors. A Commission on Global Governance was established in 1992 under the auspices of Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali. In terms of practice, the 1990s was the decade of the UN global summits, which represented an unprecedented opening up to civil society organizations (CSOs). In 1992, at the Rio Environment and Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, 1,378 organizations were registered, most of them lacking formal accreditation to the UN. The summits provided an opportunity to break loose from heavy intergovernmental procedures in which only accredited INGOs could read prepared statements at the close of the debate, and to experiment with parallel forums, caucusing, happenings of all kinds. It was a decade of fantasy, innovation, idealism, but for many CSOs it closed in a climate of delusion. The Millennium Development Goals, negotiated in a closed-door UN committee, were felt to be a pallid reflection of the ardor of the summits. The neo-liberal policies that civil society contested continued to reign and the threat of co-optation was strong. Many CSOs began to feel the UN system did not offer a meaningful space to pursue their objectives and turned to other more powerful targets, such as the international financial institutions and the World Trade Organization (WTO), and from dialogue to contestation (Pianta 2005).

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