Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Addressing the challenges of food security and managing a global food system: What is the UN’s role?

Time (GMT +00) 12:30 14:00
Hero image description: Banana plantation in Senegal Image credit:C.Gofas Image license:ODI given rights


David Nabarro - Co-ordinator, UN High Level Task-Force on Avian & Pandemic Influenza and the Global Food Crisis


Simon Maxwell - Director, ODI

Fred Mousseau - Oxfam

Terri Sarch - DFID


Steve Wiggins - Research Fellow and Programme Leader, Protected Livelihoods and Agricultural Growth, ODI

.               David Nabarro coordinates the UN Secretary General’s High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis (HLTF)

·         The HLTF was established in response to the rapidly rising prices of staple foods on world markets in 2008 which took many unawares. 

·         As coordinator, he has learnt the global governance and management of food systems is a very difficult issue, owing to the degree of debate and dissent around what food represents and how it should be handled.

·         He emphasised the context—estimates of undernourished people in the world shows food and nutrition was a crisis long before 2008.

2.            Entering 2009 food price volatility remains a real threat

·         In terms of agricultural supply, developed country responses are expected to be lower than last year. Anecdotal evidence of developing countries suggests credit availability has worsened and uncertainties about prices mean producers have held back on planting or reduced inputs. These issues are compounded by climatic problems as well as reduced public and private investment. 

·         Volatility in prices is not only temporal but spatial—much greater variations in price are occurring within countries and continents than in recent history.

2.            How HLTF is contributing to the effective management of the response 

·         Through engagement with national,regional, and global movements to improve resilience in the face of future shocks (water / climate / finance) that will likely increase in frequency. These movements need focus, coherence, and alignment.

§  CAADP in Africa is an example of the multifaceted approach—linking together of: agriculture and production; social protection; food security; nutrition; hunger reduction; access to markets; and trade. The agricultural dialogue must overlap into other domains—particularly those of nutrition and marketing/infrastructure.

·         Through recognising the need to invest in immediate hunger and longer term (10/20 year) initiatives.

3.            The HLTF was established end April 2008 and is time-limited; initially set up to last until the end of 2009

·         The HLTF structure is unique, falling directly under UN Top Management. It includes FAO, WFP, IFAD, WB, IMF, UNICEF, UNDP, WTO, UNCTAD and 14 other UN entities. If these institutions behaved differently, the need for an overarching entity wouldn’t exist.

·         Chair and Vice Chair are Ban Ki-moon and Jacques Diouf respectively. The Chief Executive board body is UN and has not expanded to include many non UN bodies—exception is the WTO; also OECD is allowed to sit in on meetings, but the IFIs are not included.

·         The mandate of the HLTF seeks to:

(a) Avoid creation of new bureaucratic/intergovernmental layers

(b) Provide fullest possible support at the national level

(c) Link with regional entities, banks, and economic commissions

(d) Focus on reducing vulnerability by improving access to food through improved nutrition, social protection, and food systems, and availability of food through focus on small scale agriculture and pro poor market systems

(e) Promote MDG 1,

(f) Bridge short and long term response, humanitarian and development assistance. (g) Pursue stronger engagement with Right to Food.

·         The manifesto of the HLTF is the Comprehensive Framework for Action (CFA). This document was not produced through negotiated multi-stakeholder consensus, but was quickly to spell out two halves of the puzzle—immediate needs and long term resilience. The fundamental focus of the CFA is to get the system to support country level activities in a more coherent way, improving capacity and mobilization of resources.

4.            Programme of work for the HLTF in 2009 falls under four broad headings;

·         Supporting the realisation of CFA outcomes in countries—through responding to country needs and requests

·         Advocating for funds for urgent and long term actions

§  Some MENA countries, Korea, Spain, and potentially some European and North American countries have expressed willingness. It is not clear whether this will translate into actual money, and if so, whether it will be spent under the broader vulnerability reduction programmes, or instead focus on 400 to 500 million smallholders as a potential engine.

·         Inspiring broader engagement through encouraging full involvement of hundreds of stakeholders in a concerted movement for food security.

·         Ensuring accountability through assessing achievements, reviewing progress, demonstrating results, and adjusting activities that are sub-optimal

5.           A few final points

·         Food security has been out of political focus for years. This is not just about agricultural production, but about food security, rural space, resilience and social protection.

