Change Afoot in the United Nations? The Election of FAO's Director General Raises Questions

Jacques Diouf, Senegalese diplomat and politicianJacques Diouf Image via WikipediaAfter 18 years at the helm of FAO, Jacques Diouf, Senegalese, is about to step down. A new Director General, Jose Graziano da Silva, a Brazilian, was elected last Sunday, amid the general indifference of the world.

I witnessed the proceedings, and I can tell you that something has changed over there in FAO. You're probably thinking it doesn't matter to me and what is FAO anyway?

FAO (full name: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) is not exactly nothing. It is historically the biggest and oldest of the UN specialized agencies.

Founded in 1945 and focused on food and agriculture, forestry and fisheries (as its name implies), it has been undergoing a harrowing process of so-called "reform" - along with the rest of the United Nations since the mid 1980s, when the Scandinavian countries first called for reform.

Reforming the UN is one of the things our politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, like to do best. Portraying the United Nations as a money-eating behemoth of little use to anyone, they spew out reform proposals that they know can only help their image at home. Downsizing international organizations has one big advantage: it doesn't irritate your electorate, on the contrary. They see you as a savvy, cost-cutting guy, who is not "taken in" by big words and empty ideas.

What a pity. Because the UN - if only one honestly believed in it and gave it a chance to work - could help make this world a better, more peaceful place.

FAO is a particularly interesting piece of the UN system because whatever happens there also happens elsewhere in the United Nations. And if the world looks on with indifference at the FAO Director General election, then it is in large part the media's fault. Because the United Nations is not a "hot spot", not a headline grabber - it probably won't do any good for my blog's ranking either, but I don't care.

I do think something important and rather unusual happened last Sunday in the course of that election (by the way, these are secret ballot elections - so there's no gaming the results). But to explain why I need to give you some background, so bear with me for a moment.

I've worked in FAO for 25 years and I have seen these "UN reform gurus" at work - even traveled with some of them across the world back in the early 1990s, to inspect FAO food security projects in an attempt (at that time sponsored by Switzerland) to push FAO away from its traditional role as supporter of agricultural development towards a so-called "food security" organization.

When Jacques Diouf came on board in 1994, he knew little of FAO and he picked up the reformers' jargon and proposals, including food security. He called it the "fight against hunger" -  words harking back to an earlier time, the 1960s, when the battle against hunger was the order of the day. As the French say, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose". However the new "fight against hunger" caused some confusion with the World Food Programme, FAO's sister agency (also located in Rome) directly mandated to relieve hunger. After several years of misunderstanding and name-calling, thing got better in the early 2000s, as a letter of cooperation was signed and the agencies stopped stepping on each other's toes.

If you consider that the World Food Programme was an outgrowth of FAO activities going back to the Seventies, it is truly amazing that it took some thirty years of bickering to figure out who did what. But now that it is (more of less) behind, one should probably consider it the single most important long-term achievement of the departing Director General. In his good-bye speech yesterday (although he won't be leaving before the end of the year), Diouf claimed he's turned  FAO into a more "streamlined" organization, "fit to deal with the 21st century challenges".

The first part of that proposition is undoubtedly true:  FAO is leaner with about half the staff it used to have before he arrived. But much of the streamlining has been done under duress, under the whip of the so-called "reform process" and "external independent evaluations". Through Mr. Diouf's tenure, the budget (provided by member countries for "core" activities and by a series of donors - mostly from the developed world -  for field projects) has continually shrunk and now, expectations are that the current FAO Conference will result in yet more shrinking.

The new Director General, due to start his mandate in January 2012, is thus inheriting an ailing agency, with a reform process that is still unfinished (!) and a budget, in spite of all the nice oratory around it, that is not, by a long shot, enough to allow FAO to play its full role.

What is FAO's role? What are these "21st century challenges" FAO is supposed to face? You may well ask, and it's because member countries can't agree on what FAO should really do that in the end, not enough funds are coming to it.

For developing countries, FAO should be there to help them develop their agriculture and achieve food security. For developed countries, it should act as a forum for discussion, as a statistical and information gathering center, and as a norm-setting institutions in certain specific areas like food safety (eg.the Codex Alimentarius) or plant protection (eg. the IPPC - the International Plant Protection Convention).

The compromise solution is obvious: FAO should do both within its budget. In these recessionary times it is equally obvious that not enough funds will ever be provided for FAO to do this. It ends up doing not enough of either and getting everybody annoyed with it. Perhaps, if developing countries had wanted more funds, they should have considered voting for a candidate from the developed world - after all, that's where the donors and the money come from. But they didn't, and the Brazilian candidate won.

Yet, here is something both interesting and unexpected. For the first time in FAO's history, the victory of the developing world's candidate's over his rival, the Spaniard Miguel Angel Moratinos, was extremely narrow: only four votes. Out of the 180 votes cast, he obtained 92 and Mr. Moratinos 88.  Yet Mr. Graziano da Silva had a lot going for him: he had official support from the G77 group, and that should have insured a comfortable victory, as had always been the case in the past for a G77 candidate. It was also generally understood that after a Director General from Africa, Latin America was the next region to furnish one.  Moreover he was considered one of the architects of the highly successful Zero Hunger program in Brazil, in short he was "Mr Food Security". Last but not least, he had been working inside FAO since 2006, in charge of the Regional Office for Latin America and had therefore an insider's knowledge of the house: he would be able to "hit the ground running".

While Mr. Moratinos, a Spanish diplomat and ex-Foreign Affairs minister, had none of these things, and he even had to face the challenge from another European candidate, Mr. Franz Fischler. 

Europe, thanks to Lady Ashton's usual negligence, hadn't been able to pull its act together: if it had presented one candidate instead of two, it is very likely that Mr. Moratinos would have received the ten votes that Mr. Fischler took away from him in the first ballot. And that could have made the difference in the second and final ballot (after the four other candidates had withdrawn, including Fischler). Of course, I don't have a crystal ball nor can History been replayed, and perhaps the results would not have been any different.

But fundamentally, Mr. Moratinos received a remarkable proportion of the vote - in other words, a lot of developing countries voted for him. This is a first. And it might mark a change in United Nations politics, where the countries that are most responsible for the budget and provide most of the funds, finally get the recognition they deserve...

Also, the way the election process was conducted was radically changed (this was one of the results of the reform process): for the first time, the candidates had a chance to address the delegates and did so twice, at the Council 3 months ago with a full speech followed by a question-and-answer session, and at the Conference with a short 15 minute presentation of their platform (but no Q and A to save time). Mr. Moratinos of course was one of those who spoke best (and he traveled around to some fifty countries to solicit votes but he wasn't alone in this - so did some of the others).  It wasn't exactly a real election campaign but pretty close. So much democracy had never come to the United Nations where the election of a Secretary General or Director General has always been a totally non-tranparent process, in the hands of devious diplomats and governed by hidden government interests. Now, for the first time, the delegates had a chance to judge the candidates on the same basis as we voters judge our politicians (not that this leads to exceptional results, but still...It is better than nothing).

So a minimum of democracy was introduced in the process, and it seems to have changed somewhat the way the political game is played at the United Nations, bringing in a modicum of free choice based on judgment of who might be, objectively, the best candidate for the job.

Maybe or maybe not. I guess I'm an incurable optimist. What do you think ?

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