|SCN News, Number 18 - Adequate Food: A Human Right (ACC/SCN, 1999, 116 p.)|
Speaking from experience...
The AGN and its evolving role in the SCN George H Beaton
During its most recent (26th) session, the SCN decided to place the AGN in abeyance, suggesting that the funds so released might be more effectively applied to the recruitment of consultants and that some tasks previously addressed by the AGN might be more effectively and more economically accomplished by the agencies themselves. There is some degree of parallelism with events that led up to the original abolition of the old Protein Advisory Group (PAG)and creation of the SCN and its AGN.
The eventual fate of the AGN remains to be decided. As well as being expected to provide technical input on topics of interest to the SCN, two very important, and at the time quite controversial, roles were linked to the AGN. First, as an independent group of individuals who had achieved prominence and recognition in the nutrition field, the AGN was seen as a tool for the exposure of the SCN to emerging areas that might prove relevant to current or possible future interests of the SCN - a window looking over the world of nutritional science and application. The second role was also that of a window, but a window through which the world could see the SCN. In 1975, all meetings of any ACC committee were in camera [behind closed doors] and were restricted to representatives of the member UN agencies and, as specifically warranted, invited experts. It was perceived that the initial proposal for an SCN would create a body that had "secret meetings", had no publications and indeed did not even issue public minutes of its meetings. Any departure from this strictly internal UN committee model was very strongly opposed by one agency in particular. Conversely, a group of national governments recognized that such a model, if implemented, would fall far short from what was wanted by governments and agencies outside the UN, and could very seriously constrain the potential utility of a senior nutrition "policy harmonization" group operating at the international level. The dispute was referred to ECOSOC and after much negotiation the triumvirate form of the SCN emerged - the formal SCN consisting of UN agency representatives (which continues to have short in camera meetings at which formal decisions are taken), interested bilaterals, and the AGN met together in open fora. More recently NGOs have been offered the opportunity to formally participate in "SCN meetings". This structure, by and large, was seen as being an effective model for facilitating dialogue and to some degree, action. We have seen several attempts to reform the SCN's structure and function in recent years. The very sudden suspension of the AGN, apparently without prior discussion with the AGN or bilaterals is one such reform measure.
It has been said that the SCN and its AGN have done little technical work that the agencies...could not have done. That is very likely true. The important fact, though, is that the agencies, individually or collectively, did not do it!
Looking back over the almost 25 years of its history, what did the AGN actually accomplish that may be lost if it is abolished?
Certainly, the AGN has functioned, from the beginning, as a consultative body reacting to questions put to it by the SCN and its Secretariat. This did not replace the use of paid consultants asked to address very specific technical questions, though when such consultations were arranged, the reports were often passed through the AGN for additional comment and assessment. It is the latter contribution that may be lost. This reactionary role of the AGN became very prominent and perhaps very important as the SCN finally moved into attempts to assess and report on the world nutrition situation. Over the years, the AGN was also an important force in promoting new initiatives. The AGN was instrumental in proposing and promoting the interagency program focus on control of vitamin A and iodine deficiencies. The proposal for an International Conference on Nutrition originally arose at a meeting of the AGN with the Chair of the SCN. The AGN was involved in the development of many of the SCN symposia and almost all of the special workshops which led to a substantial proportion of the publications that have brought much credit to the SCN albeit sometimes with discomfort to individual UN agencies.
One of the most important functions and accomplishments of the AGN was during the Horwitz era. Dr Horwitz had been recruited with a mandate to bring the SCN into a much more active posture - to actually do some of the things it had been created to do but had deferred. Dr Horwitz used the AGN as a sounding board and as a source of conceptualization in formulating proposals for SCN activities and approaches. It was in that period that a "working secretariat" consisting of the Chairman and Technical Secretary of the SCN, the AGN, and specifically-recruited consultants took shape and became a base for major SCN activities. It was a critical component in the evolution of the SCN from a passive get-together of agencies to discuss areas of common interest to a UN committee that actually accomplished things that had important policy and program implications. That sort of functionality stands to be lost completely if the AGN is abolished. Of course, it will also be lost if appropriate combinations of SCN Chair, SCN Technical Secretary and AGN membership are not maintained.
It has been said that the SCN and its AGN have done little technical work that the agencies and selected consultants could not have done. That is very likely true. The important fact though, is that the agencies, individually or collectively, did not do it!
It is easy to say that the AGN is redundant - that other components of the expanding SCN can do whatever the AGN (and the SCN?) did. Perhaps this is true also. Only the test of time will ever answer the question "If the AGN is abolished, will the agencies and consultants take over the several roles? Will it be done as effectively and as objectively as with a working, dedicated AGN?" History tells us what the AGN did accomplish; it cannot tell us, beyond informing judgements, what would or would not have happened, without an AGN.
Reflections of former AGN Chairs
The 26th SCN Session considered the need for a continued external advisory group and accepted the proposal presented by the UN agencies to hold the AGN in abeyance for one year. For those of us whose mother tongue is not English, abeyance is not in our usual vocabulary. I found several meanings in the dictionary: be suspended temporarily; not being used temporarily; temporary stopping of activity. Abeyance in this last context can be seen as a time for careful analysis and redeployment, or alternatively as a soft termination. The rationale given for this decision was the need to re-evaluate the SCN's need for advice, given the changing composition of the SCN membership. Presently the UN and bilateral agencies and NGOs have highly-qualified technical staff. Thus the technical advisory function itself is not sufficient to justify an AGN.
... [SCN's] need for a broad-based, geographically and culturally representative independent voice...
As chair of the AGN for the past two years, I do not see "holding the AGN in abeyance" as a sign of failure but rather agree with the need to re-examine its role. I am confident that most of the AGN functions will remain in place. The primary reasons to justify external advice to the SCN Secretariat include its need for a broad-based, geographically and culturally representative independent voice to critically review SCN publications, proposals submitted to them, and activities of SCN member agencies. Other important reasons encompass technical assistance needed by the SCN members to promote, co-ordinate and implement their activities and programmes at national and regional levels.
The main strength of the AGN concept past, present, and future, is that it brings independent periodic review of the work of the UN system in food and nutrition. I am optimistic that the steering committee's input will be beneficial. In support of this optimism is the first item of the committee's terms of reference: "...Assess which AGN functions are considered crucial for the process of strengthening SCN programming and operations. Propose mechanisms to ensure that these functions are continued or expanded as considered necessary..." The need to adapt to a changing world, redefining goals and selecting the best options to reach them is necessary in any human endeavour - the continued presence of external, independent advice is a necessary component of this effort.
Based on my involvement with the AGN from the late 1980s to 1996 as a member and later as its Chair, I would like to contribute to the debate about the usefulness of the AGN. Its main contributions have been technical, and regrettably, there has been little success in reviewing how the UN agencies carry out their work in nutrition and how these efforts are articulated at regional and country levels. Participation in the AGN requires a considerable commitment of time at regular meetings, at special workshops, and for close and frequent communication. An external body of experts can assist the SCN in fulfilling its mission and I support the continuation of the AGN. Its members must be chosen carefully for their expertise in scientific, policy or programmatic matters. The program of work of the SCN must guide the choice of areas of expertise for the AGN. Finally, the SCN must value the contributions of such a body and make full use of its potential for addressing important and unresolved matters.
[Ed. Note: Steering Committee members are invited to provide their views on the triumvirate structure of the SCN for the December 1999 issue.]