Tag: Public sphere theory

Boundary contestation in global food governance: Reflections from CFS43

28 October 2016

As a scholar-activist with an ongoing commitment to its extraordinary potential, but not having attended a plenary meeting since 2011, I attended the 43rd session of the Committee on World Food Security feeling obviously curious about how things had been developing since my last visit. In the time since, a number of important studies by Jessica Duncan, Nora McKeon, and Phillip Seufert, amongst others, had kept me fairly up to date – or so I thought – with how things had been developing since 2011. I had also been closely following the doctoral research of Ingeborg Gaarde, which was again, broadly speaking, CFS-focused. So, although I personally hadn’t been there for a number of years, I felt I had sufficient a grasp of the latest dynamics in the CFS to be adequately prepared for this visit. That was a mistake.

Firstly, my positionality: I had the good fortune to be in Rome for four months in 2009 conducting doctoral research at precisely the time the CFS reform discussions concluded, and was present to witness both the 35th session of the CFS where the reform document was adopted, and the jubilation of the civil society delegation who had achieved so much in the negotiations leading up to that moment. Since then, I have written a PhD thesis, a briefing paper for civil society, two international academic articles, and am presently writing up the findings from a research trip to South India in 2015, all of which focuses in different ways on the promise of the CFS for global food governance, and finding ways to assess the degree to which that promise was being realised in practice. One article addresses  this promise from the perspective of food sovereignty, the other from the perspective of public sphere theory. In short, I have something of an existential commitment to the CFS.

Returning to Rome then for CFS43 it became clear to me that, in many different ways, much of the promise that I had seen in the CFS, both in its vision for reform, and subsequent implementation (as has been well captured in the works mentioned above) was being realised. The Civil Society Mechanism – though clearly still reliant, as these things tend to be, upon the Herculean efforts of a relatively small group of extra-committed individuals – was a large, vibrant and effective gathering. It also seemed to genuinely provide a platform for non-elite constituencies representing small-scale food producer and other marginalised constituencies to exercise voice in a domain – transnational policy-making – that has historically denied them. And, though there were no actual negotiations at this year’s CFS, important outcomes were still secured, such as attaining recognition of the importance of ‘territorial markets’ in the CFS’s policy guidance ‘Connecting smallholder to markets?’, and putting the issue of ‘mega-mergers’ on the global policy agenda via the creation of an ad hoc side event, organised, it seemed, in the face of some stiff resistance by some member states.

However, as significant as these – and many other I have not the space to enumerate – outcomes were, what struck me (figuratively and literally – I was kept awake on a few nights processing these observations) most during my time at CFS43, was evidence of a number of developments that seemed to me to be challenging, in quite a fundamental way, the promise contained in the CFS’s reform blueprint. For example, the admittance of new actors to the CFS such as the World Farmer’s Organization, the apparent freedom they were being granted to participate outside of the mechanisms established in the reform blueprint, and the weight being assigned to their participation (evident in the number of opportunities they were given to take the floor in CFS sessions, and in their recognition as a distinctive category of participants in the initial inception report prepared by the CFS’s evaluation team), all suggested a creeping erosion, or at least renegotiation of the principles of inclusion established in the CFS’s reform blueprint. At the same time, at least one civil society delegation when raising this concern in a meeting with their regional governments’ representatives, were told that the inclusion of new actors makes the CFS ‘more democratic’, and then found the CSM’s own democratic credentials being called into question.

It was also a concern to me to see how deep neoliberal thinking seemed to have penetrated into the work and language of the CFS. A forum in the FAO’s marble floored glass and steel atrium for displays and various stalls was labelled an ‘information market’. And, as the preferred language of state representatives and UN officials confirmed time and time again, the CFS didn’t produce ‘outputs’ or ‘policy guidance’ but ‘products’. Similarly, member states and other institutional actors thronged together in bustling side events (over 50 at CFS43) to, in those I attended at least, problem-solve within the framework of a deep neoliberal-modernisation convergence, which reduced the role of the public sector to the task of ‘catalysing synergies’ with the private sector. A challenging correlate of this was the apparent reluctance of member states to affirm the CFS’s role as a central political space in the UN system for policy convergence. This was evident in the many interventions (cutting across traditional geopolitical divides) by member states, explicitly to dilute language affirming the CFS’s role as a source of ‘policy recommendations’. The testimony of CSOs on the challenges they continually faced promoting human rights-based approaches in CFS work, reinforced this impression further.

