INTERNATIONAL AGENCIES. The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the growth of a type of social institution that plays an important role in food and nutrition policies and programs throughout the world. These institutions, which are commonly referred to as "international agencies," are usually constituted as suborganizations within larger sociopolitical organizational structures. One set of such institutions are the "multilaterals, " which include many governments, particularly the agencies of the United Nations (UN), or those of the European Union. A second set of agencies, often referred to as "bilaterals," are the aid organizations established by national governments in the industrialized world, including those of the European states, the United States, and Canada, as well as Australia and Japan. A third type, with activities that closely parallel those of the UN and governmental agencies, includes nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or private voluntary organizations (PVOs). These may be religious or "faith-based" agencies that are administratively connected to religious organizations or are closely affiliated with such organizations, or they may be independent groups, such as the Helen Keller Foundation or Save the Children. Many of these NGOs receive funds from bilateral and multilateral agencies.
Agencies of the United Nations
The establishment of the various agencies in the UN system began with the founding of the UN in 1945. During the following half-century, new agencies were added as needs were redefined and expanded. The current body of UN agencies whose work involves food and/or nutrition are the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), International Labor Organization (ILO), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Bank.
Agency Goals and Functions
One of the principal motivations underlying the establishment and operation of international agencies was to provide vehicles for directing resources—economic, technical, and technological—from resource-rich countries to resource-poor countries. Other political, economic, and social interests also shape the motivations and activities of agencies. Moreover, the fact that international agencies are generally not freestanding institutions, but part of larger sociopolitical units, is one of several characteristics that affect their mission, administrative organization, philosophy, policy, and activities.
The purposes of both UN and non-UN agencies whose work relates to food and nutrition can be summarized by one or more of the following goals: establishing technical norms, providing funding, providing technical assistance, or delivering services. Within the UN system, the various agencies were established with distinct, yet complementary, mandates and were given different, but often overlapping, sectors of action. Thus, WHO and FAO were set up as technical agencies with responsibilities for technical norms and technical assistance, whereas UNICEF was designed to support and deliver services through funding and technical support, and the World Bank was designed to provide funds.
Obstacles, Challenges, and Persistence
In their efforts to further the health and welfare of populations with respect to food and nutrition, international agencies face multiple challenges. An examination of these challenges helps to explain the gaps between stated goals and realities of agency activities that make them frequent subjects of controversy and criticism. Some of these challenges relate to the structure of international collaboration and conflict regardless of the focus of action, while others are specific to characteristics of social action related to food and nutrition.
A primary challenge for establishing complementary activities at country and community levels is that agencies' activities are based on widely differing philosophies of how to promote and sustain development. Bilateral agencies represent countries with different economic and political agendas. These differ not only between nations, but also within nations, as is evident from the policy changes that accompany shifts in government when different political parties are in power. Within the UN system itself, there are also different philosophies and constituencies, which are evident not only between agencies, but also within them. The NGOs and PVOs represent still other sets of values and theories about what needs to be done and how to do it.
International agencies face serious challenges in reconciling definitions of needs as perceived on one hand by technical advisers, high-level political representatives, and international advocacy groups, and on the other with the needs articulated by recipient groups, from national-level politicians and civil administrators to regional and community-level spokesmen. These conflicting interpretations arise from multiple sources and cover a range of issues, including ethical concerns and competing values about fairness, justice and "whose reality counts," priorities for action in the face of limited resources, and differing perspectives on the causes and consequences of food and nutrition problems. A related factor that affects many aspects of food and nutrition policies and programs is that most agencies, especially the bilaterals, have to answer to the political constituencies who control the resources they require to carry out their work. Indeed the basic organization of development activities into the categories of "donors" and "recipients" create structural barriers that pose significant challenges to meeting population needs.
Another common problem, which relates to the demands from "donor constituencies," is that the time frame for research, program development, and evaluation is typically much too short. As a consequence, agencies are forced to take shortcuts that jeopardize the achievement of goals. As a result, the potential to learn from experience is reduced, and there are inadequate opportunities to make adjustments to improve programs.
Special challenges for food and nutrition activities stem from the fact that throughout the world they relate to multiple and very different social sectors. Food is the provenance of agriculture and various economic sectors of producers and marketing concerns. It is also the source of nutrients, which are the provenance of nutrition and health sectors. Both national governments and international agencies tend to divide food and nutrition responsibilities among multiple organizational units, which often results in conflicting goals and serious fragmentation of efforts. Even within a particular sector, such as health agencies, differing orientations may result in conflicting approaches to nutrition and health education in communities.
In 1977 the UN established the Subcommittee on Nutrition (SCN), under the aegis of the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), as a mechanism for communication among the various UN agencies with responsibilities in food and nutrition. The ACC/SCN, which meets yearly and compiles and disseminates technical reports through its office in Geneva, Switzerland, also seeks the participation of bilaterals and NGOs. This small organization has no mandated authority to resolve differences but provides a forum for exchange and debate. Its existence is threatened by hostility from some of its constituent agencies who fear that SCN activities may reveal weaknesses in their own operations, and at least one of SCN's components, the Advisory Group on Nutrition (AGN), which was composed of senior experts from outside the UN system, has been dismantled.
The example of the tribulations of the SCN provides a glimpse of the shortcomings in motivations, organization, and action that are typical of international agencies. There are, however, two critical questions to answer before recommending curtailing or abolishing these agencies. The first is, "Would the poor and hungry be better off without these agencies?" Historical comparisons of situations where the agencies have and have not been active reveal that the presence of the agencies has been favorable. Without them, the only major interests affecting food and nutrition are commercial and political—neither of which care much about the poor.
The second question is, "Can the system or its constituents be improved?" Greater intellectual attention is required to address such important issues as updating the mandates of international agencies to modern realities, instituting better accountability for all international agencies (including bilaterals and NGOs), and increasing resources to improve diet and nutrition worldwide. At the level of agencies, a high priority is developing better methods for more effective cooperation between agencies and populations. While there are many difficult barriers to improving agency functioning, dedicated people who work in and with international agencies find many opportunities to make improvements.
Gretel Pelto Jean-Pierre Habicht