·         Financial support for food security needs better coordination, but the HLTF have been encouraged not to develop a new vertical fund.

·         In response to the comment of a member of the audience about the lack of media visibility of the HLTF as compared to the system for tackling Avian Influenza, Nabarro responded that this process is very different to the Avian Influenza issue. He sees himself as an engineer, tying up nuts and bolts within the system to make it more effective. To this end it is much more important that publicity comes from the agencies involved—such as heads of FAO, WFP, and IFAD, rather than the HLTF as an entity.

6.            Discussant Fred Mousseau commented on a number of points.

·         Firstly, he was struck by the comment that the food price rises were unexpected, and mentioned an FAO publication from 2004 warning about an impending crisis owing to a combination of factors including declining terms of trade and increasing dependency on imports. The report in question showed a clear trend of 30 to 40 years, indicating a need for policy thinking rather than immediate response. This illustrates the lack of UN mechanism to recognise serious risk when it is identified and to react accordingly.

·         From the NGO perspective, the creation of the HLTF was welcome, but the inclusion of Bretton Woods institutions was a contentious issue for a number of NGOs.

·         He agreed on the issue of difficulty of global governance of the food system and thinks the focus should be national and regional. Nevertheless the UN and its organizations have a very important role to play, particularly as the UN is a depository of human rights including the right to food. The capacity of the UN to mobilize resources is also one to be exploited.

·         Finally he raised the issue of UN agencies and Bretton Woods institutions working in parallel or occasionally in opposition in the sense that they compete for funding, and advocated for clearer demarcation of agency responsibilities in order to increase effectiveness.

7.           Discussant Simon Maxwell began by congratulating Nabarro on his leadership, in particular his determination not to turn the HLTF into a new institution or long term initiative.

·         Broadening the envelope, he went on to say he has barely thought about food issues since Lehman Brothers crashed. An air of unreality exists if the context of economic downturn is not acknowledged

·         Nutrition lies at the heart of discussions about the financial crisis, but it is part of a more complicated equation.

§  Undernutrition is a key early indicator of crisis. The extra 50 million is likely an underestimate, especially since owing to the financial crisis—for example, ODI research estimates per capita loss of income in Africa is around two weeks’ worth.

·         One key lesson coming out of this crisis is that we clearly see the importance of global coordination. Fiscal stimulus works if coordinated across the G20. Trade policy must be coordinated across many countries in order to be effective. Another word for this is multilateralism

·         He emphasised that food crisis at the household level has never been about the production and distribution of food, but rather about lack of access and entitlement. He cautioned against retreat into a food first position like that seen in the 1970s crisis. Reducing poverty and increasing incomes reduces food insecurity. The answer is not a retreat into protectionism—national self sufficiency and large national stocks; neither is it a retreat into talking solely about small farms without considering the role large farms and supply chains can play in reducing poverty.

·         A second big lesson coming out of the crisis is the importance of social protection (SP). A huge investment must be made to protect people from shocks in 2009, which means an acceleration of SP.

·         This is a highly political conversation. Everything people say about food is contested. There is no substitute for a serious conversation in country. There is a need to revisit work on how food is managed at a country level, but also to develop new ideas on food security internationally.

·         Crisis has thrown up the question of what type of new globalisation is needed this century—how to reap the benefits of globalisation without exposing people to risk. We don’t have a global food story picking up the challenge of globalisation.

8.            Discussant Terri Sarch emphasised that the challenge Nabarro set out between investing in longer term agriculture and smallholder farming and investing in short term issues is a real one. The focus of much of her work is supporting longer term planning including comprehensive Africa agriculture development and food security—which is a slow process.

·         She further noted that DFID are strong supporters of the HLTF, and are urging it not to establish a vertical fund, citing the dangers of national governments receiving short term money after short term planning processes, as they are very concerned about the effects this has on the longer term planning process.

·         DFID strongly support the CFA and right to food. What is the role of government in the food system? The most important thing is agreement and coordination globally about the role of government. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the impact of huge government subsidies in North America and Europe, and a properly defined role for the government is in ensuring food security would be useful. Discussion is needed around trade liberalisation, subsidies and tariff barriers.

