Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

In Advancing Food Security at G20, Civil Society Can Learn From Business

June 20, 2012

One of the remarkable developments of this G20 Summit is the meteoric rise of the B20 (Business-20) and its championing of an issue that is also a priority for non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—food security and nutrition.

The B20 describes itself as “an international forum aimed at fostering dialogue between G20 governments and the global business community,” with a main objective of providing heads of state with meaningful recommendations from business.

Food security and nutrition might not have achieved the prominence they have at this summit if not for the B20. And they have achieved prominence—if not many concrete results—as evidenced by Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s op-ed in the Financial Times Monday entitled “Why food security comes first:”

We will have failed if we manage to get the richest nations back on track while the poorest still experience famine. That is why my country insisted on placing food security at the top of the G20 agenda, alongside the restoration of economic growth and global financial reform.

However, NGOs’ traditional distrust of the private sector hinders the two from collaborating as effectively as they could. Last year, when I was organizing a meeting of NGO communicators in Paris to prepare for the 2011 G8 and G20 summits in France, I tried to invite a representative from Sanofi, the world’s fourth largest pharmaceutical company, who was interested in getting involved in the G8/G20 process. I welcomed the clout, connections, and resources that Sanofi could bring, but was told by the French NGO coalition that his presence would not be welcome.

So it is with some skepticism that NGOs have seen the B20 take on their issue and release their own food security and nutrition recommendations (PDF).

However, times may be changing: The NGO representatives with whom I talked in Los Cabos all had (mainly) good things to say about the recommendations (PDF).

Sheri Arnott, World Vision’s food security expert, said that private sector involvement in improving food security is necessary. But she also said that “while the B20 plan for food security is in line with civil society recommendations, they are the least developed and least specific of all of the B20 task force recommendations. The B20 needs to do a lot more work to ensure that the goal is truly met.”

Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam GB and one of the two civil society members on the 19-member B20 Task Force on Food Security, thinks the G20 has a lot to learn from the B20 on dealing with food security.

“The G20 is falling far short of what is needed on food security,” she said. “Food security was supposed to be a priority for this summit, but leaders have failed to show any real vision or advance the agenda significantly. Mostly they have re-stated decisions and initiatives taken at their last summit in Cannes. By contrast, business leaders in the B20 have made recommendations on tackling global food security which have put them ahead of the G20, who are failing to take leadership on the issue.”

Civil society and the G20 can both learn from the B20. “The B20 is well organized and has come forward with some ambitious proposals, said Hannah Stoddart, head of Economic Justice Policy Team at Oxfam GB. “We need to think about how civil society engagement in the G20 could also become more formalized. A first step would of course be to have more civil society engagement in the B20.”

The B20’s back-to-back summits with the G20 began in Toronto in 2010, and continued in Seoul, Cannes, and now Los Cabos. Alejandro Ramirez, CEO of Cinepolis and the B20 Summit coordinator for Mexico, said the B20 has learned from its mistakes and improved. For example, in Cannes, the B20 overwhelmed the G20 with 50 recommendations; this year in Los Cabos, they presented 15, on seven priority issues including food security. Civil society still tends to present a laundry list of “asks” to G8 and G20 summits.

It has to be said that civil society has never been consulted so much as it was this year in this Mexico G20. But that was mostly a result of the Mexican presidency’s own desire to engage at an unprecedented level including daily briefings of NGOs by the Mexican sherpa’s office, which I have never seen in three years at these summits. Although I hope this continues with the Russian presidency of the G20 in 2013, I have my doubts considering the Russian government’s strong distrust of NGOs.

But civil society could certainly learn from and build on B20’s success so that, eventually, there could be a G20, a B20, and a C20—a true partnership of government, business, and civil society.

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