In the second week of June representatives of over 600 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civil society organisations from all over the world will gather in Rome for the Forum for Food Sovereignty. The five-day meeting, which coincides with the assembly of world leaders for the World Food Summit: five years later at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, also in Rome, aims to challenge received thinking about hunger relief and to present a new approach to global food security.

At the first FAO World Food Summit in 1996, representatives of 185 nations and the European Union set a target of halving the number of hungry people in the world currently estimated at 800 million by 2015. However, current data indicates that the number of undernourished is falling at the rate of only six million a year well below the rate of 22 million needed to reach the World Food Summit goal. At the summit from 10-13 June world leaders will say that inadequate financial resources are to blame.

Participants of the Forum for Food Sovereignty will claim otherwise. They will challenge the widely held view that the answer to hunger lies in the free market economy. Food, they will say, is not a commodity but a right. And they will present alternative methods of guaranteeing food security based on another right: that of all nations to determine their own food production and distribution policies based on their specific needs and agricultural practices. The programme of conferences, workshops and other events at the Palazzo dei Congressi in EUR has been put together by an Italian committee with participation from over 250 national agricultural, consumer and environmental associations, trade unions, civil society groups and NGOs.

But what are NGOs and what do they do? NGOs can loosely be described as not-for-profit organisations which are independent from government. They operate in a range of areas, from culture and the environment to local and national social service provision and international development cooperation. To qualify as an NGO, organisations have to fulfil special legal requirements. Many, but not all, then apply for official regognition (idoneit) by a national or international body. This involves fulfilling certain criteria and entitles them, among other things, to receive public funding.

The Italian foreign ministry currently recognises over 150 NGOs working in the field of cooperation with developing countries. These include household names such as SantEgidio, Caritas Italiana and Intersos, as well as lesser-known organisations such as Amici dei Popoli, Crocevia and Volontariato Internazionale per lo Sviluppo (VIS). However, the foreign ministry register represents only the tip of the iceberg. Some organisations choose to bypass the foreign ministry and register directly at European level, with the European NGO liaison committee, and there are also many groups without official recognition. And the number of development NGOs is increasing all the time.

However, the growth of the development NGO sector is not necessarily a sign of a mature civil society, as Don Ferdinando Colombo, vice-president of VIS, explained: Some NGOs are the product of an emotional reaction and do not address the real issues. Moreover, in Italy there is a tendency among NGOs to operate independently, rather than sharing skills and expertise. Organisations work together on isolated projects, said Don Ferdinando, but there is no culture of conventional networking.

Development NGOs can be divided into two general categories: operational and advocacy. Operational NGOs are engaged primarily in the design and implementation of development projects overseas, while advocacy NGOs undertake awareness-raising and lobbying activities, usually in their home country, as well as providing technical and logistical support to community-based NGOs in the beneficiary country. However, these categories are not mutually exclusive and in Italy many NGOs are active in both sectors. Furthermore, within these divisions there is a whole range of organisations operating in a variety of areas and with different philosophies.

NGOs are playing an increasingly important role in the field of international development and are often looked to as authorities in their particular area of activity (many can boast a qualified, professional staff), as well as being a major channel for overseas development aid. In the year 2000, members of the Federazione Organismi Cristiani Servizio Internazionale Volontario (FOCSIV), the largest of three Italian umbrella organisations for development NGOs, handled a total of L.156 billion, almost 40 per cent of which came from the Italian government and the EU. The flip side to this is the need for accountability. While they are still rooted in the principles of altruism and voluntarism, NGOs are now expected to produce budgets and annual reports and to provide detailed accounts of their incomings and expenditures. They still have to shake off the image of being poorly organised and inefficient.

Information and contacts: the Guida alla cooperazione e al volontariato internazionale provides a comprehensive list of Italian NGOs with government recognition, as well as information about the many undergraduate and postgraduate courses in development studies and related subjects now available at academic institutes throughout Italy. New edition due to be published in June. For details contact Servizio Orientamento Cooperazione Internazionale (SOCI), tel. 0288463636, e-mail: ufficio.soci@comune.milano.it. Useful websites: www.peacelink.it; www.unimondo.it; www.volint.it; www.esteri.it/attivita/cooperaz/; www.fao.org. For details of the Forum for Food Sovereignty log on to www.forumfoodsovereignty.org.