9.            Some points raised in the question and answer session.

·         George from CAFOD questioned the role of big traders and producers in the international food system, specifically in terms of companies buying up large areas of land, and also traders dominating markets.

·         Consultant Hans Ulrich commented on the slow and reversing progress towards MDG 1, and questioned whether or not the system has failed.

·         Stephen Bates commented on a concentration of ownership in the corporate sector, and what sort of opportunities there would be for global legislation for global actors

·         Stephen questioned the mechanism by which donor funds can reach smallholders, fearing it has a tendency to go towards medium and large producers. He also raised the concern of government nationalisation of land and government land distribution policies.

·         In response, Nabarro stated that one theme of questioning—the concentration of wealth, role of corporate groups, and concern of people being displaced for industrial agriculture is the one causing the biggest sense of anger in farmer organisations. The HLTF is not in a position to follow a substantive position on this issue—it does not have the authority, however they recognise there is a serious debate emerging among members of the HLTF—whether it is better to engage with these companies, or to seek not to engage.

·         He cited Sheeran as commenting—engagement with these entities does offer the possibility of encouraging them to stimulate better smallholder production, processing, and value chains systems. The alternative of not engaging means the issue is diverted.

·         On the issue of whether or not the system has failed, he made the point that the system in question, the UN system, is owned by the world’s governments. Of course inefficiencies exist in the system, but the policies taken and the conclusions, budgets, results and decisions about complex issues in nations are reached by negotiations between governments—operating within this space is sometimes quite restrictive. He also described the FAO as going through intensive root and branch reform.

·         Steve Wiggins responded to the question of whether the food system broke down; obviously it did, but this is a rare occurrence, which supports the argument that it has worked well for many years. This doesn’t mean we should sit back—the reason why we ran into this problem was lack of resilience in the system—returning physical stocks to the system or making sure they are managed in such a way that spikes can be mitigated–this is not quite the same as advocating for global stocks.

·         Hans Ulrich suggested the UN should have a risk analysis system in terms of food / finance / global warming that may provide early warnings and facilitate preparation.

·         Nabarro said stocks were running down predictably; there were some odd decisions about stockholding particularly around rice—refusals to release rice stocks did drive up prices, and he acknowledged the interest existing for a kind of global stock authority, but there is no appetite at the moment within the context of a general lack of appetite for global governance of food.

·         Alexander Sarris, director of Market and Trade division of FAO which is responsible for measuring stocks said the issue of determining details about stock figures globally is very difficult to do with confidence. He also cited lack of coordination in UN member countries as contributing to the crisis, explaining that there has been a lot of both progress and neglect since the crisis of the 1970s.  The key is risk management—and if not prevention, then management in terms of what the best safety nets might be from micro and macro perspectives. He also stressed the need for careful thinking, and to remember existing mechanisms—regarding the latter he compared the mandate of IFAD to Sachs’s recent FCM proposal.

·         Natasha from Ausaid said in one sense media and politicians have moved on from food crisis to financial crisis, but she stressed the real opportunity to make food a stronger part of that debate.

·         Mousseau explained this shift in policy focus from food to finance has happened more in the North than the South.  Sarch agreed that food is very much a political issue, which is exactly why governments’ role in the food system must be explored and given better guidance.  Maxwell too agreed global governance of the food system represented a big problem and a big opportunity—and must involve key players such as competition commissions, FSA, departments of social security, world food council. The response to the crisis of 1970s was not enough partly because it was a gathering of agriculture ministries alone.

10.          In summary, Nabarro stressed the following: 

  • Solving food problems has little to do with production.

  • Responding at a country level is key—there is policy advice but it needs to be made more coherent. 

  • The HLTF will be judged by whether or not it manages to increase resources going into food security. 

  • One of the most major concerns of impoverished people (if not their governments) is feeding themselves, their families and their children. They must be listened to in order to make food security a priority for everyone.


How can the world food system be managed better? How can this contribute to reducing hunger and malnutrition? What is the role for international public agencies, and the UN in particular, and how can this role be fulfilled? This event welcomed Dr David Nabarro, co-ordinator of the UN's High Level Task-Force on Avian & Pandemic Influenza and the Global Food Crisis (UNSIC), to address these questions.