How trust is lost: the Food Systems Summit 2021 and the delegitimation of UN food governance

Date01 March 2024
European Journal of
International Relations
2024, Vol. 30(1) 151 –175
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/13540661231173553
How trust is lost: the Food
Systems Summit 2021
and the delegitimation
of UN food governance
Felix Anderl
Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany
Michael Hißen
Zeppelin University, Germany
Social movements see participation formats of international organizations (IOs) with
suspicion. They increasingly retreat from cooperation to contest IOs from the outside,
because they fear co-optation without real policy impact. However, the Food and
Agricultural Organization (FAO) was an exception to this trend because its opening
up was seen as long-term dialogue facilitating discussions about the nature of food
production, and because it created credible institutional mechanisms that were trusted
by activists to give influence to farmers and peasant movements. Therefore, the
food sovereignty movement participated within the FAO framework in a remarkably
institutionalized way throughout the 2010s. But in 2019, when the United Nations
(UN) announced to hold a food systems summit (United Nations Food Systems Summit
(UNFSS)), this changed dramatically. The food sovereignty movement, many non-
governmental organizations (NGOs), and eventually scientists, decided to boycott the
summit, instead organizing an alternative Peoples’ Summit, and withdrawing from long-
held institutional roles in the FAO. How can this be explained? This article traces the
process from the announcement of the UNFSS to its implementation, stressing how
institutional trust was damaged by several decisions in the process that undermined
the good faith of activists. As we show in detail, the circumvention of established
institutional mechanisms, and the feeling of betrayal on the side of the movement,
was decisive for losing institutional trust. Importantly, a mixture of substantive and
Corresponding author:
Felix Anderl, Center for Conflict Studies, Philipps-Universität Marburg, Ketzerbach 11, 35037 Marburg,
1173553EJT0010.1177/13540661231173553European Journal of International RelationsAnderl and Hißen
Original Article
152 European Journal of International Relations 30(1)
institutional changes in the context of UNFSS not only undermined the movement’s
trust into the integrity and ability of the summit organizers, but thereby also provoked
movement efforts to delegitimize UN food governance at large.
Activism, institutions, food governance, trust, social movements, transnational civil
The relationship of international organizations (IOs) and progressive social movements
has been contentious for decades.1 Particularly after the structural adjustment pro-
grammes in the 1980s, economic IOs were in the focus of social movements, often blam-
ing them as main culprits in establishing unjust globalization with their neoliberal
policies and undemocratic decision-making. International Relations (IR) scholars have
found that many of these IOs have reacted to the latter point of critique by opening up
their procedures and inviting their critics in (O’Brien et al., 2000; Tallberg et al., 2013).
The evaluation of the effectiveness and normative value of this trend is ambivalent
among academic observers (Agné et al., 2015; Dany and Freistein, 2016). Among the
invited civil society actors themselves, we can observe different advocacy strategies,
some trying to change the system from within, others scandalizing proceedings from the
outside (Dellmuth and Tallberg, 2017; Pallas and Uhlin, 2014). Some activists are anx-
ious about the dangers of co-optation, a reasonable worry given the divisions of social
movements in the course of their interaction with open global governance institutions
(Anderl, 2022). While many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) happily use the
newly won privileges of IO access, social movements are thus more sceptical about the
utility of inside lobbying. A comparative study has found that this is however contingent
upon the trust that social movement actors have into the particular IO and its participa-
tion mechanism (Anderl et al., 2021). Activists ask themselves: is this institutional open-
ing occurring in good faith, or is it fuelled by a strategy to co-opt adversaries? A
movement’s assessment of this question will crucially affect its reaction to institutional
opening up (Anderl et al., 2021: 1278). Institutional trust is therefore of central impor-
tance for the legitimacy politics of IOs, particularly for engaging with external critics.
Over the last 20 years, many social movements have increasingly lost trust into insti-
tutional cooperation with IOs because they perceived the latter’s opening as largely tacti-
cal, leading to little but the co-optation of the IOs’ challengers. However, there used to
be one notable exception to this trend: the United Nations (UN) food governance institu-
tions. Particularly, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
was an exception because it credibly opened up with a plan to transform itself through
dialogue (Anderl et al., 2021: 1288). Even though the FAO had been seen as an opponent
rather than a partner until the food crisis in 2007–2008, the IO put serious effort into a
process that was seen as credible by civil society actors, particularly farmers’ movements,
because its opening up was interpreted as a long-term dialogue involving fundamental

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