While progress has been made in RBA leadership, coordination and governance, there are significant limitations in terms of leadership selection, member state management and collaboration among the agencies.
The structures and rules that govern the three RBAs are heavily influenced by the mandates and history of each agency. Established in 1945, FAO is the oldest of the three. While WFP was created as a programme in 1961 as an experiment to provide food aid through the UN system, and its governance structure is connected to the secretary-general of the UN, the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC) and FAO. IFAD is both a specialist UN agency and an IFI, it was established in 1977 following a global food crisis.
Similarities can be found in the governance structures of FAO and IFAD, as both of their highest governing bodies – the FAO conference and the IFAD governing council – comprise all the respective member states of the organizations. These bodies are responsible for the selection of the organizations’ leaders and for the election of smaller executive bodies, the FAO council and the IFAD executive board, respectively. These two smaller bodies represent all members of their organization through the distribution of seats along established lists or regions. The FAO council and IFAD executive board elect committees that deal with different areas that are relevant to the organization, such as financial and technical issues, evaluation of the organization’s work and other ad hoc committees.
WFP’s structure reflects the history of the organization as a programme of the UN and FAO. WFP’s highest governing body is the executive board. The WFP executive board does not include all member states. It is elected by ECOSOC and FAO from the WFP member states, and includes countries from five regionally based electoral lists. WFP has not established as many committees as the other two RBAs, and for specific issues, its executive board is advised by FAO’s finance committee and the UN General Assembly’s Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions.
The process for selecting the leadership in the three RBAs is influenced by the nature and mandate of each organization.
Another important governance aspect is voting rights in the three RBAs, which also reflect the different nature of the organizations. In FAO and WFP, each member state casts one vote. In IFAD, following the model of other IFIs, voting rights depend both on membership and on the financial contributions of each country to the organization. Each member state’s percentage of the total vote can then vary over time depending on aggregate financial support to IFAD.
This section explores the issues related to leadership and governance – particularly the management of member states, annual meetings and calendars – as well as collaboration of the RBAs.
Interviews of key informants from RBAs and comparable institutions highlighted the importance of leadership in advancing institutional agendas and coordination. Examples from the RBAs as well as the IMF and WBG indicated that when leaders did not get along or did not prioritize coordination, they failed to progress their agenda. Similarly, reform agendas or the uptake of new ideas depend largely on buy-in from institutional leaders. Thus, leadership and the selection of leaders is critical for the direction of the RBAs.
The process for selecting the leadership in the three RBAs is influenced by the nature and mandate of each organization. The processes of FAO and IFAD are somewhat similar, although with some key differences due to the way the two organizations operate. The candidates for FAO’s director-general and IFAD’s president are nominated by member states in the months preceding the session of the main governing bodies (the FAO conference and IFAD governing council) when the election will occur.
A significant difference between the FAO and IFAD leadership selection lies in the distribution of votes and the majority required. In FAO, each country has one vote and the election is based on a simple majority of the votes cast. As noted for IFAD, the distribution of votes follows both membership and contribution levels and appointment also requires a two-thirds majority.
Ahead of the elections at FAO and IFAD, candidates go through a campaign to support their case and reach out to member states to seek their votes. Over time, this has become a more involved and expensive process including significant financial outlay. This creates an advantage for candidates from member states able to finance a campaign. In the most recent FAO election the political and financial heavyweights were China and France (with European Union support). Referring to that election, one member state delegate said:
This, and the experience from previous election cycles, suggests that finance and politics, rather than leadership, management skills and technical ability, drive the RBA leadership selection processes. As a result, the attributes of the winning candidate may well be more political.
Overall, the processes of selection for FAO and IFAD principals have become more transparent following efforts by member states over the last decade. This reflects trends elsewhere within the UN to have more transparent and open processes.
