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Revisiting Rome

June 11, 2008
Development and Cooperation

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).

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.