Frustrations of a Lifelong Global Issues Activist

 Back come to my memory, among other, the so many defeats I have lived through with so many others where and when things went sour for us tireless activists struggling for a fairer world. To name just a few: The Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food and those on Food Systems, the Food Systems Summit, reforming the CFS in FAO, the introduction of COVID at the Committee on Food Security in FAO, the Binding Treaty on TNCs and human rights being painfully negotiated for six years at the Human Rights Council, the UN’s Global Compact, WHO’s FENSA, the SUN Initiative, One Nutrition, COVAX, ETOs, the COVID waiver at WTO, 26 COPs since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992… on-and-on

By Claudio Schuftan

Freelance Public Health Consultant and Human Rights Activist  

Co-founding member of the People’s Health Movement

Ho Chi Minh

Frustrations of a Lifelong Global Issues Activist


Frustrations brood, but they also make us rethink. Here I want to zero-in on the challenges we in social movements (have) chronically face(d) in relation to so unsuccessfully having tackled and continue to tackle global governance issues. The story of our lives has so often become a string of disappointments making us sometimes wonder: Are we made a laughing stock? Are we fooling ourselves that ‘things are going to be alright’? or Do we need to work in a totally different way given that the private sector has pushed our backs totally against the wall in rooms where governance issues are decided? Are smart young people going to pick up the challenges as we, old people, are going to phase out pretty soon?

Bringing relevant issues to mind (needed elements for a cool-headed analysis)

As public interest civil society organizations (PICSOs)(i) and social movements, we forever seek meaningful participation in global fora –beyond voice– in an effort to influence and strengthen the decisions that can lead to lasting legally binding changes. How many times, at what is left of true multilateral venues, do we find ourselves defending already earlier agreed language when we are ultimately most often ignored, for instance, at open-ended working group (OEWG) discussions at UN agencies? But, we keep trying, and..?:  …“I participate. You participate. He/she participates. We participate. but… They decide”. (chalkboard in Bolivia)

(i): I do recognize that some PICSOs are also part of the problem and act, not in the interest of their constituencies, and take the side of international NGOs and of rich member states, i.e., many PICSOs have bought-in into public private partnerships (PPPs) and multistakeholder platforms –take the UN’s Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) initiative as an example that has attracted PICSOs. [PICSOs are to be distinguished from PINGOS and BINGOs (Private and Business Interest NGOs and front groups). BINGOs are, among other, backed by big powerful often Gates-funded international NGOs like Save the Children, Helen Keller, ILSI … ) who are brought in to implement and monitor UN resolutions].

So, we have to ask ourselves: When is PICSOs participation in these venues an instrument to manipulate us? I believe some opportunities-still-open are given us simply to give the illusion of genuine consultation/inclusivity –or to use the SUN Initiative’s depicting this as a true ‘dialogue’. They forget to tell us that the same opportunities are given to BINGOs(ii) who, from a position of much greater power, have learned how to word and position their interventions to serve their and their stockholders’ narrow interests. The language they use is now so deceptive that too few are able to tell that it is all a smokescreen. (Keep in mind here: New opportunities to better participate is not what we are ultimately striving for; we are striving for on-the-ground results). For that, therefore, are we truly challenging the dominant narratives by truly bringing people’s experiences, evidence and apprehensions into the global negotiation space? I would say no; we are rather banging our heads against multiple walls –one after the other… Are we thus wasting our time? How many more boils and bruises can we take? The sad truth is that, if we are not there yet, the omnipresent global controlling forces can shamelessly go right ahead with no worries.(ii)  …There is much here to dispassionately rethink so as to profoundly review the way we operate.(iii)

(ii): Final decisions that, as PICSOs we try to influence, too often clash with the call for consensus resolutions by UN member states. Appallingly, what comes out are mostly non-binding resolutions (that may be norm-setting making them sometimes of some relevance). Consensus resolutions are not a written rule in the UN system though. In some decision-making processes in UN agencies, rulings are arrived-at by voting. In reality, the rules for processes of negotiation of UN resolutions are only in theory ‘democratic’ though, i.e., when resolutions are voted, each member state has voice and can abstain or oppose the adoption of a given instrument or resolution. On the other hand, when important resolutions are adopted by consensus, it is because the member states ‘convey that they have the political will to work by consensus’ (it remains to be proven that this is by genuine choice or by pressure reflecting an international system captured by those countries rendered rich). Only in counted processes is consensus approval less controversially chosen, because the negotiating parties have no real big differences with regards to what is being negotiated.