As part of this shift, there are now sessions in which candidates answer questions from member states – sessions that did not occur in the past. In the most recent cases at IFAD (in 2017 and 2021), all member states were invited to the event and allowed to ask follow-up questions, while at the most recent event at FAO (2019), questions to candidates were pre-agreed with the regional representatives and no follow-up questions were asked. The inability to ask follow-up questions was noted during the research interviews as a point of frustration among numerous member states with one key informant stating that the current process was ‘like being in a straitjacket’ and that ‘real interaction’ was something that needs to be worked on.
Another issue raised by RBA managers in the election process was that in the past, for the FAO director-general election at least, staff were allowed to listen in on candidate responses, but that this was not permitted in the most recent selection process. This reduced RBA staff awareness of key issues being discussed. Allowing staff to attend the discussion was considered an opportunity for them to understand member state concerns and the direction envisioned by candidates.
For the 2019 FAO director-general election, Chatham House and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) conducted the first ever public-facing candidate forum for an RBA principal. This forum mirrored efforts for transparent processes elsewhere including at WHO and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Prior to the WHO election, a candidate forum similar in fashion to the FAO candidate event in Rome was held. For the WTO election, each candidate had their own one-on-one public interview or ‘in conversation with …’ event with a Chatham House representative. The objective was to better understand and put in the public domain each candidate’s stance on key challenges in world trade.
The Rome-based FAO candidate forum opened the election process and the critically important work of FAO to a wider global audience with objectives to enhance transparency and stimulate public debate. At the time, four candidates from China, France, Georgia and India were running for the FAO director-general position, but only France and Georgia chose to participate in events. The reasons provided by interview respondents for China and India not participating were two-fold. First, there was some concern that the sponsoring institutes were Western based (UK and Italy) and that the questions would potentially be biased towards candidates from Western countries. Second, the event would have no influence on the election since it was a political process among member states and the candidates had nothing to gain from taking part – that is, participation in the event could only hurt the candidates and offered no advantage. This was noted in the following statement from a member state representative:
Chatham House sought to have a similar candidate event for the IFAD presidential election for IFAD’s governing council in February 2021. However, since incumbent IFAD President Gilbert Houngbo was the only candidate (no other nominations were received from member states), the event was instead organized as a broader meeting on building back better and equitable food systems in which the IFAD president provided an initial vision followed by a panel discussion and open questions from the audience. This provided an opportunity for the candidate to offer a vision for IFAD going forward, but also to be questioned in an open forum by other panel members and the attending audience.
Unlike the election processes at FAO and IFAD, WFP’s executive director is jointly appointed by the secretary-general of the UN and the director-general of FAO, after formally consulting with the WFP executive board. This significantly different leadership selection method is due to the nature of WFP itself, which was established as a UN programme in 1961 with the aim to last ‘as long as multilateral food aid is found feasible and desirable’.
For recent appointments (since 1992), US candidates have repeatedly been named as WFP executive director. It is usually someone connected to the incumbent US administration, recognizing that the US has been the largest contributor by a significant margin and relations with the US government are critical. While the appointment of the executive director is carried out in consultation with the WFP executive board, the mechanism by which this should occur is not clearly defined or open to external scrutiny.
While the appointment of the executive director is carried out in consultation with the WFP executive board, the mechanism by which this should occur is not clearly defined or open to external scrutiny.
In the most recent case, the consultation was simply an announcement of the candidate made by the previous director-general of FAO to member states without discussion. While potentially consistent with a ‘consultation’, this was not well received by the member states since it did not include the opportunity for feedback or discussion (even though member states were quick to point out their appreciation for the current WFP executive director). There was general recognition among member states that as a UN programme appointing the WFP executive director in this manner was acceptable. Furthermore, there was even some understanding of why a US citizen would be appointed. However, a number of member states voiced concerns over the process. As one member state commented:
In discussion of the RBA selection of principals, the general consensus among research interviewees was that the processes have been improving, but that there is more to be done. There are currently efforts by FAO member states to address some of the concerns raised in the most recent FAO election. According to those interviewed, these include:
- An amendment to the code of conduct to establish clear rules for the voting process, for instance to ensure anonymity in voting and the prevention of mobile phones being used inside the voting booth. There is an ongoing and sensitive discussion on whether sanctions should be introduced for countries that do not abide by the rules or whether the code of conduct should be voluntary.
