10 January 2012

Expert Panels: What Are They Good For?

I am currently on the UN Committee on World Food Security's High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). It is an interesting experiment and a part of the reform of international governance of food and nutrition put in place a couple of years ago by the UN. It is interesting because (a) the HLPE acts as an independent think tank in the midst of the UN on food and nutrition, making public recommendations to the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and (b) it tries to draw together expertise and know how from the four corners of the globe.

The HLPE has selected and commissioned two teams to work on two hot issues of the day: "food price volatility" and "land tenure and international investments in agriculture". I have just received final copies of the two reports.

The first is on food price volatility. Two interesting points from this report: (1) it shows clearly the transmission lags between world food price changes and local food price changes. There were 3-6 month lags in transmission of increases from global to local, but very muted declines in local prices even after global prices declined substantially between May 08 and March 09. African prices were the slowest to increase, but once up, they stayed up, right into 2011 (Figure 9 in the report) and (2) there is a nice typology of policy solutions (Table 13) although I would have liked to have seen a greater linkage of these options to political and administrative capacities. For example,Table 12 of the report, which summarises policy interventions actually adopted in the wake of the 07/08 food price spike, shows that countries from Latin America and the Caribbean were much less likely to restrict or ban exports than Asian countries and yet African countries were much more likely to reduce or suspend taxes than Asian countries. Why? Technical, political or administrative capacity reasons?

The second is on large scale land acquisitions and is quite explicit in its discussion of power asymmetries between land users/occupiers, governments and large commercial interests. It aligns its recommendations more closely to different stakeholders than does the first report. Like the first report it calls on the CFS to play a stronger role in promoting data access, policy transparency and stakeholder accountability. This is an important role for the CFS. Data sharing does not always come easily to UN agencies in this arena and transparency and accountability are not always easy for organisations governed by 190 or so members.

As a member of the HLPE I have been encouraged by the openness of the HLPE process so far and the initial attention from the CFS to the first two reports. The HLPE members do not get paid, but the HLPE consumes resources. As more reports come in, an M&E function needs to be put in place to see if and how the reports influence the wider field -- and the CFS/UN in particular.


david rieff said...

But the question, surely, is not the openness of the process but the relevance of the process. The problem with 'high level' panels (and what a vulgarly elitist word that is!) is not that the reports they produce are wrong, it is that it is anything but clear who the audience for these reports is. To be blunt, the food crisis, as you know as well as I do, is a mainly a political problem, not mainly a technical one. But experts are useful for their technical input. They have no special purchase on the political context.

Is the openness you describe a major step forward for the UN? Yes, but, again, why do you, of all people, think this of any great importance?

David Rieff

Lawrence Haddad said...

David, great comment as usual. I do think the technical analysis can make it harder for politics to resist change (e.g. many of the anti-FTT arguments were technical). Also some of the technical analaysis can be about the politics of the system (the land acquisition one certainly has these features). Openness is important, because even if the intended audience is the wrong audience, the content can be captured by other staekholders and redirected to the audiences that matter from a political point of view. And yes, High Level, not a good term---often means detatched from ground reality. Best, Lawrence

Richard Jolly said...

Openness of UN panels is important - and in a second sense. The UN can be much better than national governments and the Washington- based international institutions in drawing together international groups with diverse perspectives, experience and, dare I say the obvious, ideologies. The result is that UN professional groups have often come up with ideas and proposals which are ahead of the curve -perhaps dismissed at the time as wrong or politically impractical but then accepted within a few years as mainstream. Go onto www.unhistory.org for the many examples. Richard Jolly