Attempting to process and make sense of these developments I arrived at the following insight: The organisational form and work of the CFS is contextualised by an ongoing disagreement over the character of the agrifood system (in its international, regional, national and sub-national dimensions), and specifically the degree to which it is private, or public. This dispute is visible and impacts upon the CFS in two clear ways. Firstly, in disagreements over the location of the boundary between public authority and private autonomy in the agrifood system (within which disagreements over the role of the CFS are situated). And secondly, in disagreements over the principles of inclusion that should be used to regulate the roles and participation of different actors in the CFS’s work. To fast forward somewhat, my main argument is that the organisational form of the CFS (multi-stakeholderism) privileges a historically contingent interpretation of the public authority-private autonomy boundary, one that reflects the hegemony of neoliberal thinking and which poses serious questions about the extent to which the CFS is going to be able to realise its core aims and aspirations. The other serious consequence of the multi-stakeholder approach is that, by collapsing the distinctions between different classes of actor that would be maintained within a more overtly democratic approach, it facilitates the participation of well-resourced actors and organisations, possibly at the expense of the space that is available for the participation of non-elite, and marginalised ‘affected publics’, ten constituencies of whom are clearly identified in the CFS’s reform blueprint.

However, it is important to note that there exists an alternate to the neoliberal-multistakeholder approach: the publicisation approach. This approach seeks to affirm the public character of the agrifood system, a correlate of which is an expanded role for public authority in agrifood system governance, and clear principles of inclusion that privilege the participation of publics and citizens over other actors (stakeholders) in agrifood system governance and policy-making arrangements. These are however, very new reflections for me, and no doubt echo the inevitably more mature critiques and reflections that have and are being made about multi-stakeholder approaches, both in the specific context of the CFS and beyond. With that qualification in mind, I’m sharing them here – inviting education and discussion –  in the spirit of open dialogue and debate which is, many of us would affirm, integral to the ‘spirit’ of the reformed CFS.

Boundary contestation in the CFS: Public authority vs. Private autonomy

The idea of boundary contestation presented here captures the fact that at different times and in different places, public authorities have intervened in the agrifood system to reclassify an activity defined as falling within the sphere of private autonomy, as now falling within the sphere of public authority and therefore subject to its instruments (laws, monitoring, etc). Without going into too much detail, two quick examples will underscore this point.

The first comes from William Cronon’s widely celebrated 2001 history of Chicago and its relationship with the wider region: Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (London: W.W. Norton). In this book Cronon describes how developments in the transportation infrastructure of grain in 19th Century mid-west America, led to the emergence of new technologies (steam driven grain-elevators) and a whole new class of actor (grain operators) whose positionality (possessing unique knowledge about how much grain, and of what quality, was in their elevators) gave them a distinct and widely regarded as inequitable advantage over the farmers and traders whose livelihoods were inextricably bound up with their operations. The outcome of this development, lucidly rendered by Cronon over many pages, was that ‘in 1877, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its famous ruling on Munn vs. Illinois, establishing forever the principle that grain elevators and other such facilities were “clothed with a public interest” and could not escape state regulation’ (Cronon, 1991: 142).

The second example is provided by the UK government’s response to the BSE crisis in the latter decades of the 20th century. This had at least three key elements: banning animal protein in cattle feed; prohibiting the inclusion of certain animal parts in the human food supply; and establishing temporary age limits on cattle to be sold for beef. In each area, choices which up till then had fallen within the sphere of private autonomy of farmers, abattoirs and traders, were reclassified as having an explicitly public character, and therefore, subject to public regulation.

These two snapshot examples show, then, there have been times when, in response to recognised deficiencies within the agrifood system, public authorities have deemed it necessary to redraw the boundary between the spheres of public authority and private autonomy. Shifting our gaze to the transnational, and the contemporary period, however, reveals that there exists at least two radically diverging positions on this issue.

