Eighty-eighth Session of the Programme Committee and Hundredth Session of the Finance Committee
Rome, 11 September 2002
PROPOSED REFORM OF THE GENERAL DEBATE AT CONFERENCE
1. Since September 1998, the Joint Meeting of the Programme and Finance Committees has been examining ways of reforming the General Debate held during Conference sessions with the objective of achieving a greater degree of interaction among Ministers than allowed for by the present format of sequential statements delivered from the podium.
2. In November 1998 the Council, at its Hundred and Fifteenth session, generally agreed that it would be desirable to achieve greater interaction among Ministers, but did not express a preference for any of the options placed before it, namely: (a) Holding the Conference in two stages (the first at Senior official level, the second at Ministerial level); (b) Setting aside one or two days for Ministers to hold an open debate on a specific theme of global importance selected by the June Council; (c) Discussion of topics which Ministers could consider in separate but simultaneous meetings.
3. In response to the request made by the Council, at its Hundred and Fifteenth session, the May 1999 Joint Meeting examined two alternatives: (a) Three Simultaneous Ministerial Meetings without parallel Conference sittings (b) Three Simultaneous Ministerial Meetings with parallel Conference sittings, which would have led to incremental servicing costs and timetable constrictions.
4. In June 1999 the Council, at its Hundred and Sixteenth session, requested the Joint Meeting to further examine ways of reforming the General Debate at Conference. Due to time constraints, the September 1999 Joint Meeting decided to postpone consideration of the item until its May 2000 session, at which time it examined the proposal to set aside half a day early in the Conference for heads of delegations to participate in interactive Round Table discussions.
5. In September 2000 the Joint Meeting further examined the proposal of setting aside half a day early in the Conference for heads of delegations to participate in Round Table discussions following the “closed door” approach used during the 2000 round of Regional Conferences. This was seen as an initial step towards moving away from the traditional practice of dedicating four days to statements in Plenary, and to encouraging a more stimulating debate that would, inter alia, lead to greater commitment to the Organization at ministerial level. The Joint Meeting noted that the Thirty-first FAO Conference (November 2001) was planned as a forum for World Food Summit: five years later and that it would be more appropriate to introduce innovations at a subsequent session of Conference. The Committees also discussed the merits of the format adopted for the United Nations Millennium Assembly (New York, September 2000), in which four separate regionally-represented Round Tables were attended by Heads of State and Government.
6. At its May 2002 Session the Joint Meeting decided to defer further consideration of reforming the General Debate through the introduction of Ministerial Round Tables until its September 2002 Session, by which time Members of the Programme and Finance Committees and the Secretariat would have had time to draw conclusions from experience gained during the Round Tables and Multistakeholder Dialogue held on the occasion of the World Food Summit: five years later (Rome, 10-13 June 2002). Moreover, by that time, FAO Members will also have had the opportunity to participate in informal Ministerial Meetings convened within the framework of the 2002 round of FAO Regional Conferences.
7. In May 2001, the Committee for World Food Security (CFS) agreed that the arrangements for the World Food Summit: five years later should include interactive meetings among Heads of Delegations, drawing on the experience of the United Nations Millennium Summit (New York, September 2000) and the 2002 FAO Regional Conferences. In June 2001 the Council, at its Hundred and Twentieth session, approved the proposal of the CFS for the organization of three Round Tables in parallel to the Plenary Sessions of the World Food Summit: five years later, with no press coverage, no verbatim records and no attendance by observers. A single theme was chosen, i.e. “The World Food Summit Plan of Action – results achieved, obstacles met and means of overcoming them.”
8. Three Round Tables of three hours each were held in the King Faisal Room, two sessions on 11 June and one session on 12 June 2002. They were attended by an aggregate 117 high level participants, including Heads of State, Heads of Government, Ministers and one member of the European Commission. There were two co-chairs for each Round Table and one of them presented the conclusions of the Round Table to the Plenary. These conclusions were recorded in the Report of the World Food Summit: five years later.
9.Round Table I was co-chaired by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of Colombia and the Minister of Agriculture and Trade Negotiations of New Zealand, and 36 countries were represented. Round Table II was co-chaired by the Minister of Water and Livestock Development of Tanzania and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food of Canada, and 38 countries were represented. Round Table III was co-chaired by the Minister of Agriculture of Jordan and the Secretary of State for Cooperation for Development of Belgium, and 42 countries and the European Community were represented.
10. The relatively informal character of the Round Table format was conducive to a free exchange of views and allowed most participants to intervene. The interactive nature of the debate offered an opportunity for participants to compare viewpoints and react to statements made by previous speakers. The closed nature of the meeting created a business-like working environment that was less formal than the traditional general debate format.
11. One factor contributing to the success of the Round Table format was the coherence between the content of the interactive sessions and the formal presentations in the Plenary, due to the fact that the topics discussed in both fora were directly linked to the over-arching theme of the Summit. Nevertheless, it was clear that the two formats served distinctly different purposes; the Round Tables being effective in facilitating exchange of views among Ministers, while the Plenary was a formal forum for conveying the official positions of the countries and of the FAO Member Organization as well as of observers, including non-governmental and civil society organizations, UN institutions and other intergovernmental organizations.
