Dodwell in 2013 SOM1 Jakarta - Post 1

January 25, 2013

After an unusual four month gap in APEC and ABAC activity, the APEC 2013 show is back on the road. After four days at the year’s first APEC Business Advisory Council meeting in Manila, where the region’s business leaders combed through their priority concerns for the year ahead, I flew on Thursday to Jakarta for the year’s first APEC Senior Official cluster. Between now and February 7, discussions driven by Indonesia as APEC chair will range from Chemicals and Illegal logging, to investment liberalization and facilitating business travel.

But I rushed from ABAC1 in Manila into rain-sodden Jakarta on Thursday night for a taste of high drama over food security. Maybe not high drama like the Australian Open Tennis final, but for government bureaucrats, a fairly tense encounter. Government officials and business representatives brought together in this unique new template for public-private collaboration in the Asia Pacific region arrived clearly at odds on how this body is going to work. Watching business representatives and government officials circle each other was as near as I can imagine to a scorpion trying to make love to a porcupine. Seeing the day’s obstacles resolved was like watching the porcupine give birth: a wholly tortuous process, but somehow, amazingly, successful. What kind of animal we have conceived, only time will tell.

Already, back in the  APEC Business Advisory Council in Manila earlier in the week, reports of difficulties and disagreements over what the PPFS should look like, how it should operate, and what role it would perform in building towards food security in the region by 2020, had filtered through. 

It was only over breakfast on Friday that I learned in glorious technicolor of just how difficult it was. Japan in one corner, and the US in the other, with various other APEC member economies with their own petulant agendas, with what seemed like fundamental and irresolvable differences over the PPFS. Japan, custodian of the 2010 “Niigata Declaration” that laid out an action agenda for achieving food security in the region; and the US, champion of a new PPFS action agenda based on rigorous business planning practices, in cahoots with business leaders baying to construct milestones and measurable on a path to food security by 2020.

Over dinner, Japan had been adamant and unmovable: the Niigata Declaration already provided an action plan, and confusion would result if APEC now created a second action plan. Business around the table were equally unmoving: the business sector had been brought to the table of the PPFS to bring a new approach to achieving food security. They had been mandated in the Kazan Declaration in Russia last summer to build a proper rigorous business plan aimed at achieving food security: a clear definition of what needed to be achieved; a timetable of steps towards that end; milestones to confirm that we are moving sufficiently speedily; and a benchmarking process that shows clearly if necessary momentum is lost. The argument marked a clear divide between those officials keen to bring business disciplines into the policy forming process – best represented, I suppose, by The US’s 2011 mantra of “Get stuff done”, and those who continue to cherish the practice of leaving officials to shape policy, drawing generously on business insights and input when it is needed.

 So Friday’s PPFS Management Council meeting, scheduled to resolve these differences to enable the PPFS to begin its work, began in somber mood. The day began with brittle reiterations of positions laid out over dinner the night before. But amazingly, a tortuous eight hours later, the impasses had been cleared, and the PPFS at last has sleeves rolled up, ready to get down to work. Moving on from the porcupine-scorpion metaphor which is perhaps a little too graphic, it was like watching a goat give birth to a cow. Eventually, the “action plan” argument was neatly finessed by our Indonesian chair, who decided the PPFS would instead build a “road map”. Hopefully it will not be a roadmap as chaotic and dysfunctional as the road map on which Jakarta city is based.

For ABAC, which has nurtured the PPFS concept for more than a decade, there must be disappointment that the PPFS that emerged from Friday’s discussion will be slimmer and less ambitious than the one originally conceived. If the PPFS is a template for other public-private initiatives, then it is not as exciting as we in business hoped originally it would be. Officials were clearly warned by our ABAC members present that if the PPFS failed to provide the business rigour we believe is necessary to ensure food security by 2020, then business representatives will quickly wilt away.

Once the logjams had been cleared, the Management Council then swept swiftly through the process of adjusting the working group structure, appointing chairs, co-chairs and working group members, and preparing the ground for tomorrow spent in substantive work on the working group agendas. In the usually-collegial environment of non-binding APEC discussions, this was as dramatic as it gets.


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