The US view on global food security: A conversation with Ertharin Cousin

Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Photo by: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Ertharin Cousin could not hide the excitement from her voice. She was witnessing history in the making as civil society leaders joined representatives of United Nations member states at the 36th Session of the Committee on World Food Security as full members of the body.

The session last week was the first since the world’s leading intergovernmental forum on food security adopted reforms in 2009 to make it more inclusive. The new CFS also emphasizes country-led processes, which, according to the U.S ambassador to U.N. agencies in Rome, provide the foundation for the Obama administration’s flagship food security initiative, Feed the Future.

>> Feed the Future Targets Larger-Scale Projects in Fewer Countries

“The country-led process represents a key factor in our Feed the Future Initiative. This process recognizes the importance of empowering countries while providing the tools necessary to accelerate the growth of their agricultural sector, reduce food insecurity, and improve nutrition, particularly in young children,” Cousin said in a State Department blog describing the objectives of the U.S. delegation to the 2010 CFS session.

Cousin was there when the reforms were adopted, which was just two months after her swearing-in as top U.S envoy to U.N. food and agriculture agencies. Prior to that, she served as president of The Polk Street Group, a Chicago-based public affairs firm, and was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the largest U.S. domestic hunger organization, Feeding America.

Devex caught up with Cousin on the sidelines of the 36th session of CFS. In this exclusive interview, she underscored how civil society can play an important role in developing a global food security strategy and discussed how Feed the Future marries multilateralism and country-led processes in combating hunger worldwide.

This is the first session of the reformed CFS. How will this new architecture affect the definition and the implementation of food policies?

As the first session, I think you already noticed the differences because it is no longer just member states giving interventions and statements of their government’s positions on food security. It is very substantive and issues-driven, which is what the global gathering should provide. A successful CFS would serve as platform for the entire global partnership – and when we say global partnerships, we mean the governments from member states, the civil society, the nonprofit sector, the academia as well as the developing countries and the actors on the ground coming together for this very unique global forum to discuss food security. And we are seeing that goal in action [at this year’s CFS meeting].

Do you think CFS will change the relationships among governments and civil society? How may civil society, farmers and food producers get more involved in the process of drafting and implementing policy?

The CFS – as we discussed last year in the development conversation around what a valuable reform of CFS would provide – should and will provide an opportunity for governments as well as civil society, smallholder organizations, women’s groups, academic groups [and others] to discuss and communicate regarding the best practices that are being performed at the country level that will then drive the decision-making of the countries in the development of their plan for agriculture support.

The challenge that we had is that we did not have a platform where countries – where I say countries, I mean not just governments but actors, the smallholder farmers, the pastoralists, the fisherfolk, all the people who are the agriculture teams on the ground as well as the donors who support that through financial contributions – could come together at the global level to talk about what have we learned, what mistakes did we make, and what learning can other countries take away from the experiences of other countries that have implemented some other programs and projects.

I’m so very excited about the Rwanda and Bangladesh presentation [Oct. 12) because they have … begun to make progress [in areas where] other countries are just on the cusp of beginning the work, and so to have an opportunity for them to come to a global stage and to present the work they have performed today as well as the results of that work to other countries would give them the ability to learn from that information, to help support their implementation of programs in their countries. So, it is an exciting opportunity that the entire global community can benefit from a knowledge standpoint at the global level [by hearing about concrete actions] at the local level.

Do you think this can be a model for other international organizations?

Well, I’m focused on agriculture development and food security, and if we can get that right here. We haven’t yet, there’s much work to do. This is the first year, we don’t expect the CFS to reach all of her goals. There are issues like the high-level panel of experts … to mend the body of work they will do, researching what is the process for that. We still must work out some of those process issues.

But we have come a long way in a year, and if we can make this a success and we can drive results, positive results on the ground, then I would have to guess that there is an opportunity for this kind of global discussion on other issues. But, as I said, I’m focused on agriculture development.

