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Food-related UN agencies

Revisiting Rome

by Frederic Mousseau
In view of the current global food crisis, serious questions arise: why did the multilateral system fail to prevent the crisis? How effective is it in the field of agriculture? What needs to be done to improve performance? To understand the issue, it is necessary to consider the history of three Rome-based UN institutions: the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). [ By Frederic Mousseau ]

It is widely acknowledged that fighting hunger and poverty requires investment in agriculture and rural development in disadvantaged countries. According to UN data (HLTF 2008), agriculture’s share in Official Development Assistance (ODA) nonetheless dropped from a high of 18 % in 1979 to 3.4 % in 2006. The total funds available in 2006 amounted to around $ 4 billion. This global trend is reflected in the funding of the UN agencies, specialised in agriculture and rural development. This is particularly so in the case of the FAO. Its budget and staff have been shrinking over the years, along with its capacity to pursue its mandate. At the same time, WFP resources increased 20 fold in the past three decades, reaching an estimated requirement of $ 6 billion in 2008.

Without any doubt, the funding for food and agriculture needs to increase, but the allocation must also be more coherent. Despite some joint declarations and activities, FAO, IFAD and WFP have shown little coherence and quite poor coordination in the past. This is unfortunate as
– all three are based in Rome,
– share a common focus on food, agriculture and hunger, and
– should engage in complementary activities, commanding complementary skills and expertise.
And yet, collaboration among them has proven problematic, to say the least.

Indeed, the three organisations were not established as blocks of a logically coherent system. Rather, they are standalone entities for specific purposes with a history of controversies among one another. As far as food and agriculture policy is concerned, the UN system suffers from contradictions inherent in its design.

Historically disorganised

The FAO was put in place after the destructive Second World War, in the hope of creating a world of peace and stability. The WFP was set up nearly 20 years later, when rich countries realised that their growing agricultural surpluses could be used to fight hunger, turning developing countries into export regions for subsi­dised farmers in Europe, North America, Japan and other well-off nations. Though the WFP was originally placed within the FAO, it did not serve the parent institutions as a specialised instrument in a coordinated fight against hunger. The IFAD, in turn, was created in 1974. The idea was to provide oil-rich countries with a way to contribute to development funding, rather than complementing institutions already in place.

FAO and IFAD therefore have similar purposes, but do not operate as one. The WFP, from the outset, has always been more about distributing surplus production from rich countries than promoting agriculture in poor ones. It has thus tended to compete with local producers in developing countries agricultural markets, undermining the efforts undertaken by the FAO and IFAD to boost rural livelihoods.

Proper governance would have been the way to overcome these apparent contradictions. Adequate management could – and should – have geared the different bodies towards one common goal. That never happened. Instead, the WFP, which used to be under direct FAO control, was “emancipated” from its parent agency in 1991. The dispute over the matter took more than ten years and left its mark on the relationship of the two bodies in the long run. The root cause was a deep division of member states regarding the UN system.

The US and most Western countries were not supportive of FAO’s emphasis on agriculture in developing countries and FAO’s ties to countries of the Eastern Block. The rich countries are the main payers as the FAO is funded by compulsory contributions calculated according to a country’s wealth. They felt that the FAO was too much under the influence of developing countries. The latter indeed wield significant power in the organisation that adheres to the UN principle of “one country one vote”. Finally, Washington threatened to withdraw from the FAO, which would have meant not paying the $ 90 million contribution for 1991. This threat led to institutional reforms which made the WFP largely independent from the FAO, though still officially affiliated. Unlike the FAO, the WFP is funded through voluntary contributions. It is therefore more responsive to donor concerns. A consequence of this history is that FAO, WFP and IFAD are now separate entities with separate governing bodies and mechanisms. There is no centralised administrative hierarchy within the UN system to coordinate their action.

The UN secretary-general cannot give directions to the heads of agencies. They are legally answerable only to their respective governing bodies. While the secretary-general does appoint the WFP Executive Director, the two other heads are elected by their respective governing body. Moreover, the secretary-general does not have the power of the purse, given that each institution manages its funding independently.

At a country level, the three organisations barely work together. WFP and FAO mainly cooperate on crop and food supply assessments (CFSAM), which is the base for estimating food-aid needs. FAO and IFAD hardly ever work together. A recent evaluation (FAO, 2006) for instance found that while IFAD maintains a representative in 15 countries worldwide, only one of them is hosted by FAO. This is absurd given that the two organisations should be complementary.

Historically employed as UN diplomats, the FAO representatives that run country offices often lack the skills and resources to lead the fight against hunger at the nation-state level. WFP country offices, on the other hand, are funded from food-aid budgets. That setting creates a supply bias and encourages the use of food aid over other forms of response.

The long-standing tension between the WFP and FAO reflects broader conflicts and power dynamics between the developing world and rich countries. Today, FAO is directed by Jacques Diouf, a Senegalese national. His criticism of an international system dominated by rich countries and his emphasis on smallholders, rural poor and developing countries does not necessarily correspond to the expectations of rich-nation governments.

After its split from the FAO, the WFP has remained under the influence of its main donors in particular the USA. WFP executive directors are traditionally US citizens. Current Executive Director Josette Sheeran is a former deputy trade representative of the USA. Catherine Bertini, a former executive director, had served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Agriculture.

Today, the WFP is trusted by many member states because of its efficiency and its ability to deliver food aid in the most difficult conditions, such as Darfur or Somalia. Confidence in FAO abilities is far more uneven. FAO performance, moreover, is far more difficult to assess given the complexity of its mandate, and the fact that it has been struggling with a shrinking budget for the past twenty years.

An opportunity for change

In April this year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened the High Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis (HLTF), involving the three Rome-based agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other institutions. This approach is an historical first attempt to make the key global institutions work together and develop a single policy framework to guide the fight against hunger.

This initiative was followed more recently by the proposal made by the French and the British governments to expand the HLTF into a broader Global Partnership on Food and Agriculture (GPFA). One proposition is, unsurprisingly, to promote greater coherence between IFAD, FAO and WFP.

The activities of the three agencies could be integrated in different ways:
– WFP and FAO already cooperate on assessing food-aid needs. By looking at hunger and vulnerability in a more comprehensive and integrated manner, they could produce essential information and analysis to help governments design national food-security strategies.
– The three agencies could pool advocacy, fundraising and resource mobilisation. Resources could then be dispatched according to priority countries and activities.
– In terms of programmes, there is also large scope for integration. For instance, this year the WFP launched its “Purchase For Progress” initiative, designed to procure food-aid supplies from smallholders in developing countries. These are the farmers, the productivity of whom FAO and IFAD are trying to boost. The three agencies could join hands on issues such as production, processing, storage and marketing. Moreover, they should pool their expertise to support the establishment and the management of grain banks, grain reserves and other systemically useful institutions at local, national or regional levels.
– The agencies’ country offices could merge, laying the base for a system of UN food and agriculture offices. These could support the design of integrated national strategies on food, as well as mobilise resources for their implementation.

The above requires an ambitious move of the different agencies towards more coordination and integration, at global, regional and at country levels. Country and regional level integration must be a priority for quick outcomes and seems to be the most easily achievable. Nevertheless, important decisions still have to be taken at the global level to reshape the Food and Agriculture system of the UN in a more coherent way. An FAO reform is already underway but reformers must look at the three agencies together for the systemic changes that are required to give to the fight against hunger any chance of success.