- Following the example of IFAD, FAO is taking measures to ensure that countries that have presented a candidate recuse themselves from sitting on specific committees that might influence the voting process and even avoid asking questions at the hearings.
- A rule preventing permanent representatives or people in their teams from getting jobs at the organization for a set amount of time after they leave their previous jobs, as is already the case for IFAD.
- A possible limit on campaign budgets or at least the introduction of criteria on transparency for the funding of the campaign.
The interview responses indicate an ongoing dialogue designed to improve future FAO director-general selection processes.
When asked about repeating a public and open event for the selection of the RBA principals similar to those held for FAO and IFAD, interview responses varied: some thought such an event was quite useful, while others said it provided limited value due to the political nature of the process. None of the respondents, from member states, RBA management, civil society or the private sector, saw any downside of an event if managed properly – that is, in theory, it could be helpful. Given the political nature of the process, few saw it as influencing the outcome of the election, especially for FAO and WFP, although a few thought it could play a role at IFAD where votes are concentrated among fewer member states and the organization is relatively small.
The main advantage of an event is that it could be an opportunity for candidates to provide a vision for an organization and to be questioned about it, and for the public and member states to raise key issues. In this context, the public event is seen less as a means to win the election and more as a way of communicating information from candidates to key constituencies and vice versa. While in theory such an event could happen after an election, the perception of members and other stakeholders is that having an event during the election period can ensure that it actually happens (if required or recommended as part of the election process) and puts candidates on record prior to being elected when they have a stronger incentive to consider external views. As one member of civil society noted:
A number of member states and RBA representatives held a similar view that such an event was valuable for those not able to vote as it provided an opportunity to interact with candidates.
There was even a view that when there is one candidate – which is generally the case at WFP and also regularly occurs at IFAD and FAO when an incumbent is running – it would be useful to have this type of public event. As noted by a member state:
An event mirroring the one undertaken at IFAD for the 2021 election, where there was only one candidate, may provide a template. While the consensus across all categories of respondents saw value in a public event for candidates for RBA principals, two important caveats emerged.
First, the events should be coordinated with member states as part of the process of candidate selection. There was generally a view that the 2019 public event for the FAO director-general was insufficiently coordinated with member states and, more generally, poorly communicated to key constituencies – too few key stakeholders knew about it and it was organized too late. There were some member states who thought the public event could be hosted by the member states themselves while others saw no issue with an external party managing the event and saw an advantage in doing this. But across the board, coordination was seen as key.
There was generally a view that the 2019 public event for the FAO director-general was insufficiently coordinated with member states and, more generally, poorly communicated to key constituencies.
Second, a few member states were concerned about the potential bias of having Western institutions manage a public event for candidates. However, some just saw this issue as an excuse for non-participation. While there was not agreement on this point, there was a clear consensus that this is easily solved by having a broader set of global institutions manage a public event. This would mean co-sponsorship of any public event by a number of institutions from a range of countries.
Member state management, annual meetings and calendar
Within the three RBAs there are numerous meetings and events, including those linked to governing bodies, boards and committees. Most events require a significant number of documents be reviewed. Member state delegations designate representatives to participate in RBA meetings. While country delegations to Rome vary, it is not uncommon that the same small group of people, or even one person, is responsible for following and participating in all RBA activities. Given the high volume of responsibilities from various executive bodies and committees as well as side events, there needs to be significant coordination in the RBA calendars not only to allow for participation in the different events, but to prepare for the events.
An overview of the RBA calendar shows that there is at least one important governing body meeting every month, with the exception of August and occasionally January. In addition, there are a significant number of other events and repetition of discussion topics across the agencies.
