1. Introduction

1.1 The context

The member countries of FAO, in approving the Organization's Constitution, defined its ultimate purpose in the following terms:

"raising the levels of nutrition and standards of living of the peoples under their respective jurisdictions; securing improvements in the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products; bettering the condition of rural populations; and thus contributing toward an expanding world economy and ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger".

FAO was one of the first UN agencies to recognize that fulfilment of this purpose would require the involvement of society at large. The Freedom from Hunger Campaign (FFHC) was established in 1959 as a means to this end.1 Over time, technical units and offices throughout FAO have built up their relations with NGOs, both in the field and through global dialogue and information sharing. These efforts have given very positive results, but more could be achieved with a guiding policy, appropriate operational procedures and effective mechanisms for exchanging, and learning from, experience.

The rapid transformations taking place in the world today make it imperative to take a fresh look at FAO's relations with NGOs and other non-state actors. This is a challenge that the UN system as a whole is facing.2 Over the past decade, the globalization of the economy has affected governments' control of a range of policy instruments. Structural adjustment reforms have led to the transfer of more responsibility for services and economic initiative to the private sector and civil society. At the same time, the demise of authoritarian regimes has created an opportunity for groups and movements of all kinds to spring up and make their voices heard.

However the changing roles of government and civil society are defined, it is clear that there are many more actors impacting on food security and agricultural development (including fisheries and forestry) than in the past. Until recently, despite its history of relations with NGOs, as an intergovernmental institution FAO interacted predominantly with government services in performing its functions of providing technical assistance and policy advice and setting norms. Now it needs to relate to a broader range of constituencies. In the World Food Summit Plan of Action, FAO's Member Governments underscored the importance of alliances with CSOs, paying tribute to the effectiveness of their contribution to national and global food security.

It was this concern that led the Director-General of FAO, in 1996, to request the Unit for Cooperation with Private Sector and NGOs (TCDN) to coordinate a review of FAO's policy and strategy of cooperation with NGOs. The review has been carried out in close consultation with NGOs from all regions, whose views and expectations have been synthesized in a paper prepared by an NGO spokesperson.3 An Expert Meeting on Civil Society Involvement in Follow-up to the World Food Summit,4 held at the request of the Director-General in January 1998, provided further insights. Within FAO, a network of NGO focal points has been established to share experience and stimulate reflection. Input has been sought from field offices. Each technical department has undertaken its own review of its cooperation with NGOs, flagging policy issues that require attention at the Organization-wide level and identifying priorities and opportunities for working with NGOs in the technical areas of concern to them.

The main findings of these separate exercises have been brought together in this policy and strategy paper, which has been subscribed to by the various units and offices of FAO and by the Organization's senior management. The strategies and priorities for action set out in sections II and III below constitute a long-term programme to be carried out as resources permit. It will be discussed with CSOs in order to agree on a work plan and define responsibilities for resource mobilization and implementation.

This paper addresses a set of needs and opportunities as they are currently perceived. As the relationship between FAO and CSOs evolves, so will the policy framework and work programme.

1.2 A basis for partnership FAO today

Certain aspects of FAO's work and institutional identity have made it an increasingly significant UN system partner for NGOs over the years, and its mandate covers areas of vital concern to people throughout the world. It has, for example, a role in international regulation and in policy advice at the national level; and an ability to help build bridges between development and environmental concerns. As NGOs have deepened their appreciation of and their expertise in the technical content of goals such as sustainability and equity, their interest in FAO has increased.

Other aspects, however, have tended to frustrate this growing interest. NGOs feel that FAO's complexity and the procedures governing its relations with NGOs have created institutional obstacles to closer cooperation. They have found it hard to relate the top-down "macro" approaches that have been adopted by official development agencies in general to the day-to-day realities of rural people. Until recently, NGO experience in areas such as organic agriculture, in which they have taken the lead, have met with a reaction of diffidence from many technical specialists.

