Participation People

Towards sustainable food security

Food security and the state: responsibility and partnership

Prepared by the FAO Rural Development Division

THE PRIMARY IMPORTANCE of the state and government in bringing about food security cannot be underestimated. The state is able to utilise a wide range of mechanisms for intervention and can operate in multiple areas. Stated simply, there are perhaps four principle means through which the state is able to act:

There are however, no universally-valid prescriptions determining the precise form and content of state action. Instead, the substantive nature of state involvement is conditioned by the interplay of local, national and international factors. What is certain however, is that in the final instance, it is the state that must define the spatial, temporal and sectoral vectors of its intervention. In order to do this, it must first identify goals and objectives and then assess the most effective national and sub-national strategies for attaining them. And in determining the limits of its intervention, the state must also ensure that other sectors and groups are able to act where required. There is then, no standard model. A country with a highly developed and efficient private sector will demand very different forms of state intervention than a country with a small, dysfunctional and/or under-developed private sector. Similarly, a state in a country with an organised and participatory civil society will be required to intervene differently from one in a country where civil society is perhaps unwilling or unable to participate in decision-making processes. It must then, be national and local conditions that shape that shape final solutions.

One of the biggest challenges facing the state therefore, is to determine the extent and nature of its intervention in the food security process. There are certain guidelines that can assist the state in deciding the most effective form of involvement. Included within this list are the facts that:

The role of the state in a changing world

The growing consensus regarding the benefits of political and economic decentralisation and privatisation introduce new considerations into the food security equation. It is now recognised that certain functions can be performed more efficiently and effectively by local and/or non-state groups. There is however, no consensus regarding precisely which roles and which activities. Nor should there be. Once again, there are no universally valid formulae. Instead, the demarcation of public/private and central/local roles depends on national and local capacities, institutions and cultures. Nonetheless, every context has an optimal arrangement between these two sets of competing choices. The challenge facing decision and policy-makers concerns the identification and implementation of that context's most appropriate solution.

There is increasing advocacy for the notion that a function should be performed at the lowest level within a system at which it can still be performed effectively. The decision regarding who, where and how a given function is performed should be based on the capacity and willingness of different sectors to assume new roles, functions and responsibilities.

Similarly, processes and functions should not necessarily be viewed as fixed and self-contained unities. In many instances, processes and decisions can be subdivided, or decomposed, into their constituent components.

Decomposing the elements of action

There are then, many difficult and complex decisions to be made by the state. And it must ensure that all strategies and initiatives are sustainable. They must therefore, be suited to national and local capacities and must be able to continue without excessive future inputs or support.

It is therefore necessary to examine the precise possibilities available to the state in more detail. We have noted that the state has various options. It can for example, provide direct assistance or it can construct necessary enabling environments. The guidelines indicated above can help policy-makers todetermine which of these, and other options, are the most appropriate and promise the most benefit. Two points however are clear:

  1. the historic dichotomies of national / local and state / non-state are increasingly redundant. Solutions should now be defined in terms of differing arrangements along a single continuum. Processes can and should be undertaken by a combination of national and local, and state and non-state factors and groups.
  2. as a result, one must respect the complementarity and multiplicity of state / non-state arrangements. There is no longer a simple choice between one or the other. Instead there are an infinite number of possible arrangements linking the state with non-state sectors. Some arrangements however, are more suited to specific conditions than others. The challenge facing policy-makers is to identify the most appropriate option.

Two basic conclusions can now be proposed:

These points raise two further questions:

Defining goals and objectives

There has never been a better time for the definition of goals and objectives. The 1996 World Food Summit has provided governments with a unique opportunity. The preparatory phases has brought all sectors of the national and international communities together in search of the objectives, perspectives and commitments that should shape the world community's battle for food security.


Governments are not alone in their struggle for food security. Indeed, in many cases, they must not act alone. Instead, they must incorporate partners and form alliances and coalitions, where appropriate, in order to ensure the successful accomplishment of these objectives. Partnerships engender many benefits. They can lead to increased scale economies, they can provide a wider resource base and augment the sum of information available to decision-makers. They can also satisfy growing calls for participation and can produce clear efficiency gains.

Potential partners span all sectors and exist at all levels of the global system. They range from inter-governmental organisations and international non-governmental organisations and business enterprises to village groups attempting to improve, for example, local irrigation management and even, a community's oldest resident, wizened by age and a lifetime's labour, yet the container for the experience and knowledge of this and former generations.

There is one partner that is dedicated exclusively to assisting governments in their individual and collective struggles for food security. That is the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

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