Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

Negotiating Rights? Multi-Stakeholder Governance, Global Food Security, and the Right to Food

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The Committee on World Food Security Plenary in 2013. Photograph: Matthew Canfield

The Committee on World Food Security Plenary in 2013. Photograph: Matthew Canfield

By Matthew Canfield, New York University

It was the last day of an exhausting week of meetings at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) held annually in Rome, when civil society members trickled into a conference room for a final discussion about the week’s proceedings. Set to review their involvement in the development of global guidelines for “responsible agricultural investment” (RAI), social movement leaders and NGO participants wrestled with a contentious decision — whether to oppose the final guidelines after participating in “consensus”-based negotiations for over a year.

Between 2013 and 2014, civil society members—representatives of global and regional social movements and international NGOs—had been engaged in an extensive process of drafting and re-drafting the global guidelines to hold states, corporations and other actors accountable for the social consequences of their agricultural investments. Yet for all of the work that had gone into drafting these guidelines—the trips to Rome and regional capitals, the international conference calls, and endless e-mails—the final draft still reflected a model of foreign investment that threatened the right to food for those most vulnerable. As civil society members reflected on the implications of withdrawing support for the guidelines after having spent so much time on them, one of the lead negotiators suggested they faced a larger problem: “The multi-stakeholder process does not recognize asymmetries of power,” she pronounced.

The RAI is just one of several new guidelines developed by the newly reformed CFS through a multi-stakeholder process. In 2009, the UN adopted this “multi-stakeholder” approach in response to conflicts engendered by the World Food Crisis in 2007-2008. Premised on the principles of “inclusivity” and “consensus,” the new approach to norm-making is a major shift from a model of inter-governmental politics in which only member-states could participate in negotiating international agreements and standards. With a multi-stakeholder approach, states, international agencies, civil society, and the private sector negotiate new standards for the realization of the right to food and food security.

Over the past year, I have participated in and observed the CFS process as part of a multi-sited ethnographic study to understand how this turn toward “multi-stakeholder governance” transforms the politics of rights and social justice claims. As I watched the debates over the RAI unfold, I wondered whether this participatory and allegedly consensus-based political arena could in fact settle the disputes for which it had been developed. Does this celebrated new form of global norm-making really offer the democratic arena that it promises?

Stakeholder approaches to norm-making have proliferated in many domains of governance and politics, from municipal decision-making processes to the deliberations of inter-governmental institutions. Though the stakeholder approach has its roots in theories of corporate strategic management, it has since been re-imagined as a model for global democracy [1]. Supporters of the approach claim that by engaging stakeholders in decision-making through consensus-based processes, multi-stakeholder initiatives offer greater inclusivity, accountability, and equity [2].

Enthusiasm for multi-stakeholder processes is perhaps nowhere more popular than in the field of food governance. Indeed, the principle was built into the CFS’ understanding of the human right to food in 2004, when the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security endorsed a multi-stakeholder approach [3]. This was also the first time that the practical meaning and implementation of an economic, social and cultural right was elaborated by states rather than by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – the treaty body responsible for oversight of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Guidelines may thus represent a larger shift in norm-making, particularly as they apply to ESC rights. Yet for all the enthusiasm, how do multi-stakeholder processes transform the form and exercise of global power?

Five years into this process, the civil society participants of the CFS are assessing “wins” and “losses” and trying to understand how these tally up. While some of the various guidelines, such as those on the right to food and land tenure, have been successful in the eyes of social movements, others such as those on biofuels and investment have promoted forms of agro-industrial expansion that socio movements contend only heighten the vulnerability of small-scale producers, food-chain workers, and the urban poor.

Sitting in the final civil society meeting to deal with the RAI guidelines in 2014, the mood was sober. Some of those present argued that if civil society withdrew from the process, it would lose leverage to negotiate and participate in future processes. Others argued that rubber stamping norms that supported the interests of powerful countries and the private sector would only strengthen these interests and cause further harm.

As social movements weigh the costs of participation in these new arenas, they are faced with a double bind. Civil society participants acknowledge that these processes sometimes facilitate the extension of entrenched forms of power through the discourse of consensus, but they also recognize that by reproducing the ideology of consensus and inclusivity, they endow their own voices with greater power. Social movements adopt this discourse strategically to amplify their own perspective, but they struggle with the advantages and limitations provided by this approach.

For socio-legal scholars, multi-stakeholder processes present a theoretical challenge. On the one hand, they represent a form of informal justice that has been criticized for subtly enhancing entrenched power, cooling conflict, and diffusing resistance [4]. On the other hand, the awareness of these challenges by savvy social movements and civil society allies suggests that multi-stakeholder processes may allow increasingly powerful transnational movements to develop more robust social justice claims, strategies, and repertoires. Assessing the way that negotiating rights transforms both the normative system of human rights as well as the ways that social justice claims are articulated and imagined presents new challenges for socio-legal scholars.

Sitting at a coffee shop outside the FAO, one powerful social movement leader put it this way:

“For me, for many people…the decisions of the CFS don’t save the world. But it’s a kind of a wall, where you can repair yourself, take a rest and start again…It’s a small protection to start to negotiate a little bit openly, to be protected from repression.”

Yet for him the process was still immensely important. Over the past week he had watched a social movement leader, a female fisherfolk activist, negotiate directly with governments and the private sector:

“You don’t consider what it means for the dignity of this small lady…she comes here, and discusses… and answers the 10 governments attacking her.”

As social movement leaders participate in these processes, develop their claims, and return home, he suggested, a more powerful transnational movement is organized.

“For me,” he said, “this is enough.”



[1] See Macdonald, Terry. 2008. Global Stakeholder Democracy : Power and Representation Beyond Liberal States: Power and Representation Beyond Liberal States. Oxford University Press.

[2] See Hemmati, Minu. 2002. Multi-stakeholder Processes for Governance and Sustainability: Beyond Deadlock and Conflict. Routledge.

[3] According to Guideline 6 of the Guidelines, “States are encouraged to apply a multi-stakeholder approach to national food security to identify the roles of and involve all relevant stakeholders.”

[4] For critiques of informalism, see: Abel, Richard. 1981. Politics of Informal Justice: The American Experience. Academic Press.






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