World Economic Forum and the corporate takeover of the global governance of our food systems

In July 2019, the United Nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the World Economic Forum (WEF) “to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. This “Strategic Partnership” has since come under fire by members of civil society, resulting in an open letter to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to which he has yet to respond. This alarming development is part of a wider trend within the UN to incentivize participation of the private sector. Their role, over time, has shifted from one of a donor to a partner, innovator and contributor. This is seen in a variety of UN Processes and Fora including but not limited to: the UN Office of the Global Compact, the Annual Partnership Forum, the recent SDG Business Forum, and the High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. Recently, Civil Society have pushed back against this trend after the appointment of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)’s Agnes Kalibata as Special Envoy to 2021 U.N. Food Systems Summit. AGRA, a Gates Foundation-funded group and Kalibata, a member of the World Economic Forum represent corporate sector interests, which have in many ways perpetuated food insecurity challenges. Will the Food Systems Summit rescind the appointment in an effort to ensure an inclusive process to deliver on transformative changes needed? 

Read on for thoughts by Shiney Varghese of the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP):

IATP joins hundreds of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) from around the world to condemn the rumors about a World Economic Forum (WEF) driven Food Systems Summit under the auspices of the United Nations (U.N.). If true, it poses a very direct threat to the U.N. Committee on World Food Security (U.N. CFS) — the foremost inclusive, democratic and multilateral mechanism involved in setting global governance of food and agriculture.

While the U.N. is an imperfect and at times problematic institution for global governance, it is also a contested space where vulnerable nations and civil society have worked together to advance the interests of marginalized communities, through advancing fundamental rights such as the right to waterthe rights of the indigenous peoples and the rights of the peasants at the U.N. General Assembly, as well as developing normative principles and guidelines for all actors in the food systems at the U.N. CFS — all in the last 15 years. Two examples of U.N. CFS led initiatives are: The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (2011) — also referred to as the Tenure Guidelines — and the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems (2014). The 1990s and early 2000s also saw the U.N. as a space for advancing calls for legally binding instruments for transnational corporations.

Yet, in recent decades, these inclusive initiatives have been under siege. The power of transnational corporations has increased manifold, and they are positioning themselves as problem solvers to current global challenges. Their power is exemplified in the new prominence of the WEF. Started almost 50 years ago, the WEF has emerged as the key space for decision makers and corporate leaders to roll out initiatives around global public goods — water, food and climate — to other platforms, seeking to shape the future of a wide range of sectors. These range from manufacturing and production, urban services, media and digital economy to health, mobility and infrastructure. The list is long, and the ambition to shape the future of humanity seems limitless. 

Around the world, conflicts are increasing between transnational corporations on one side and small-scale producers and other marginalized communities on the other. The stakes go beyond specific struggles to setting the rules and norms around food systems, the environment and public goods. It is in this context that IATP joins allies in expressing our concerns regarding the projected role of WEF in the 2021 Food Summit, and especially the role of its new vision for agriculture and related initiatives in global food and agricultural governance.

25 years ago, when food was not an issue for the movers and shakers of the WEF, IATP joined other CSOs from around the world in Rome for the World Food Summit (1996). Since then we all have been building alliances around a shared vision of an alternative food and agricultural system centered around people’s right to nurture their own agriculture and food systems and protect their resource base — land, water, seeds and biodiversity. We have also been working together to build our capacity to effectively participate in and contribute to global rule making. We join our allies today to raise our concerns regarding the corporate takeover of the global food and agricultural governance agenda that threatens the norms, rules and policies protecting people’s right to nurture their own agriculture and food systems and protect their resource base.

In 1996, the organizers of the Summit sought the participation of CSOs along with others perceived to be defending the rights of the world’s citizens to be free from hunger. The U.N. statement said at the time, “No single government, organization or group can eliminate hunger on its own. FAO counts on the collaboration of world leaders, research organizations, farmers groups, charities and individual citizens to defend the rights of the world’s citizens to be free from hunger.” Note the absence of any reference to the private sector as a defender of “the rights of the world’s citizens to be free from hunger.” 

It is ironic then, that for the U.N. Food Summit twenty-five years later, the U.N. Secretary General opted to appoint Ms. Agnes Kalibata, an avid promoter of private sector participation in food governance as the U.N. special envoy. Kalibata is not only a member of the Global Agenda Council (now known as Global Future Council) of the World Economic Forum, but also is the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) — a Gates Foundation-funded group. In that role Kalibata led the “the organization’s efforts with public and private partners.” And these efforts, according to authors of the letter addressed to U.N. secretary general, “have centered on capturing and diverting public resources to benefit large corporate interests.” The letter, signed by 176 organisations working in Africa and their allies, calls on the U.N. Secretary General to “Revoke AGRA’s Agnes Kalibata as Special Envoy to 2021 U.N. Food Systems Summit.”

Revoking this appointment can only be a very first step in acknowledging the concerns raised by the civil society. In order to address the real issues around the corporate attempt to shape governance of food systems and to help “defend the rights of the world’s citizens to be free from hunger,” the U.N. secretary general must ensure that this initiative relies on the proven leadership and inclusive structure of the CFS in setting food policy that respects human rights. That kind of democratic participation, which gives the private sector a role alongside (but not above) civil society, must guide the 2021 U.N. Food Summit.

Share the letter from hundreds of civil society organizations from across the world, raising their concerns with the U.N. Secretary General. Read it here, and to sign, please click here.

This article was originally published by the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) here

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