(iii): Progressive movements work best when the ground is laid by, across-the-board– raising their political consciousness …and this takes a long time and much effort, as well as funding, lots of it, and fast. A question we can no longer ignore thus is: Where can progressives get the funding needed for this?  And no less important: Are any groups in place ready to do this consciousness raising? Certainly a huge job.

Because we have historically failed on the politicization front, corporations and allied governments are, again and again, going to easily outmaneuver us. We are literally decades behind. It is our well-founded disappointment that has to lead us into possible new approaches. My point of departure is the fact that money talks. The drivers of global governance have access to enormous and growing resources –and wealth concentration continues to accelerate upwards dramatically– so that those rendered rich will find more and more ways to reduce regulations that hamper their booming businesses. Do I see any promising way forward to make up for this? Being a pessimist-optimist, yes, I do.

More often than not, the above reasons have historically relegated PICSOs’ and social movements’ positions and demands to the dust bin, i.e., member states’ consensus resolutions ignore PICSOs’ well-reasoned inputs so that, at the end, these inputs end up making little or no difference: a pre-desired consensus with softened language is hammered out at the we-hours of the night only to see that, then, the resolutions are not applied at national level where political powers keep things under (their) control. As a response, we may as well demand voting so that minority positions be accepted and tabled! We probably could count on a small number of member states going along with us on this. Make no mistake: what we are talking about here is about the need to demand the overruling of anachronic procedures and rules so as to genuinely democratize UN agencies.

But it is not just about the procedures and rules in UN fora. Probably, an entire new UN reshape is needed. Discussions do exist about this. But they are so far dominated by academics, think tanks, international NGOs and former UN officials. Grassroots social movements have hardly taken up this question; no good reason for it. Basically, it is not about coming up with brilliant new ideas. It is about building up political forces from the ground pushing for the democratization of this absolutely key international body. At this moment, we do not have the right governments, parties, UN officials to bring about and materialize such a vision; much work is ahead here. Moreover, democratizing the UN has to go hand-in-hand with addressing power imbalances among countries and with reclaiming democracy from below. Otherwise it will lead to just more tinkering with pat solutions.

It is pertinent and very important here to remember that, since its creation, the UN has been based on two fundamental principles, namely member states’ sovereignty and polycentrism.(iv)

(iv): Polycentrism in the UN development system gives member states the global voice promised in the organization’s founding Charter. ( Polycentrism is key for building a more egalitarian international order. It is thus a must for member states, particularly in the South, to resurrect this concept and use it as a central revindication banner to build an international order based on true cooperation and respect of their sovereignty, i.e., to defend the UN obligation for states to negotiate as equals. The UN simply must serve as a platform in which all states sit around the table and negotiate the different aspects of, for example (but not only), the SDGs as equals. As can be easily seen, polycentrism is the antithesis of the way the current (and past) international system works based on the law of the most powerful, on a frantic competition between nations and on the primacy of national as opposed global collective interests. Terms are imposed rather than negotiated, therefore protecting/advancing the interests of the great powers and of the international financial institutions –all against the solemn UN principles.

Additionally, at the base of our frustrations is the fact that time has allowed corporations to creep-in to advance their positions through public-private partnerships, within and outside the UN, allowing them to act with impunity so that the power of special interests ends up being far greater than that of the member states and of public interest civil society.

Yes, multilateralism is under attack by corporate capture. Despite our significant and well-reasoned contestations and our resistance to these developments over the past decades, these accumulated trends have culminated in a privatized multistakeholder space we need to forcefully denounce and dispute, simply because financial and transnational  corporations are dominating the agenda laying out a joint UN-corporate roadmap (not only cherry-picking areas of involvement, i.e., those most profitable to them, but also involving ‘socializing’ risks and privatizing profits. They have learned to use hypocrisy…).  What, of course, comes to mind here are developments at the World Economic Forum (take their ‘Great Reset’ Initiative ) and the travesty we observed in the 2021 UN Food System’s Summit with its disregard for the fundamental changes needed for the right to food, to food sovereignty and to agroecology to be respected, among other. Also, Codex Alimentarius boasts about its care for malnourished children and the importance of a fair global trade yet the PICSOs involved in it have a real struggle to get effective safeguards into the texts under discussion –industry dominates the field.