The first of these is expressed within the tendency of elites and policy professionals within the UN system and beyond, to formulate their relationship with the private sector as essentially one of partnership. This is communicated in the proliferation of food and agricultural-related ‘compacts’ and ‘alliances’ , and indeed, in the specific context being discussed here, in the framing within the CFS’s reform blueprint of the private sector as ‘key partners’ with whom collaboration should be strengthened. What is interesting about this approach is that it seems premised on the idea that each actor (i.e., the private sector on the one hand, the public sector on the other) presides over an autonomous sphere of responsibility. That is, whereas in the two examples cited above the status the private sphere of autonomy enjoyed by grain elevator operators, farmers, abattoirs and traders was contingently private, and could and was reclassified as ‘public’ when necessary, the partnership approach surrenders this possibility, and re-categorises the autonomous sphere of the private sector as somehow permanent. This is also evident in the emphasis placed upon ‘consensus’ in such arrangements, which as a vehicle for securing public policy objectives is a long way, of course, from laws, taxes, official inspection and other more muscular expressions of public authority.

Of course, as others have suggested elsewhere, the partnership approach and the roles it assigns public authority reflects and bears the imprint of the ‘embedded’ neoliberal philosophy that seems to dominate the thinking of most policy-elites at this time (Duncan, 2015; Cerny, 2008). This suggests that the organisational form of multi-stakeholderism, which reflects the partnership logic, privileges a historically contingent interpretation of the public authority-private autonomy boundary, one that reflects the hegemony of neoliberal thinking. Given that, the very DNA of this approach seems to preclude from the outset the possibility of an at times historically useful governance intervention (redefining the public-private boundary) this poses serious questions about the extent to which initiatives adopting this approach are going to be able to realise their core aims and aspirations. Certainly the private sector (agrifood corporations), well organised, financially powerful, and enjoying direct access to senior officials and politicians, have themselves sought to preserve, and indeed, extend their sphere of private autonomy, one manifestation of which is the effort they put upon affirming  ‘market-based solutions’ as the preferred response to global food and agricultural issues.

There is, however, a counter position on this issue. This is championed largely by civil society, particularly those actors with a strong commitment to human rights-based approaches, such as the food sovereignty and right to food movements. These actors, in contrast to the partnerships approach, advocate an expansion in public authority, seeking a reclassification of the status a particular area of activity (from private to public) or affirming the status and prior held responsibilities of public authorities (e.g., states), in the face of a potential erosion of, or hesitancy in performing, these actors’ roles. This involves both problematizing the activities and freedoms of private sector actors (e.g. agrifood corporations), seeking a ‘re-regulation’ of the market’ (Wittman, 2010: 95), reaffirming when possible the responsibilities of states for food and agricultural governance, and seeking the adoption of new governance instruments that explicitly extend the sphere of public authority through the creation of new rights.

Indeed, the very affirmation of the rights based approach so central to civil society in the CFS, does this implicitly, because the affirmation of rights claims implies an addressee, duty-bearers, who are, most of time, public authorities. Thus the human rights-based approach is more than just an affirmation of rights, but is also an affirmation of a particular (normative) vision as to where power and responsibility in the agrifood system should fall.

Here then, we have two radically different positions on the issue of where the historically contingent boundary between public authority and private autonomy should fall. On the one side, the neoliberal-inspired partnership approach that partly finds expression in the organisational form of multi-stakeholderism. On the other, the rights based approaches, which by seeking an expansion in the sphere of public authority, and a corresponding contraction in the sphere available for the private sector, can be labelled the publicisation approach (some of the properties of which I have outlined here).

Recognising the existence of these two radically diverging approaches helps us (it certainly helped me) to make sense of the various interactions and discussions I observed or heard being discussed at CFS43. For example, it explains why member states and civil society have divergent views on the importance of human rights language in the documents of the CFS. It is clear that for some member states, this is very little more than a rhetorical commitment, or general statement of principle, which leaves the wider field of relations (e.g., the boundary between public and private spheres) unproblematised. It’s a kind of window dressing for an essentially neoliberal approach. For civil society, the human rights approach is part of an ongoing struggle to publicise the agrifood system, to redefine the public-private boundary affirmed within neoliberalism, and therefore requires constant reinforcement and supportive action.

Likewise, it explains the radically different area of foci of civil society and institutional actors, as visible in the side events at CFS43. As already noted, in the non-civil society sessions I attended the spirit was very much problem-solving within a shared commitment to an implied neoliberal-modernisation framework. The language was focused on cultivating ‘synergies’ between different actors (particularly donors and the private sector), with public authorities cast in the role of ‘catalysers’. In contrast, civil society sought to direct attention to the problematic consequences of private sector activity, first in a session on ‘Conflicts of Interest’ and then again in a session on ‘Mega-mergers’. The unstated addressee of these interventions, of course, were the member states.