12. The inclusion of an interactive session on the agenda of the World Food Summit: five years later did present a challenge to some delegations who also wished to attend more plenary sessions and at the same time fulfil other obligations, such as bilateral meetings. It might also be argued that even more openness could have been achieved if the Round Table format had included provision for participation of observer delegations (e.g. Heads of UN system organizations and other intergovernmental organizations as well as major non-governmental organizations). In addition, while participation was limited to only one Round Table for each country, some Ministers expressed interest in attending more than one Round Table.
13. Taking into account the positive experience during the World Food Summit: five years later, the Joint Meeting may wish to consider convening similar Round Tables, at Ministerial level, during future FAO Conference sessions. The following analysis of various approaches is submitted for the consideration of the Joint Meeting:
a) Round Tables concurrently with the General Debate
14. This approach is based on the application of the format adopted during the World Food Summit: five years later. Considering that the present FAO Membership is 184, it would be necessary to hold several Round Tables, each of three hours duration to accommodate a representative of each FAO Member and selected representatives of major intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations in the Round Tables. The representative at each Round Table could be assisted by an adviser, as was the case at the World Food Summit: five years later.
15. If the World Food Summit: five years later model is applied, then FAO Members could be invited to focus on a topic selected by the Council at its June session: the topic should be of relevance to the Membership as a whole; and the theme of the debate would be the same for all the Round Tables.
Each Round Table could have two co-chairs who, as was the case with the World Food Summit: five years later, could report the conclusions of the Round Tables to a Plenary meeting.
16.In evaluating this proposal, the Joint Meeting is invited to consider certain practical factors such as: timing, space availability, attendance by Ministers, and incremental costs. Should the Round Tables be held simultaneously with the General Debate on the State of Food and Agriculture, there could be time constraints for Ministers and members of delegations regarding their attendance at the Plenary sessions, as was the case during the World Food Summit: five years later. Bearing in mind that the work of the Commissions normally requires four full days, and that the Commissions run concurrently with the General Debate in Plenary, there could be a risk of the quorum not being reached for Commission I and Commission II. The estimated incremental servicing costs entailed by this option would be approximately $12,000 for each Round Table for additional interpretation and meeting room staff and $12,500 for the preparation of a background technical paper to assist participants in focussing on the theme selected. Assuming that five Round Tables would be required to accommodate approximately 200 participants, the estimated incremental cost would be $72,500.
17. It is conceivable that the Round Tables may be scheduled in a manner that would not conflict with the General Debate on the State of Food and Agriculture, nor with the work of the Commissions. For example, the Round Tables could be convened on the first two days of the Conference prior to the General Debate in Plenary, on a theme corresponding to one of the items to be discussed by Commission I. The main factor to be considered in appraising this approach is the extent to which Ministerial-level participation would be guaranteed. Further consideration would need to be given to the manner in which the participation of Heads of inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations, as well as representatives of observer States, would be accommodated in the interactive sessions. The incremental cost for this scenario would be the same as holding the Round Tables in parallel with the General Debate.
b) Round Tables substituting for the General Debate
18. As provided for under Rule II.2 (c) (i), the Agenda of all Conference sessions includes an item entitled “Review of the State of Food and Agriculture”, which is the subject of the General Debate. The format of the General Debate has so far consisted of a succession of statements delivered to Plenary, which is normally scheduled for four days beginning on the third day of the Conference.
19.The Joint Meeting may, therefore, wish to give consideration to holding the General Debate using a format that consists of a series of Round Tables on the theme: “The State of Food and Agriculture” and thus substitute the debate traditionally held in Plenary meetings of Conference, thereby avoiding any incremental costs. Each Round Table could have two co-chairs. The conclusions of the Round Tables would, following the approach set out in option (a) above, form part of the Conference Report.
20. In evaluating this model, the Joint Meeting may wish to consider that there could be savings in time, as the time required for five Round Tables is five half-days, while the time required for the General Debate is four full days. Another advantage of this approach would be that Ministers and other members of delegations would have more time to participate in the work of the Commissions and in bi-lateral meetings.
c) Maintain the status quo at Plenary Meetings of Conference
21. Should the Joint Meeting decide not to recommend implementation of either of the Round Table options outlined above, consideration could be given to revitalizing the General Debate by requesting Ministers to focus on a specific issue of global significance and relevance, rather than concentrate their interventions on reviewing national agricultural production and performance. Further guidance might be given to FAO Members beforehand, concerning the substantive content and emphasis of presentations in the General Debate. In addition, a time could be set aside during the General Debate in Plenary for comments on the substance of presentations. Finally, the order of speakers may be arranged to encourage greater diversity of views on the selected theme. This option is not expected to result in any material change in the cost of running the Conference but it may offer the opportunity to focus and enliven the substance of the Plenary sessions.
22.The Joint Meeting may wish to review the various proposals for introducing possible changes in the organization of future sessions of the Conference, taking into account in particular the financial implications involved, and express its views on the reform of the General Debate at Conference.