Global Policy Forum

Backing Out of Commitments: History Repeating Itself

Countries that make voluntary financial commitments to eradicate hunger often fail to deliver on their promises. This commentary argues that governments back out of commitments because lawmakers are not under sufficient pressure from their constituents. Additionally, there is a low level of public awareness about chronic hunger and malnutrition, the considerable suffering it causes, and the benefits that the eradication of hunger would have for both poor and wealthy nations. NGOs and civil society movements should work together to put pressure on governments to eliminate hunger and ensure world leaders act decisively and are held to account.

By Andrew MacMillan

Global Food Security and Nutrition Dialogue
February 5, 2011



When discussions were going on in 2009 about the directions that the reform of the CFS would take, a number of international NGOs sought to make the case for the CFS assuming an important role in maintaining a public register of commitments made by countries to take action to reduce hunger, so as to provide a baseline against which they could be held accountable for delivery. The register would receive and register voluntary declarations of commitment from the governments of countries that were prepared to be held accountable. An important part of this declaration would be a commitment also to develop and submit to the CFS a national plan for delivery against the commitment. These voluntary commitments could be made by both "developing" as well as "donor" countries, and the plans submitted by "serious" developing countries would be strong candidates for donor support.


Behind this proposal was a long history of gaps between what countries said they would do about hunger and what they actually ended up doing in practice. One of the reasons for this gap, it was argued, was that there was no mechanism under which a country could be held accountable for delivery on its "promises". At the outset of the dialogue on the issue, there was a proposal for the creation of a legally binding "international convention" on the eradication of hunger, but this was shot down on the grounds that it could take years to negotiate, during which time practical action against hunger could be stalled. If the time had not yet come for a "convention", it was argued that at least the reformed CFS should create a mechanism that would offer a means of ensuring greater accountability. It was eventually agreed that the issue of accountability should be taken up in the second phase of CFS reform, but with little indication as to how it would be approached.


Sadly, but predictably, history is repeating itself, and it seems that the "commitments" made by donor governments with much fanfare at the height of the 2006-08 food price crisis are already unravelling. This issue has been the subject of an article in The Economist, entitled "Hungry for Votes - How much do rich countries really worry about feeding the world?" (The Economist, 29 January 2011, p.52).  The article observes that there is no sign that "world leaders" are responding in any way to the current rise in international food prices that have now surpassed the 2008 peak. It then points to the financial woes already being faced by the much-heralded Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP), for which several donors, led by the US, had pledged $900 million, and to which 20 developing countries had submitted requests for projects worth $1billion. "America", it states, "has handed over only $67m of its promised $475m. Congress has whittled down the president's budget request for a further $400m to $100m."  A similar set of tricks appears to being played with the $20 billion L'Aquila Initiative! And last week there were allegations that £3m of Britain's aid budget had been used to pay part of the costs of the Pope's visit to the UK!


Presumably, at the root of this shoddy pattern of behaviour on the part of donors, is that their lawmakers are under no pressure from their constituents to do anything about someone else's hunger. There is an extremely low level of public consciousness about chronic hunger and malnutrition, the massive suffering that it causes, and the huge benefits that would accrue to both poor and rich nations from its eradication. It was for this reason that the proposal for the CFS to assume a role in holding countries accountable for delivering on their commitments, was accompanied by proposals for a global campaign, orchestrated by NGOs and civil society movements, aimed at raising public understanding of the issues and putting greater pressure on governments to tackle hunger. Hopefully, one outcome of the current repetition of the food price crisis, will be a coming together of NGOs to plan and implement such a campaign, building perhaps on the progress of the fair trade and organic farming movements in beginning the process of consumer education.


Maybe the members of the CFS civil society mechanism would be well placed to take the initiative in creating the nucleus of a campaigning group. This could be one of the best ways in which civil society, acting where they have comparative advantage, could help to create the political backing the CFS will badly need if it really is to become a driving force for hunger eradication.


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