Elevating civil society from advisers to partners for a food-secure world

by Tony Hall | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Wednesday, 15 October 2014 19:48 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

During the week of September 22, world leaders gathered in New York City at the UN General Assembly to debate monumental issues such as climate change, the Islamic State/ISIL, and the Ebola epidemic. There were also a number of important discussions on the hunger alleviation front, including panels and events concerning nutrition, the 1000 Days Movement, the Zero Hunger Challenge, and others. In Washington, the US Agency for International Development had just concluded its Frontiers in Development Forum—bringing in some of the brightest minds in development to discuss the alleviation of global poverty through new approaches and innovations, including promising technological advances in the Global Development Lab.

In the midst of all of this, On September 23, President Obama addressed the Clinton Global Initiative in New York with a message that caught my attention: the need to increase engagement with and empowerment of civil society around the world. While not a new idea by any means, the increased attention to this important issue is timely as an approach to address the current crises around the globe, and also as the pressing food security challenge to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050.

Over my career as a U.S. Congressman, Ambassador to the UN food and agriculture agencies in Rome, and Executive Director of the Alliance to End Hunger, I have seen vast improvements in efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability of agricultural technology. These technological innovations will play significant roles in not only addressing growing demands on our global food system, but could also very well end hunger in a generation. However, as these technological advances heighten the potential of farmers, unleashing this potential to its fullest can only be realized through an approach that is sensitive to the multitude of unique national and local contexts around the world. This is why the engagement of civil society in not only a consultative role, but as a genuine partner, is absolutely necessary.

Already, this is being realized both in the United States and elsewhere. In a September 24 piece on Devex, Bioversity director general Ann Tutwiler explained the need for a more integrated whole-of-system approach to agricultural development. “The complexity of current global challenges requires taking a fresh look at how people interact with the environment in order to fulfill the goals of food and nutrition security while maintaining, restoring and securing the ecosystems upon which we are ultimately dependent.” While the article is directed more toward the empirical connections between agriculture, health, and the environment; Bioversity also understood civil society to be a frontline fighter in this regard when they co-founded the Alliance Against Hunger and Malnutrition (AAHM) with the FAO, WFP, and IFAD. The AAHM was born out of the realization that coalitions of local stakeholders, especially civil society groups, provide essential intermediaries between local food systems and policies, and the global demands for food security and sustainability.

AAHM coalitions are already making an impact on food systems around the world. The Hunger Alliance of Ghana was able to convene a series of meetings between the government, local civil society, and international organizations to strengthen integration between all the necessary stakeholders. Additionally, a parliamentary task force on hunger was established to promote holistic country-wide food security strategies. Coalitions in more than 60 countries worldwide are working toward similar ends—influencing policy processes to better respond to the needs of smallholder farmers, while connecting these smallholders to the wider dialogue on sustainability and modernization.

The U.S. Government has also been taking steps to integrate civil society into development efforts. Even before President Obama’s speech at CGI, a Civil Society Action Plan (CSAP) had been developed for and adopted by the USG’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future. While not a panacea in itself, the CSAP is a first step toward integrating technological advances through USG development mechanisms such as the Global Development Lab with the local farmers and communities Feed the Future aims to assist.

It is this last point that I would like to underscore. This year, the UN declared 2014 the International Year of the Family Farmer, not only highlighting the need to empower smallholder farmers as critical players in addressing food insecurity, but also promoting them as primary stakeholders in sustainable agriculture. A vibrant civil society is an essential component to a global food system—tying advances and innovation discussed at the Borlaug Dialogue with the producers we need, and the national and global policies we need to affect. We are moving beyond “teaching a man to fish” for a lifetime. With a genuine partnership with civil society, his family, community, nation, and world will be fed for generations to come.

Three times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Ambassador Tony P. Hall is a leading advocate for hunger relief programs and improving human rights conditions in the world. Tony Hall retired from official diplomatic service in April 2006, and is currently serving as Executive Director Emeritus of the Alliance to End Hunger, which engages diverse institutions in building the public and political will to end hunger at home and abroad.

As the 2014 Borlaug Dialogue takes place October 15-17 in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize Foundation and CGIAR Fund are co-hosting an online, high-level op-ed series titled The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Sustainably Feeding 9 Billion People By 2050. This will highlight how agricultural research and development are not only tied to food security and nutrition, but that they are also central to achieving many of the forthcoming UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Read more: 

How can we sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050? - Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize Foundation and Jonathan Wadsworth, CGIAR

The future of food and farming depends on climate action today - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO, Kanayo F. Nwanze, International Fund for Agricultural Development and Ertharin Cousin, WFP

Progressing crop research to impact at scale -  Marco Ferroni, Syngenta For Sustainable Agriculture

The face of hunger is not partisan - Rajiv Shah, USAID

Delivering on Norman Borlaug’s call to action - Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund and Tony Kalm, CGIAR Fund

New wheat breeds can help avert food security disaster - Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize Laureate

Rising to "the greatest challenge in human history" - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO 

Achieving zero hunger with help from smallholder farmers - Ertharin Cousin, WFP 

Tending the future - Pamela Anderson, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Sustained investment in global agricultural research key to feeding 9 bln people sustainably - Gebisa Ejeta, Purdue University

Africa will feed 9 billion by 2050 - Pedro A. Sanchez, Earth Institute, Columbia University