29 June 2011
Rob Bailey

Rob Bailey

Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources, Chatham House


The new FAO Director General’s credentials look excellent, but he has a huge job ahead of him.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has elected its first new Director General in 18 years. José Graziano da Silva of Brazil beat Spain’s Miguel Ángel Moratinos in the final round by 92 votes to 88. Voting was split along developed and developing country lines, with the former favouring the Spaniard and holding the purse strings.

On paper, the Brazilian’s credentials are excellent. A former food security minister, da Silva played a crucial role in Brazil’s cross-sectoral Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) programme – a raft of rural development and social protection policies which together delivered remarkable improvements in national hunger statistics. He also knows the FAO, having previously served as the regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Much rests upon Mr Graziano da Silva’s directorship – possibly even the future of the FAO itself. The UN agency has suffered a deep malaise as donor countries have progressively withdrawn funding, frustrated at a perceived lack of results and efficiency. This decline appeared to have ended when funding slowly began to rise again in the run-up to the global food price crisis of 2007/8. But recently, major donors such as the UK and US have made noises about further cuts unless changes are made.

The backdrop to the FAO’s woes has been an ominous surge in global hunger and two global food price spikes in four years, making the agency more relevant than ever and providing Mr Graziano da Silva with an opportunity to reassert its presence on the international stage. To do so, he must unite the member countries behind him, focus the agency’s agenda and more clearly define its role in global governance.

Uniting the membership is essentially a task of winning the trust of donor countries without losing that of the developing world. By choosing during his opening press conference to avoid criticising US and EU biofuel policies, despite pointed questions from journalists and a pre-existing FAO position they should be abandoned, he will have pleased donors. But ultimately his success in this area will rest upon delivering the ambitious programme of reform donors demand.

The FAO operates across a broad policy agenda, many would say too broad. Identifying a few strategic priorities for the agency, and aligning organisational goals and objectives to these whilst cutting back non-core activities, will be key. The fundamental challenge facing agriculture – of how to sustainably double production in 40 years, whilst adapting to climate change and lifting one billion people out of poverty - offers a good starting point.

Mr Graziano da Silva was elected on a governance ticket, but the challenge of achieving a functioning system of global food governance cannot be overstated. Look no further than the recent G20 agriculture ministers’ meeting to see why. Despite the second global food price spike in four years, governments, hamstrung by sectoral interests, ignored international organisations’ suggested reforms to trade and biofuel policies. Mr Graziano da Silva will do well to aim his sights lower, and he has – singling out improved coordination with sister agency, the World Food Programme, as a priority. There is much that can be done here, particularly within food insecure countries to ensure the agencies work together so that response transitions effectively from emergency into recovery and long-term agricultural development.