European Union ambassador Laurence Argimon-Pistre. The EU has committed to helping the Food and Agriculture Organization in reducing the number of stunted children by 2025, including investing €400 million for a specific program on nutrition, according to the EU representative at the U.N. agency. Photo by: FAO

Last month, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization member states agreed on the agency’s 2014-2015 budget and a new strategic framework, objectives and program for the next few years.

Before and during FAO’s week-long biannual conference in Rome, the European Union had expressed concerns about the financial health of the organization, and asked for more transparency in its decentralization process.

The EU is among FAO’s largest donors, and it has committed to helping the agency reduce the number of stunted children by 7 million before 2025, and investing €3.5 billion in the next seven years on agriculture-related programs, including €400 million for a specific program on nutrition.

So, is FAO going in the right direction? Devex asked Laurence Argimon-Pistre, head of the EU delegation to Rome.

FAO is undergoing major changes, with its new strategic framework, new objectives, new budgeting modalities and operations. How are those changes impacting its partnership with the EU?

FAO has been a very strong and reliable partner, even when it was starting its reform. … At that time, it was criticized because it was not considered so efficient. Already, with the food facility, we have been able to demonstrate that FAO was efficient, that it was actually able to disburse a considerable amount of money in a very short time.

We actually helped FAO in engaging its reform and making it a success. The reform is going further because it has to. We are addressing challenges that are so big and that are changing very rapidly.

FAO has to reorganize its core functions to be as efficient as possible to address all these challenges and this is why we have the new “five plus one” strategic objectives. They really go in the right direction, which is exactly what we think is important. And [on the ground], we have a complementary role.

Do you envision additional funding to FAO in specific countries, areas or programs?

We do. The agenda for change is very much country-oriented. What we are going to do is to work with those countries that are in really in difficult situations and need our help most. We expect to work very much with FAO country by country. … It doesn’t mean we’re not going on working on global and regional approaches, especially in the framework of the Committee on Food Security.

We have a commitment to do more research and political work on nutrition. … We expect FAO to be the champion on things such as nutrition [and] resilience, and to be an important regulatory and policy agency. FAO has the capacity to bring its expertise on epidemics, efficient agriculture, development of new technologies — always with this idea of sustainability.

At the FAO Council in April, during discussions on the budget, you expressed concern about FAO’s deteriorating financial health. Are you still concerned, and how does that impact the ways in which you collaborate?

We are very concerned by the deteriorating financial health and increasing deficits of FAO over the last decade. This trend must be arrested.

You will not find one discussion on the budget in [any] U.N. organization where the EU is not complaining about one thing or the other. It’s normal because we are those who pay the most. Of course, we are always very rigorous in our approach to management and costs. It doesn’t mean we are more critical of FAO than of any other [agency]. Our countries are going through crisis and very difficult times in terms of budget. … We are maybe rigorous and strict in the definition of budgetary constraints, [but] we feel that the [FAO] director-general is doing a great job.

Why is FAO’s financial health an issue?

The organization is doing a lot and it is actually being requested to do a lot. We are critical only on the size of the budget, which is a bit high. We have a general approach to U.N. agencies to zero nominal growth — but this is a bit above that.

At the Council, you talked about deteriorating financial health and increasing deficits.

Yes, of course, we are always very outspoken on the budget … There is an expression in French: “You punish more when you love more.” That is it. The more importance we give to FAO, the more difficult we’re going to be on the use of finance.

It is true that it is not an organization that is absorbing enormous [amounts of] finance, but for us Europeans, it is an organization in which we feel we are actually investing quite a lot. We [have] put in €580 million since 2007 and we’ll go on investing probably a still higher [amount] in the future. So we are obviously very strict in how the organization is dealing with its funds.

You asked for clarification on the proposed reallocation of resources for technical cooperation. Why did you ask for this?

The organization has a number of missions. One is to work with the countries on eradicating hunger and developing agriculture. Another is to monitor natural resources — and this is not only agriculture, but also fisheries and forestry. … It has other missions too; we want to be sure that the organization is going to fulfill all [of them]. … We want resources to be used in a way that makes sure that all these elements are going [together].

Decentralization is a big part of the FAO reform process. You asked for more guidance and transparency in the management of field offices. How do you envision work at country level to change? Do you think this process could be more efficient and how can this be achieved?

With regard to decentralization, we reiterate the need for FAO to implement transparent rules for accountability, oversight and governance of the decentralized offices.

We know the process; we know it is difficult, painful and we also know that to make it successful, what you need is really to make sure that you keep the best resources possible at the headquarters, otherwise you have a dichotomy. You need to have very good [distribution] of your resources [between headquarters and delegations]. …

It is important that FAO thinks well about decentralization. When your resources are already limited, you really have to think in terms of putting the resources in the most strategic areas.

Are you talking about human resources?

FAO is a human resources organization in many respects. It depends very much on the expertise of the people and on capacity. You have to keep strong expertise also at the headquarters. It is very difficult to balance … because the resources here at the headquarters are limited: If you put too many people on the ground, you may actually lose the basis here in terms of expertise. This is not [unique to] FAO.

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.