The gulf between these two approaches reminds me of a FAO meeting on rural institution building I attended many years ago. In response to a smallscale food producer describing the decades-long struggle of his organisation and the wider movement in which it was embedded for his national government to honour its statutory natural resource access commitments, a representative from a multilateral institution started talking about ‘trade facilitation’. He was literally talking a different language to that of the smallscale farmer, and the same thing – reflecting the existence of radically diverging interpretive frameworks –  is visible in the CFS. One side sees the public-private boundary as fixed and unproblematic, the other sees it as very problematic and in desperate need of renegotiation.

  1. Boundary contestation in the CFS, Part 2: ‘Stakeholders’ vs. ‘Publics’.


Disagreements in the CFS about the location of the boundary between public and private spheres reflect the ongoing dispute about the character of the agrifood system that seems to me to provide a critically important part of the context for the CFS’s work. Another way in which this dispute impacts upon the CFS’s works is in relation to disagreements over the principles of inclusion that should be used to recognise who counts as a participant in the CFS.

This disagreement seems quite straightforward. On the one hand, there is the multi-stakeholder approach. This is somewhat fuzzy, in the sense that it is not automatically clear what ‘having a stake’ or even what a ‘stake’ is or means, and its relation to the embedded neoliberalism highlighted above is also not completely clear (is it a continuation, or a modification?). Though in its accent upon ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’ as the preferred relational mode, and in its inclusion of the private sector as a distinct category of stakeholder, the multi-stakeholder approach does seem to reaffirm an understanding of the public-private boundary consistent with neoliberal approaches.

Alternately, there is the approach affirmed by civil society, with the food sovereignty and right to food movements at the fore. This, in contrast to the stakeholder approach, privileges the participation of rights holders, and citizens. This approach has a publicisation dimension in at least two important ways. Firstly, because, again, the (implicit) addressee of these approaches is a public authority willing and able to defend and uphold the rights claims that are bound up with these identities (Fraser, 2007).  And secondly, because of the resonance between these principles of inclusion, the practices and spaces that have been established by civil society to realise them, and the substantive ideas about democracy contained within deliberative theories of democracy like public sphere theory. From this perspective, in the bottom-up mobilisations of organisations like La Vía Campesina, and other transnationally active social movements, supported and infused with their affirmation of their identities as rights-holders and citizens, we can see the emergence of a nascent ‘affected public’. That is, a public of those affected by the issues being discussed in fora like the CFS (Brem-Wilson, 2011; 2016).

This resonance between the bottom-up mobilisation of these actors and the disciplining lens of a substantive theory of democracy like public sphere theory is absolutely vital in at least two ways. Firstly, it allows us to be clear about what ‘democracy’ could or should mean in a context like the CFS. For example, as already noted, at CFS43 one civil society delegation were told by their regional governments’ representatives that including more actors in the CFS makes it more ‘democratic’. From the perspective of public sphere theory, however, it is absolutely clear that ‘inclusion’ and ‘democracy’ are two very different things. Indeed, in light of the sensitive analysis provided by scholars working within the framework of public sphere theory on the factors that inhibit the participation of non-elites in politically important deliberative or discursive arenas, we can be absolutely clear that a blind inclusivity can in fact be undemocratic, especially when it diminishes the space that is available for marginalised or minority constituencies (Fraser, 1990; Calhoun, 2010; Brem-Wilson, 2016).

In the wider context, where, as many studies have shown, it is virtually axiomatic that there exists a ‘democratic deficit’ at the heart of transnational policy-making and governance; where the UN bodies and officials that have opened up to the participation of civil society groups have tended to privilege the participation of those organisations and individuals who are willing to adopt to the modes of participation (dress style, language, working culture) favoured by institutional elites; and where therefore the CFS’s own inclusivity aspirations (communicated in its commitment to ensuring the participation of ‘those most affected by food insecurity’, and in the organisational structure and working modes of the CSM) are so fundamentally important,  the need for vigilance to ensure that a fuzzily conceived pursuit of ‘inclusion’ does not come at the expense of the CFS’s more substantively democratic potential, is pressing.

From this perspective, along with the concerns noted above, the absence of appropriate methodologies to support non-elite, affected public participation in the previous (online questionnaire) and present CFS evaluations, is highly troubling. Also of concern is the apparent trend towards decoupling decision-making moments in the CFS from those times in the annual calendar precisely when the participation of non-elite constituencies, for various different reasons, is more likely to be secured (e.g., following or prior to meetings of the Advisory Group and Plenary).

