6.27.2014

When a United Nations Agency is Born with a Dual Personality

I've been asked by the editor of Impakter, a magazine for Millennials, to write about FAO, the United Nations agency for food and agriculture, historically the oldest and (for a long time) the biggest technical agency of the United Nations system.

I was a little surprised - it's true, I've worked for FAO 25 years and ended as Director for Europe and Central Asia after having covered a variety of functions, including project evaluation, climbing up through all the levels in the organization. I guess you could say I know more about FAO than most people, but still, I wondered whether anyone would be interested. FAO for most people is a mystery, a black box.

I was encouraged to do it, and here is the result, the first of 4 articles exploring FAO, its birth, how it developed and what it means today, the challenges it is facing. I was happy to hear that the article has met with great interest from Impakter readers, so I thought I'd share it with you. Please note that, as always on Impakter, I'm signing it with my real name, Claude Forthomme.


FAO: a United Nations Agency Born with a Dual Personality


The oldest United Nations technical agency, and at one point in its chaotic history, the largest, has a bizarre name that expresses its dual personality and lack of focus from the start: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO for short.

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Assembly Launches International Year of Quinoa – 
José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

A name that encapsulates its dual destiny and perhaps explains why it has never been able to come out strongly in one or the other direction. The FAO logo simply says “Fiat Panis” – “it makes bread”:
That is truly reductive for a range of activities that is so broad and diverse that few people understand exactly what FAO does. And it focuses unduly on one aspect: food, at the expense of the other, agriculture. Also it features an ear of corn, the cereal characteristic of the West, leaving aside rice, sorghum and other crops common in the rest of the world where FAO operates.No surprise there.

FAO was to a large extent the brainchild of a Scottish nutritionist, John Boyd Orr, who became FAO’s first Director General and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1949. Born in 1880, the son of a quarry owner, he was a brilliant student and an entrepreneurial young man...

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