When discussing human rights issues in so many relevant UN and other international fora, country delegations from the Global South are poorly informed and poorly staffed so that they often ‘flow with the Joneses’ as if they do not realize or care when things, the way they are going, clearly go against their national interest. PICSOs are much better informed and prepared than, I would say, 2/3 of the member states’ delegations. But we cannot forget that most PICSOs and individual activists:

a) have pitifully scarce financial and human resources and, unless sufficiently coordinated, achieve only limited synergy –in reality, many are still fragmented and siloed (and thus weak)(v), on top of being vulnerable to problematic offers of funding for technical interventions (some of them good and important, admittedly). But this is at the root of why they fail to see the bigger picture and realize how they are being used to usher-in PPPs that make them loose their independence.

b) are facing shrinking operational spaces and perhaps a reduced ambition to stand up for human rights in a commensurate way.

(v): To make sense of current world problems, we too often fall back on a ‘shish-kebab mentality’. This much easier and convenient approach looks at the various problems affecting the world as if they were all separate events skewed together by tragedy or destiny. So, we set out to tackle each individual morsel …when the problem is in the skewer, i.e., in the structural determinants or, if you wish, the common systemic drivers of the problems behind each morsel. These are linked to the prevailing neoliberal system that is at the very core of each of the morsels. But the point is: We have to focus on changing the skewer to radically change the morsels. So, the morsels have to first come together as a collective rather than letting themselves be pinched up individually on the skewer. (Important note: Also applies to vegetarian kebabs…).

Furthermore, consider these four arguments

a) To keep calling for convergence, coordination and coherence is but a pipe dream. It is like, as we so often have done before, calling for ‘more multidisciplinarity’.(vi)

(vi): There is nothing terribly wrong with this concept, but it just gratuitously assumes that looking at the problem behind these issues from a ‘wider’ multi-professional perspective is going to automatically lead us to the better, more rational and egalitarian solutions… Just by putting together brains ‘sowed’ differently, without considering where they are coming from ideologically, is not going to, all of a sudden, make a significant difference in the outcome and the options that will be chosen. Most proponents of a convergence fall into the same game. They call for putting a stop to groups acting in silos and…converge. Bottom line, true convergence is not to be just an intellectual process. To be effective, it has to lead to a convergence of motivations and energies directed towards the organization of politically driven movements. (I do recognize that there are some who understand the call for convergence rather in terms of ‘grassroots struggles of the world, unite!’. But are they not a minority?).

b) The core issue we are dealing with is a push and/or a pull question. Nothing much will come from (UN) reforms being pushed from above. Only active organized claim holders unrelenting ‘pulling’ for needed changes will move the process ahead. History is clear about this.(vii)

(vii): Where to ‘pull’? Michael Fakhri (the UN’s Special Rapporteur) reminded us that ‘PICSOs coming to the table to discuss better, global solutions’ is not as simple as it sounds, especially if the table is already set, the seating plan non-negotiable and the menu highly limited. …And what if the real conversation is actually happening at a different table?

c) Looking-at and ensuring the progressive realization of human rights is an activity terribly neglected. (Is it perhaps because human rights are not understandable or too abstract to the average claim holders?). Add to this the poorly functioning accountability mechanisms being applied by PICSOs-acting-as-watchdogs (Again, do claim holders really understand what human rights accountability means?).(viii)

(viii): Watchdogs are a man’s best friend: dogs bite. So, what this calls for is more watchdog civil society organizations that are to watch like ‘white knights fighting the dark forces of development aid, corruption and incompetence’. The watchdog function being of utmost importance, we need to become much better at shedding light into darkness by exposing much more what goes wrong.  As said, PICSOs have a crucial role in monitoring the progress, stagnation or regression made in the progressive realization of long-term plans (10 years) to fulfill the right to health, to nutrition, to education… Annual benchmarks of processes-set-in-motion (or not) have to be set so that these PICSOs can assess, to repeat, progress, stagnation or retrogression on an annual basis with something akin to widely disseminated shadow reports.

d) And then there is all this signing of letters of complaint and this writing of declarations and the reading of statements at UN meetings we all so (too) often engage in. Yes, they may make us feel better, but how much do they help? Do we follow up on them? To make a difference, we need to get where it really hurts –and not all PICSOs are happy to go this far; they may make nice gestures, but then hold back. ‘Well done is better than well said’ Benjamin Franklin told us.(ix)

(ix): The lessons to be learned here can best be found with the trade unions that started organizing themselves over a hundred years ago, locally, nationally, globally, not always with equal success. But, to this day, they remain the only credible organizations that can negotiate, that can enforce something –that can bring about true counter-power. (I note that boycotts also have real potential power). Nothing is going to come from ‘the government or the state or the international community should’. World Bank Reports are full of these ‘shoulds’(!) and look where that has taken us. Assessing claim holders’ capacity to demand is thus part of the broader challenge to rectify their chronic inertia. In short, any call must be coupled with human rights learning at the bases so as to help/contribute to empower claim holders to demand the needed changes themselves. Otherwise, our calls will become yet more wish letters to Santa Claus.  [A relevant aside here: what is this animal ‘the international community’? There is no such a thing as the international community; we must take it out of our vocabulary. There is no global obligation for the international community to root out poverty so that the presence of poverty can be considered as a dereliction of duty towards the SDGs.