Concluding Reflections

In their post-plenary reflection last year Jessica Duncan and Matheus Alves Zanella characterised the CFS as being at an important ‘crossroads’. This analysis was vibrantly echoed in the CSM this year at CFS43, and reverberated across many conversations in which I was a participant or present. Many of the concerns they noted in their intervention also find expression in this reflection. A forthcoming paper by Nora McKeon, critiquing precisely the multi-stakeholder approach, will also no doubt take these further.

The value of the perspective offered here is that it situates the development – or retardation – of the CFS in a wider context. This is characterised by the existence of two key approaches, both diverging in relation to the question of the fundamental character of the agrifood system: private or public. On the one side, a neoliberal-modernisation nexus, the preferred organisational form of which is multi-stakeholderism. On the other, a publicisation approach, the organisational form of which is perhaps less fixed, but which fundamentally depends on at least three things (no doubt more): Firstly, the ultimate primacy of public authority. Secondly, recognising the historically contingent nature of the boundary between public authority and private autonomy, with a corresponding willingness to extend the sphere of public authority, where required. And thirdly, recognising that democracy is a substantive idea that privileges the participation of affected publics (citizens and rights-holders) over other stakeholders, one important consequence of which is a deep commitment to creating ‘participatory opportunities’ that effectively enable, and not inhibit, the participation of these constituencies (Brem-Wilson, 2015; 2016).

As someone who is absolutely committed to the publicisation agenda, and who although not in the front line of that struggle, seeks to support it in whatever way he can, I have to ask the question here: ‘What can be done in response to the dynamics outlined above?’ The answer to this is not straightforward. However, echoing the intervention made at CFS43 by Phil Macnaghten, Professor of Technology and International Development at Wageningen University on the importance of scientific reflexivity when developing potentially disruptive new technologies (in an evening session on ‘Next generation genetic engineering’ hosted by the ETC group), I do think it will be important to promote reflexivity amongst the institutional process managers and actors who, ultimately, are the addressee of the publicisation agenda, but who perhaps don’t appreciate fully its meaning.

Reflexivity in this context would involve the recognition that a) there are diverging positions on the character of the agrifood system, b) that these translate into diverging ideas about global food governance, and c) that often decisions taken in the CFS, at all levels of its work, have the effect of either privileging one perspective over another. One small step towards achieving this could be the creation of a deliberative arena or process in which advocates from either side (publicisation vs. neoliberal multi-stakeholderism) debate and discuss with each other the merits of their respective approaches. In the face of the enormous challenges that are being faced by those negotiating chronic food insecurity, or who are exposed to the worst excesses of corporate power and state neglect, such a measure probably seems weak and unconvincing. Without necessarily knowing how to respond, it’s perhaps enough that we let their protestations ring in our ears.


Brem-Wilson, J. (2016).  ‘La Vía Campesina and the UN Committee on World Food Security: Affected publics and institutional dynamics in the nascent transnational public sphere’ Review of International Studies, pp. 1–28. doi: 10.1017/S0260210516000309.

Brem-Wilson, J. (2015). ‘Towards food sovereignty: Interrogating peasant voice in the UN Committee on World Food Security’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 42(1): 73-95.

Calhoun, C. (2010) ‘The public sphere in the field of power’, Social Science History, 34(3): 301–35.

Cronon. W. (1991): Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (London: W.W. Norton).

Duncan, J. (2015). Global Food Security Governance: Civil Society Engagement in the Reformed Committee on World Food Security. London: Routledge.

Food Standards Agency. (2005). BSE and Beef: New Controls Explained. Available at: https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/multimedia/pdfs/publication/bsebooklet.pdf.Accessed 28 October 2016.

Fraser, N. (1990). ‘Rethinking the public sphere: a contribution to the critique of actuallyexisting democracy’, Social Text, 25(26): 56–80.

Fraser, N. (2007). ‘Special section: Transnational public sphere: Transnationalizing the public sphere: On the legitimacy and efficacy of public opinion in a post-Westphalian world’, Theory Culture & Society, 24(7): 7–30.

Wittman, H. (2010). ‘Reconnecting Agriculture and the Environment: Food Sovereignty and the Agrarian Basis of Ecological Citizenship’ in Wittman, H., Desmarais, A.A. and Wiebe, N. (eds.) Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Press.