The international community has committed to achieve zero hunger by 2030. This year’s World Food Day message by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) rightly reminds us: “Our actions are our future!”-“A #ZeroHunger world by 2030 is possible.” At the same time, the latest assessments on global food and nutrition insecurity point to an aggravated situation for hunger, with currently around 821 million suffering from severe hunger, demonstrating a structural rather than temporary challenge.
The FAO has been at the forefront of efforts to tackle this chronic world food crisis. Over the years, its actions became increasingly oriented toward the human right to adequate food (RTF), which provides a powerful frame and tool to address the root causes of chronic undernutrition and malnutrition. Yet, despite this shift, a startling gap is evident between the FAO’s rhetoric on the right to food and its institutional practices. Since the late 2000’s, a period of institutional retrenchment can be observed, with the FAO not living up to its own rhetoric and falling behind in its initial commitment to the right to food agenda. The FAO Right to Food Team’s declining health and strength is emblematic of this problematic development.
The FAO Right to Food Team’s Rise and Decline
Sparked by the 1996 World Food Summit’s Declaration and Plan of Action and the adoption of the seminal Voluntary Guidelines to support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security in 2004, the FAO’s multidisciplinary Right to Food Unit (later renamed Right to Food Team during a management reform) was established in 2006 to institutionalize and promote a right to food approach within and beyond the Organization. Once of substantial size and staff power, this Unit was at the core of the Organization’s human rights mainstreaming endeavor and was successful in providing training and advocacy, capacity-building, monitoring, and published materials on the right to food – to name only a few of its various activities. In recent years, its focus has been on time-bound projects at regional and country level, as a direct result of its exclusively extra-budgetary funding base.
Despite a positive in-house evaluation of these projects and the Team’s work in 2015, which called on the FAO leadership to further strengthen the RTF Team, a dramatic decline of the Team’s resources and capacity has led to an almost complete demise of the Team in recent years. Notable in the 2015 evaluation, the evaluators considered “that the RtF team should be further strengthened in case FAO decides to systematically continue the RtF related work” (emphasis added). This phrasing accurately captures the volatile standing of the RTF agenda within the Organization: the FAO does not seem sure whether to systematically promote and institutionalize the right to food approach any further. In 2016, an FAO staff member described the RTF Team as “half dead”.
How is this possible? Shouldn’t the right to food approach – with its focus on attending to the root causes of hunger and the specialist unit supporting it – rank as the top priority in an Organization committed to tackling the chronic world food crisis and realizing zero hunger by 2030? This situation is clearly an expression of the weakened mainstreaming momentum, which had been strong in the initial years of the RTF Unit but lost its force within the Organization in recent years. This withering of human rights mainstreaming in the FAO is due to a multitude of complex factors at different levels, among them decreased leadership support, financial retrenchment, and at the core, the prevalent organizational “silo culture”.
A Weakened Mainstreaming Momentum in FAO
Whereas the initiative and ownership of the prior Director-General allowed for the rise and institutionalization of the RTF Unit, the current Director-General, Graziano da Silva, has not prioritized the Unit. Under Graziano da Silva’s leadership, there is an assumption that human rights and the right to food underlie everything FAO does, especially in areas such as partnerships, parliamentary fronts, family farming, and indigenous peoples. Thus, there is no need for a strong, institutionalized RTF Team, and mainstreaming does not need to be prioritized.
This lack of tangible institutional support, reflected in the termination of regular budget support for the RTF Team by 2013, also prompted further financial retrenchment by former “right to food champions” – European member states and project donors that had supported the RTF agenda and its initial institutionalization. New “cyclical fashions” in the FAO and in bilateral and multilateral development (with short-term focused project funding) support this trend, as do powerful private sector interests.
Finally, FAO’s organizational culture is characterized by pervasive fragmentation and “silos,” which translate into obstacles to communication and collaboration and which instill a disconnect that impedes working together in a cross-cutting fashion (which is at the core of a rights-based approach). Permeating the entire Organization and largely resisting reform efforts, FAO’s silo culture led to the right to food and the RTF Unit becoming “siloed” in an Organization that still perceives of itself as a predominantly technical agency at the service of member states, with human rights regarded as too political. The specialist RTF Unit became marginalized in an economics division, which showed lukewarm management support for the RTF Team’s work to facilitate empowerment and accountability.
Political Will and Institutional Support
Altogether, the trajectory of the right to food and its mainstreaming unit within FAO demonstrates that—far from unidirectional progress—mainstreaming success cannot be taken for granted, reflecting the dynamics of the contentious human rights agenda itself. In order to make a #ZeroHunger world truly possible, the root causes of the ongoing world hunger crisis must be sustainably tackled and thus the right to food agenda needs bold leadership and institutional support – against all odds.