So far, the international community has failed to organize a credible system of global re-distribution (disparity reduction) so it can be objectively regarded as a violator of the goal on poverty in the SDGs charade. This ‘international community’ will not move effectively in solidarity against poverty and other human rights violations until the neoliberal global restructuring that Globalization has mounted is modified by an ethics about which the proponents of Globalization continue to be terribly ambivalent or choose to turn a blind eye on. Unacceptable passivity has characterized the attitude of the international community in embarking in decisive human rights work. Worldwide coordination among all social movements that support the human rights-based framework is thus the crucial challenge: forget the international community].

What I think needs, among other, to be done:

[Actions suggested here to address the deplorable current situation are brief to the point of caricatures; they are presented in no particular order of priority and, let it be said, I am not as pretentious to think I have the package of actions to follow –they are rather terribly prescriptive and normative at that].

  • Accept no more promises without concrete measures that can be legally enforced and monitored. Accept no more discrepancy between principles and practice.
  • Not only (more) political analyses are needed, but also (more) political action. Action is actually needed on a scale that is mainly only contemplated and voiced by those not sitting at the various decision-making tables.
  • If we want to achieve something more, redouble our organization, further strengthen our structures and mentor more able spokespersons, especially young activists.
  • Having well hammered-out goals and objectives is not enough. In the end, they are only aspirations. Without commensurate and matching policies that lead to legally enforceable measures, they are of no interest to the fulfilment of human rights; only policies that set plausible pathways point to credible destinations.
  • Increase PICSOs mobilization around the shish kebab concept. Only this will build the needed ground resistance to change things sustainably. For this, claim holders must get inside traditionally closed or uninvited spaces…
  • We say we have to convince more member state delegates at UN venues (often diplomat-bureaucrats). But decisions are taken in capitals –mostly in foreign affairs ministries. So, capitals is where our pressure ought to be exerted.
  • Sympathetic champions within UN and other international agencies are key assets: seek, nurture and encourage them.
  • Actively work with sympathetic governments willing to be vocal in international fora partnering with PICSOs in our demands (these demands ultimately clearly benefiting them).
  • Critically question and, as needed, oppose the processes and governance guidelines and procedures of the UN (other than the General Assembly’s one-country-one vote) proposing new, more democratic ones.
  • A procedural change must be kept as a preferred option to move away from passing resolutions by consensus, i.e., allowing for member states’ voting and eventually for minority reports in the several and fragmented UN governance spaces. (This said, I do not underestimate the need for an overall new direction of where the UN should go).
  • Add to these a) contesting the deceiving language in use: no more stakeholders, no more loosely defined partnerships (among unequals), no more non-state actors, no more international community, no more mutual accountability…, and b) be careful not to compromise when, so often –in a mockery of democratic decision-making– we are asked for comments on ‘zero’ or advanced drafts of UN documents.
  • Many small struggles are to coalesce. Among other, this means engaging with academics, trade unions and with youth and women’s organizations –emulating the climate movement and their effective denunciation, e.g., the Fridays For Future movement and Greta’s Blah! Blah! Blah!, and last but not least
  • Broaden our alliances and engagement with the different UN mandate holders (including rapporteurs) and with the South Center in Geneva.(x)

(x): The South Center was created by Mwalimu Nyerere as a think tank of and for the countries of the South. Its positions have, more often than not, been congruent with those of PICSOs. Over the years, it has become influential in many capitals around the world. Working with and through them has the potential of reaching member states with an authoritative and prestigious voice.

Bottom line

Can we work towards building a people’s governance grounded in multilateralism and human rights? For this, the answer may or may not be a new more radical way of engagement(xi) with, for example, the Committee on Food Security (CFS) at FAO, where PICSOs and social movements still have a nominal presence. If this fails, PICSOs and social and indigenous people’s movements in the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) of the CFS must ponder the alternative to leave the CFS moving their demands to other stages with a greater potential to influence governance decisions that break away from the neoliberal chokehold). I recognize we are not there yet. Grassroots social movements are not giving priority to this question yet. So, for now, we should stay in places like the CFS to do precisely this: become biting watchdogs and continue demanding conditions we want to see in place. In that sense, it is more about resisting, about ‘throwing sticks to the wheels’.