Since taking office in 1994, the Director-General has acted to streamline and reorganize FAO, and the measures taken are creating a more positive environment for cooperation with external partners. The Organization's focus has been sharpened by giving top priority to food security. Restructuring is bringing project operations and technical and policy advice closer to member countries by moving FAO technicians to regional and newly created subregional offices. FAO is greatly expanding its use of information technology to improve communications both within and outside the Organization.

The Strategic Framework for FAO, currently being formulated, will provide an even clearer vision of priorities and objectives. It will ensure a greater critical mass in areas where FAO has a clear comparative advantage and facilitate interdisciplinary programmes and integration of headquarters' and decentralized offices' activities. The strategic planning exercise is confirming the importance of developing partnerships across the range of the Organization's work.

The NGO/CSO sector

The UN system's definition of NGOs is broad: all not-for-profit actors who are not governmental or intergovernmental. The expansion and diversification of this sector and of its relations with the UN, however, is being accompanied by an evolution in terminology. "NGO" now tends to be reserved for formally constituted organizations, which often do not represent sectors of the population but provide services and/or mobilize public opinion in areas of relevance to the UN system. The term "civil society" refers to the sphere in which citizens and social movements organize themselves around objectives, constituencies and thematic interests. "Civil society organizations" include both NGOs and popular organizations - formal and informal - as well as other categories such as the mass media, local authorities, business leaders and the research community. The term "non-state actors" is even more comprehensive, also including for-profit businesses.

Whichever term is adopted, it is important to take account of the differences between its constituent components and the separate identities, roles and interests being pursued, and to build appropriate relations accordingly. This requires making certain common sense distinctions, for example between:

This paper deals with CSOs in the broad sense defined above but also maintains the reference to NGOs, since the bulk of FAO's past and present experience is with this category. FAO's cooperation with the for-profit private sector, not covered in this paper, is being developed in a parallel and complementary process. The new directions of collaboration that are emerging are often quite similar to those with CSOs and are based on the same principles of partnership.

Different categories of NGOs or CSOs are relevant partners of FAO for different purposes. Distinctions can be based on technical areas of interest (e.g. sustainable agriculture, gender, environment), functional areas of activity (e.g. capacity building, advocacy, technical support), and/or organizational characteristics (e.g. representative or non-representative, international or local, rural or urban).

FAO needs to focus its limited resources in relation to its mandate and comparative advantages as a specialized technical agency. Two clear priority categories are: technically competent service NGOs that are motivated and able to build a long-term relationship with FAO in key areas of mutual concern, and membership organizations that represent important FAO constituencies, such as farmers and consumers.

Major categories of CSOs
to which FAO relates

Rural and urban people's organizations. These membership organizations include farmers' associations, cooperatives, women's groups, credit unions, consumers' organizations, etc. Improving their members' welfare is one of FAO's basic objectives, and encouraging their participation in field action and policy dialogue is a means to this end.

Southern national and regional development NGOs. These organizations can provide services to rural people, help articulate their interests and build up their organizational strength.

Northern development NGOs. Northern NGOs that are operational in developing countries can be significant partners for FAO, while non-operational Northern development NGOs are an important source of support for their NGO partners in the South and undertake valuable development education work at home.

Humanitarian NGOs. These organizations are FAO's main implementing partners in emergency interventions.

Advocacy NGOs. Throughout the world, these NGOs can be allies of FAO in campaigning for food security objectives.

International NGOs and NGO networks. These organizations and networks have an extremely important role in the diffusion of information, exchange of experience and in the discussion and harmonization of NGO/CSO views.

Professional associations and academic/research institutions. This category provides FAO with important technical support.

Agricultural trade unions. These associations are longstanding partners of FAO at different levels.

Private sector associations. Associations linked to agriculture and food, fisheries and forestry are an increasingly important interlocutor for FAO. They range from national chambers of commerce or associations representing small producers to international associations of agro-industry companies.

Benefits of and constraints to cooperation

FAO believes strengthened cooperation with NGOs/CSOs will:

NGOs have listed the following benefits5 to be derived from cooperation with FAO:

Three constraints to enhanced FAO cooperation with NGOs/CSOs were identified in this review: FAO's nature as an intergovernmental organization, the level of available resources and the vast and heterogeneous nature of the NGO/CSO sector.

