Issues Home About Contact Us Issue 19 - April 2020 عربى
Regional Developments

Evaluating FAO Policy Advice

Since 2017, two key FAO studies proffer policy advice specifically toward governments in the Near East North Africa (NENA) region. Both have invited criticism for their methodology, interpretation of facts and expectations of a Charter-based specialized organization of the United Nations. Key points are summarized here concerning the 2017 Study on Small Scale Family Farming (SSFF) and another, in 2019, on Investment in Agricultural Water (IAW).

Small-scale Family Farming in the Near East and North Africa Region

The CSO inter-sessional consultation took place in November 2019 at Beirut under the auspices of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), where the SSFF came under detailed review. The report states that its outcomes are intended as policy guidance to enhance SSFF technical and social efficiency of SSFF and to adopt environmentally friendly practices. In addition to the overarching regional study, FAO has published six additional SSFF country case studies from Egypt, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia.

CSOs welcomed this study as the first of its kind by FAO on small-scale family farming across the NENA region. One noted feature of the SSFF study is its commitment to security of tenure of land for small-scale farmers, which the CSOs encouraged as a consistent feature of FAO policy and practice going forward.

Following a HLRN-developed policy-review document outlining key issues and values at stake in the study, several other issues and values raised concern, however, in no particular order:

First, the study takes for granted the trend of “rural transformation” and urbanization, rather than challenging or mitigating the phenomenon.

Second, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework, to which FAO is committed, is mentioned in the preface, but are in no way connected to the rest of the study. Neither the SDGs nor their indicators are mentioned again, notably those concerned with security of tenure (Indicator 1.4.2), agriculture and land management (Targets 1.4, 2.3, 15.1–4, 15.b), women’s access to productive resources (Target 5a), participatory governance (Targets 16.5–7), or the pursuit of policy coherence (Targets 17.1, and 13–14).

The third issue concerned the supposed farmer and civil society participation in the study. The study mentioned national briefings and discussion workshops but gave no indication of who was invited to participate, how those individuals were selected, or how the opinions expressed figured into the study. An FAO representative reported that the six country studies involved meetings, each organized with its own methodology. While the overarching study does not reflect such participation, it makes no reference to farmer or civil society points of view or priorities.

Fourth, given the study’s stated focus on sustainability as a priority, agroecology is noticeably absent as a sustainability model. While an FAO representative informed that agroecology has only more recently risen to the top of the FAO agenda, its inclusion already in the 2012 policy FAO guidelines on tenure has raised the expectation that agroecology would be discussed seriously in future studies.

Fifth, the report lacks any human rights language and criteria for policy formulation and implementation. For a UN Charter-based organization such as FAO, this omission neglects one of the UN’s pillars of operation and foregoes one of FAO’s core added values beyond what nationally interested bilateral or self-interested private sector assistance can offer.

The sixth concern is about the lack of policy advice support to agricultural livelihoods. The study repeatedly follows the trend in multi-activity—i.e., work in addition to farming—without acknowledging that concept as an involuntary coping mechanism to compensate for SSFF not providing a living wage. The study supports this move to multi-activity without acknowledging the underlying and structural obstacles to viable small-scale agricultural livelihoods, or the crushing burden of small-scale farmer debt. On the contrary, the study encourages more loans and indebtedness.

Finally, as of 2020, neither the regional study nor the country cases are available in the Arabic language. While the process appears to exclude the subjects of the studies, so too do the outputs. Therefore, at present, only readers of English or French (in the cases of Tunisia and Morocco studies) can access them.

Towards a new generation of policies and investments in agricultural water in the Arab region

FAO’s 2019 regional policy guidance on agricultural water investment again reflects many of the same methodological and content concerns as its predecessor. On the positive side, the 2019 policy does acknowledge that the role of women is not formally recognized in farming, particularly in the NENA region.

While the IAW study briefly addresses the impacts of conflict on water and agriculture in the region – an issue lacking from the SSFF study – an understanding of its manifestations and impacts is absent. The only mention of Palestine, for example, is on the subject of desalinated water use. The core issue of water in Palestine is the plunder of the people’s vital natural resources, including water, under the country’s ongoing colonization and occupation. This omission also obviates the SDG policy commitment to “effective measures and actions… to remove the obstacles to the full realization of the right of self-determination of peoples living under colonial and foreign occupation” (para. 35).

The study does highlight a best practice example from conflict-affected Somalia (p.110), financing the rehabilitation of existing irrigation canals, restoration of catchments and erosion control (co-financed by FAO, World Bank and ICRC). However, that chosen example was in response to drought, not conflict.

The 2019 report also does a much better job of aligning with the SDGs. Although, rather than relegating the SDGs in one separate section, it would be more useful to use them throughout. Contextualizing them in the policy document would enable readers to appreciate the extent to which the paper’s recommendations relate to fulfilling the SDGs.

More problematic is the prioritization of high-value, export-oriented crops: This accompanies a variety of hazards, including farmers’ economic vulnerability to volatile international markets, costs and other challenges in meeting conditions for export, and, perhaps most important, lack of focus on meeting the food and nutritional needs of the local population with fresh, locally grown and culturally appropriate foods, to achieve food sovereignty.

CSO participants in the February 2020 regional consultation at Casablanca in advance of the FAO Regional Conference also questioned why, given the acknowledged scarcity of water in this region, FAO is asking farmers to export the “virtual water” in their food exports (i.e., the water used for production and contained in succulent fruits and vegetables).

The study attempts to make a case for private-sector capture of agricultural water. FAO’s promotion of the study quotes its Investment Centre director asserting that “Private sector engagement is key to making the Arab region’s agriculture sector greener and more resource-efficient and productive,” The study calls for governments turning to private agribusinesses and venture capital for investment (p. 43); however, the rationale for this assertion rest solely on the funds they have to offer, not on the accompanying hazards.

Small-scale food producers appear absent from this study also. They are mentioned only once, in connection with types of new technology expected to change farming techniques, but the technology proposed is: (a) expensive, (b) largely imported and (c) requires a level of comfort with new technology that such farmers in this region demonstrably do not have.

The agricultural water investment study also makes no mention of agroecology. If any policy were to preserve natural resources such as water through sustainable agricultural methods, it should discuss agroecology. This study was published at the end of 2019, when agroecology was already ostensibly high on the FAO agenda.

Lastly, human rights criteria, approaches and obligations are regrettably absent in this report. Worse than an omission, the report uses the term “rights” without clarity, most often implicitly referring to property ownership when speaking about rights to water. As a UN Charter-based specialized organization, FAO needs to reflect an understanding of the human right to water, and the way that water interacts with other human rights, outside of a focus on property rights.


FAO’s Family Farming Knowledge Platform and CSOs within the IPC are ready forums where food producers and civil society can share ideas and inform responsible policy. However, the FAO policy instruments reviewed here exemplify the dismissal of these indispensable assets and FAO’s own potential added value in the field of food and agriculture.

CSOs in the region remind FAO of an outcome of the 2016 CSO Consultation and recommendation to the Regional Conference that same year to enable a Regional Small-Scale Producer (SSP) Platform as a direct channel of much needed advice to resolve shortcomings in FAO’s operations and performance. These subsequent policy products reinforce that message to ensure genuine engagement and repair potential damage created by such technical approaches without their normative framework.

Download Small-scale Family Farming in the Near East and North Africa Region (synthesis)

Download Towards a new generation of policies and investments in agricultural water in the Arab region


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