Do you think that CFS will be able to drive the way in which governments allocate their resources for food security? Do you think it can have any impact not only on FAO but also on other agencies with regard to their management of funds?

Well, we don’t support the CFS as defining a mandatory global framework for how agriculture development should be financed. What we recognize, the United States recognizes, and many of the countries who participate in the CFS as well as other partners also would agree and support us on this issue – is this is an opportunity for us to recognize the value of decision making at the country level as opposed to global mandatory decision making – because the resolution of the food security problem and hunger problem in our world will not come from one set of solutions.

The answers on the ground are going to depend upon the issues in a particular country and in a particular region. What we can provide, however, is the information to support the decision making on the ground. We can support the data that will ensure that the decisions at country level … are the right decisions for the hungry people…

Now, the issue of a mandatory global strategic framework for the coordination of financing is one that really the United States believes is not appropriate for a global organization.

Food security is one of the pillars of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. What are your priorities here, in the dialogue with United Nations food agencies?

If you remember, from the beginning of this conversation last year, when the {U.S.] President [Barack Obama] spoke at the G-8 summit in L’Aquila, the countries participating in the L’Aquila summit agreed to what became the “L’Aquila principles.” There was a commitment to multilateralism and supporting the role of multilateral institutions including the World Food Program, Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as the banks in the resolution of the food security issue. Those priorities as laid out in the L’Aquila principles are still very much the agenda that the United States supports.

If you will observe in Feed the Future, which is the United States’ implementation plan for the L’Aquila and Rome principles, there are Feed the Future programs built around the five pillars of the L’Aquila summit and the Rome summit. We have not in any way decreased our commitment to support multilateralism as part of the solution to assist the development and implementation of country-led plans for agriculture development. In fact, we recognize that issues like food security, nutrition, malnutrition will require multilateralism. These are the kind of big questions that bilateral relationships [cannot solve], so we are committed to working with FAO, WFP [and the International Fund for Agricultural Development] in the implementation and development of programs both at the global and local level.

Are you going to allocate more resources to projects of these agencies?

We are the largest donors to WFP, IFAD and FAO, and we believe that our responsibility is to ensure that … the money is used efficiently and effectively to reach the goals of the organizations.

How does the U.S. coordinate food security initiatives with international partners?

We are very excited about the Feed the Future initiative, which is country-based. Let’s take a look at country like Rwanda. … Rwanda’s government and the private sector [did] food society work together with FAO, WFP as donors to create the Rwanda investment plan for agriculture. That plan recognizes the role of multilateral organizations as well as Rwanda and the other entities working to create a food-secure country.

The multilaterals have to sit at the table and are working very much to ensure their plans align with the country’s plans, and we are working very much to ensure that our financial contribution to the countries is aligned with the work of the organizations as well as with the country.

The support of small family farmers is being considered crucial to food security around the globe. Would you agree?

Most countries agree with this principle: When you create a sustainable agriculture program, it will include not just seeds and soil, but capacity building, logistics, transportation, water, market access – all of the pieces that ensure that farmers have not just higher yields, but that [there are] markets where they can buy food.

That includes ensuring that the smallholder farmers, the family-owned [farms] or cooperatives … have access to technical capacity, … access to land. And inside each country, those issues are the focus of the plans that have been implemented by the local organizations as well as governments.

The opportunity that we have at the global level to develop the research for providing the voluntary guidelines for access to land will ensure that the rights of the indigenous, pastoralists and fisherfolk are all respected and regarded as we develop the entire value chain. We cannot ignore the rights of individuals or the right of family farmers. That’s why [we] want [them] to be very much a part of decision making, but that decision making again is at the local level.

We cannot say at the global level: Here is how this particular issue should be end in any one country. What you can do is have the research – science-based, information-based, when I say information, I say data-based – where the farmers are located, where the water is right, and then that information should be utilized at regional and country level to ensure that all of the appropriate groups are protected, and they are part of the development of a value chain, that they benefit from the development of the value chain. If we do this right, nobody should be left behind.

About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.