FAO's identity as an intergovernmental organization affects its partnerships with non-state actors. FAO's activities - particularly at the national level - must have the endorsement of concerned governments, which have differing views about appropriate forms of NGO/CSO participation. At the same time, FAO's institutional identity can be an advantage, since one reason why NGOs/CSOs seek to interact with the Organization is to facilitate their dialogue with governments and intergovernmental forums. Government participation in FAO's partnerships with civil society is part of this process.

Limited financial and human resources are a constraint throughout FAO, particularly at the country level, where small country offices are called on to perform a host of duties. Resource limitations are a reality and will affect the pace of increased collaboration. However, FAO views partnership building, not as an additional task competing with others for scarce time and funds, but as a way of improving FAO's effectiveness.

Finally, many FAO offices have cited the difficulties they experience in relating to the complex, fragmented and rapidly expanding world of NGOs/CSOs. The importance of selecting valid partners for cooperative efforts must not be underestimated. Choosing partners, however, is not an abstract exercise. It involves concrete initiatives for which the competence and relevance of specific organizations can be evaluated. The experience of country offices and technical programmes with a strong tradition of NGO relations demonstrates that, once working relations are established with NGOs/CSOs, mutual understanding is built up and the development of partnerships becomes a joint responsibility.

Principles of partnership

The principles underlying FAO's partnerships with NGOs/CSOs apply to all external actors with which the Organization enters into cooperation. Section III of this paper, Managing NGO cooperation in FAO, suggests that it may be opportune to develop a jointly subscribed code of relations, which could include the following principles drawn from the ethical and operational criteria applied by FAO in granting official NGO status:


The World Food Summit
and CSOs

The World Food Summit was convened in Rome from 13 to 17 November 1996. Its objective was to renew global commitment at the highest political level to the achievement of sustainable food security. The adoption of the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit Plan of Action provides a framework for bringing about important changes in policies and programmes needed to achieve food for all.

Civil society's participation was prominent during the preparatory process. NGOs contributed their insights to Summit documents, regional and global consultations and meetings of the Committee on World Food Security. Some 500 national and international CSOs attended the Summit, while an NGO Forum held in parallel included 1 300 representatives from 80 countries. These consultations stimulated the creation of regional and global networks on food security that are now active in Summit follow-up.

The Plan of Action recognizes the indispensable role of civil society in achieving food security. Commitment Seven stresses that the focus of action lies at the country level, where governments have the main responsibility - involving all actors - to create an enabling economic and political environment. Governments are called on to launch national Food for All Campaigns, marshalling all sectors of civil society and their resources to help identify and implement priority measures. The first stage of these campaigns is for countries to set up national committees comprising government representatives, farmers' and consumers' organizations, NGOs, the private sector, universities, research institutes, parliamentarians, women, youth, the media and other groups who can help address food security issues and mobilize public opinion and resources.

The ACC Network on Rural Development and Food Security brings together UN, governmental and non-governmental organizations to: mobilize support for efforts to implement the World Food Summit Plan of Action and rural development and food security programmes; coordinate relevant activities at the country level; and exchange information, experiences and best practices. It comprises country-level Thematic Groups involving UN organizations, donors, government institutions and CSOs and, at the global level, interested UN agencies and CSOs. Established by the UN Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), the network is managed by FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in close cooperation with the World Food Programme (WFP).

1 Renewed impetus for a people-centred component in FAO's work has come from events such as the World Food Conference (1974), the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (1979), the International Conference on Nutrition (1992), World Food Day and, most recently, the World Food Summit (1996).

2 See Annex, Recent innovations in UN system relations with NGOs.

3 C. Robinson. FAO's cooperation with NGOs. November 1996.

4 See Report of the Expert Meeting on Civil Society Involvement in Follow-up to the World Food Summit, 26-27 January 1998, Rome.

5 C. Robinson. FAO's cooperation with NGOs. November 1996.