(xi): The example of the People’s Health Movement’s ‘WHO Watch’ active in the World Health Assembly (and its Executive Board meetings) every year adds an important action point suggestion here. Activists go through the agenda of each of these meetings weeks in advance and prepare a one or two pager briefing document that, on the top half page, objectively summarizes the key issues under discussion. Then, in a paragraph or two, PHM says which points it agrees with. Underneath, the points of disagreement are summarized with clear justification from a PICSO’s perspective. This is followed by calls for changes to be made in the texts under discussion –not necessarily exhaustively in this short briefing document, but clearly addressing ‘pink lines’ that are of great concern to civil society. The document is then distributed to all member state representatives attending and used for the advocacy PHM volunteers do ‘in the corridors’ in-situ. This has proven effective to provide arguments when member state delegates make use of the floor. [Note that in the case of hybrid meetings, the document can be emailed to Geneva or Rome country Delegations].

[Some concepts were taken from the CSM and Indigenous Peoples’ document ‘Towards a Strategy on Global Food Governance’. Otherwise, I acknowledge the generous inputs of Nora Mckeon, Sofia Monsalve, Raffaele Morgantini, Patti Rundall, Ted Greiner].

On a more facetious note:

En un café de Madrid escuché esta conversación, que mostraba un gran pesimismo, pero ningún dramatismo:

Uno de los contertulios le decía a otro:

-A mi, lo que más me gusta es perder a las barajas.

-¿Pero es que no te gusta ganar?

-¡Coño! ¿se puede?   (you can googletranslate this)


It takes courage to stand up for the things we do at this moment of history. We believe in human rights, we pretend to represent the interests of people and countries rendered poor and receiving pittances in ‘development aid’. And we hope that slowly slowly the world will become a better place to live in, if only member states of the Global South were able to acknowledge that they too have a responsibility and much to lose, that there should be no corruption, that democracy is important, that the emission of greenhouse gases has to be reduced… We want to believe it. But we know it is not reality. Are we achieving what we stand for (fighting poverty, injustice, inequality, climate change, human rights violations)? I mean, are we really?  Of course not. What are we saying and what needs to be done? Who are ‘we’ and who stands with us? Who is listening? We can and do dream; is it the only thing left to us? We continue to believe in a different world, for the generations of today and tomorrow. We try to follow what happens in this world, from a human rights and social justice point of view —in spite of all of today’s gloom. We have to continue to fight for a better world, but are there better ways? (adapted from Francine Mestrum)

Some out-of-the-box ideas

We have to make it our mission to gain full access to the table wherever food governance decisions are being made –beyond the CFS. This has some tactical implications to work-on (the how and the who…and the against whom).

Even more out-of-the-box here: Can we start a campaign for a WHO Committee on Health Security and for a UNICEF Committee on Child Security? Not that we are going to win, but just to raise some eyebrows and eventually gain some momentum (no reason why FAO yes and the others no).

Fight for the approval and funding of a global HR Learning campaign organized by PICSOs, both for duty bearers and for claim holders. This is based on acknowledging that we have little clout, because too many DBs do not know the obligations they are bound-under and CHs do not know the powers HR entitles them to use in organizing, mobilizing and demanding their rights. This will put a lot of responsibility on our shoulders to come up with appropriate curricula and capabilities to participate in these trainings the world over. (We do not have to reinvent the wheel; lots already there).

Make it a point that the Sp Rapp for F+N is on the table at the highest food governance bodies with voice and (minority?) vote!

Make sure genuine reps of social movements/PICSOs are nominated to ‘join the table’ and hold periodic trainings for them to unify criteria of what to fight for as priorities (includes setting red lines).

Even more out-of-the-box here: Ask our lawyer comrades if and how we can sue UN bodies (in HR courts: Europe, other?) for failing to discharge their responsibility of forcefully enough reaffirming the duty of states and of international cooperation as per their respective mandates and UN Charter that obliges them to carry out that duty to realize the RTF and other rights.  (Includes these bodies creating an enabling environment through the allocation of sufficient resources –human and other). This may well end up in a dead end, but has PR and visibility value. (This is not about People’s Tribunals which is another alternative)