The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) was frequently mentioned in interviews in regard to events and collaboration, although views of its merits greatly differed. The CFS is a multi-stakeholder platform open to member states as well as civil society, the private sector, international organizations and research institutions. Its remit includes coordination at the global level, policy convergence, and support and advice to countries and regions. It is considered the foremost inclusive international and intergovernmental body for stakeholders working towards the elimination of hunger and ensuring food security and nutrition for all.
Generally, among interviewees, there was recognition of the value of the CFS and its meetings as a key opportunity for dialogue between a broad range of stakeholders. Private sector and civil society representatives in particular highlighted its value, as did RBA representatives and a number of member states. However, some viewed it as inefficient in coming to agreements since these are all negotiated, which is particularly difficult due to the highly politicized nature of agriculture. This can be seen in the quotes from different parties.
A representative from civil society highlighted both the potential value and current problems:
However, a private-sector representative saw it as valuable for dialogue:
A member state representative talked about the differing opinions on CFS:
Regarding the ideological nature of the CFS, a representative of another member state commented:
A similar view was expressed by an RBA staff representative:
A representative from an international research institute said:
Overall, even with the lack of agreement on the value of the CFS, it clearly plays a key role in dialogue among a range of stakeholders on key strategic issues linked to the RBA agenda as well as RBA collaboration.
Collaboration among the RBAs
In line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s calls for closer coordination of the UN system, RBA collaboration has gained traction and is increasingly being institutionalized. At the request of member states, a joint paper outlining the agencies’ collaboration was presented in 2016. The principles set out in the 2016 paper have been reinforced by a memorandum of understanding signed in 2018 by the three RBA leaders.
One of the main messages of the 2016 paper is that SDG2 is at the heart of the mandates of the three agencies and, thus, provides an opportunity to improve collaboration among the three around this goal. The paper also identified the complementarities among the three agencies’ mandates, expertise and comparative advantages. Building on previous work, the paper identifies four main pillars of RBA collaboration:
- Collaboration at the regional and country level;
- Collaboration at the global level;
- Collaboration on thematic areas; and
- Joint corporate services.
These four pillars are used as the framework for annual reporting on RBA collaboration to their governing bodies.
Using this framework as a basis, the evaluation offices of FAO, IFAD and WFP released an independent joint evaluation of RBA collaboration at the end of 2021. The evaluation had mixed findings with evidence of a strong collaborative spirit in some areas – for example, in thematic and advocacy work – but little to no collaboration in others. Collaboration mainly takes place where there is a clear advantage and where it can overcome misunderstandings over mandates and avoid competition for funds. The evaluation noted that the current formal global structure and processes for RBA coordination do not significantly strengthen overall collaboration. Furthermore, although joint corporate services offer clear practical benefits, coordination of these services has not been strengthened. The evaluation points to the need for improved leadership, coordination and governance, and offers some specific recommendations.
The evaluation noted that the current formal global structure and processes for RBA coordination do not significantly strengthen overall collaboration.
There are some in senior management at the RBAs who see this direction in a positive light and would like a stronger push from member states as evidenced in the following statement:
As a key coordination mechanism at the headquarter level, the RBA principals and the RBA senior consultative group regularly convene to identify shared priorities requiring collective efforts. The importance of this level of coordination was considered critical in interviews. Member states, in particular, viewed leadership at the highest levels – between the principals as well as senior management – as critical for RBA collaboration and coordination. If there is no commitment at this level, RBA collaboration will simply not happen. As stated by one member state:
As part of coordination efforts, since 2017, the FAO council, IFAD executive board and WFP executive board have informally met on an annual basis in September or October for a discussion on broad and long-term RBA collaboration. This has generally been seen as a positive development and a few member states noted that the 2020 document provided for the meeting was regarded as a particular step forward since it included analysis for the first time. As one RBA representative noted:
Although enhanced RBA collaboration is broadly seen as positive, there is also recognition from all stakeholders that the RBAs have different mandates and governance structures, and these need to be considered in any effort to enhance coordination and collaboration. This was echoed by both member states and senior managers as represented by the following quotes, the first one being from a member state representative:
The second one from a senior RBA staff representative: