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Amid Criticism, U.N. Food Agency to Elect Chief

Friday, June 24, 2011

Originally published by The New York Times

By Raphael Minder

MADRID — On Sunday, members of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization will elect a new director general amid pressure on the agency to improve its own administrative efficiency, as well as that of the world’s poorest farming nations.

The F.A.O., based in Rome, has already been pushed into making some reforms. Two years ago it decided to shorten the term of its director general to four from six years, as well as set a limit of two consecutive terms. The present head, Jacques Diouf, a Senegalese, has held the job since 1994, and is completing his third, six-year term.

Some member nations have continued to highlight inefficiencies at the agency. Britain’s Department for International Development concluded a critical review of the agency, published last February, by warning that, in terms of introducing much-needed reforms, “the current likelihood of full, successful implementation with the necessary urgency is low.”

Frédéric Mousseau, a food security consultant and policy director at the Oakland Institute, a research center based in California, said that the agency “has been caught in a decades-long chicken -and-egg game.” Developed countries have been shrinking their financial contribution in response to its poor effectiveness, bureaucracy and bad governance, but “the institution cannot perform its mandate and conduct necessary reform without adequate financial resources,” he said.

The election of a new director general, Mr. Mousseau said, was therefore “very important” because “the F.A.O. will need resources and strong leadership which can free itself from the grip of rich donor countries, restore confidence from member states, and move a heavy, partly dusty, machine forward.”

Predicting Sunday’s outcome is difficult. The agency is conducting a secret ballot in which each of its 191 member nations holds one vote.

However, among the six candidates that are vying to succeed Mr. Diouf, the frontrunner appears to be José Graziano da Silva of Brazil, according to Mr. Mousseau and other food sector experts. His bid is strengthened by his domestic track record as minister of food security under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former Brazilian president. An estimated 24 million Brazilians were brought out of poverty within five years, according to his candidacy Web site.

In a presentation to the agency's council in April, Mr. Graziano pledged to bring internal reform to “a satisfactory conclusion.” He also called on the F.A.O. to work more closely with other institutions and become “much more engaged” in issues closely related to farming, from climate change to food safety.

Another strong candidate is Miguel Ángel Moratinos, a former Spanish foreign minister. Mr. Moratinos argued in an interview that his lack of experience in agriculture compared to his main rivals would be a “clear advantage” when it came to reform.

“What this organization needs is a political vision so as to mobilize resources much better as well as regain credibility,” he said. “The organization needs the best experts in agriculture, but the leadership needs to be political.”

One of the main pledges made by Mr. Moratinos is to lower to about 50 percent the proportion of the F.A.O.’s budget that is spent on salaries and administrative costs, from 70 percent at present.

Among his proposed measures is cutting the role of outside consultants, who currently eat up 15 percent of the 30 percent of the overall budget that is actually devoted to development work, he said.

Mr. Moratinos also wants the F.A.O. staff to work “more on the ground,” rather than from their Roman headquarters. Another goal is to make “a substantial cut” in the agency’s network of 130 representative offices around the world.

One of Mr. Moratinos’s challengers is another European, Franz Fischler of Austria who, as a former European agriculture commissioner, would also bring extensive experience in international trade negotiations to the job. One of Mr. Fischler’s five pledges is also to “deliver better value for money for both developed and developing countries.”

The other candidates represent developing countries: Indroyono Soesilo of Indonesia, Abdul Latif Rashid of Iraq and Mohammad Saeid Noori Naeini of Iran.

If elected, Mr. Noori Naeini has pledged to stay only four years.

The election campaign has forced the candidates to travel relentlessly in order to garner worldwide support. Mr Moratinos, for instance, has visited 90 countries since the start of the year.

This week, he expressed confidence about Sunday’s outcome, including European support for his bid despite having Mr. Fischler among his rivals. “I presented my candidacy first, so I didn’t divide the European vote,” he said.

Still, he insisted that, like at other international organizations, the appointment process needed to become more meritocratic, rather than each region promoting its own champion.

The F.A.O. election coincides with European efforts to keep the leadership of the International Monetary Fund, following the resignation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is facing attempted rape charges in New York.

“We cannot continue to fall into the old geopolitical games of North versus South that really belong to the past,” Mr. Moratinos said.

Beside lobbying governments around the world for their support, Mr. Moratinos said that he also met executives from food multinationals to encourage private sector participation in efforts to combat world hunger. He was however reluctant to get drawn into a discussion of whether modified food should play a larger role in famine relief efforts.

Mr. Moratinos’s F.A.O. bid comes after he lost his ministerial job last October as part of a larger-than-anticipated cabinet reshuffling by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, whose popularity has slumped because of the economic crisis. Asked about Mr. Zapatero's decision, Mr. Moratinos insisted that, after a long spell in government, “my exit was not abrupt.”