FAO: A new role for the private sector

Marcela Villarreal, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization's office for communication, partnerships and advocacy. Photo by: Giulio Napolitano / FAO

From resource provider to partner: FAO is taking a step further in engaging the private sector.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization now wants to proactively reach out to for-profit companies to harness their innovative spirit without “bluewashing,” Marcela Villarreal, Director of the FAO Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy, tells Devex.

Bluewashing refers to the agreement by a corporation to abide by U.N. fair labor, human rights, anti-corruption and environmental sustainability standards agreements that are often criticized as public relations ploys since adherence is not enforced.

FAO plans to implement in the coming weeks a strategy that will see the U.N. agency act as a broker between the public and private sectors in order to create win-win scenarios and shared value, while moving away from more expensive and time-consuming project-based work.

Devex spoke with Villarreal about the shift.

How is FAO changing its attitude towards private companies and what actions it is going to take?

We are there to engage companies into concrete development outcomes that will be good for the people and also, of course, good for the private sector. But we are very careful about bluewashing. Companies which have had reputational issues because of any kind of misbehaviour [and would like to clean up their image by associating themselves with the U.N. we are very careful to avoid it. We are not there to help companies improve their image or clean their image. …

Up to now, we have had huge amounts of partnerships both with private sector and with civil society. … But now we thought we have to be proactive in identifying who we want to be around the table.

One of your tasks is to find innovative ways for partnering with the private sector. What will be your focus?

For us, the private sector brings along many, many assets. It is not only funds. If you look at our previous strategies on the private sector, [we] were looking at it mostly as resource partner, more than any other thing. … Today, we want to bring in the private sector for the different kinds of contributions it can make. An important one is innovation in agriculture.

How are you concretely engaging the private sector with this new approach?

There are a numbers of bottlenecks that small producers face in their wanting to produce and in their wanting to use agriculture as a mean of getting out of poverty. One of this bottlenecks, which is very important, is access to market, which involves, of course, transportation, roads. … What is very clear is that producers can provide solutions to a number of bottlenecks that a small producer faces. Just by joining forces with [them, they] can have economies of scale.

In Africa, it is several times more expensive to buy fertilizers per unit than it is in the United States, [ for instance, but] together with other farmers, you [can] either negotiate the price or buy in bulk, therefore reducing the cost. 

How do you involve private companies in these projects? What is the incentive for the private sector?

There are two elements. One is corporate social responsibility. On the other hand, … for example, if you are a mobile company, you have an interest in ensuring that more people have access to mobile [phones]. Here you can combine development actions with purely commercial actions. Sometimes you get the private sector to provide the [necessary] infrastructure … In one of our projects in Niger, we have solar-powered cellphones which are provided by a company. There are a number of ways in which you [can] find win-win situations, in which you have possible development outcomes, positive impacts on agriculture and also a profit [for the] private sector.

How do you fund and implement such initiatives?

Our role there is to find ways in which you can get the private sector and the public sector to collaborate, and to provide, for example, services to rural areas. In most cases governments cannot fund the services for the rural areas because it is much more expensive. Through public-private partnerships, you can find ways in which it would be efficient and good for the private sector to be involved in areas where the public sector cannot [operate] because it does not have the funds.

FAO [tries to find] win-win situations for everybody involved which in the end are going to be for the benefit of small farmers [thus] reducing hunger and poverty.

FAO is eager to find new models of collaboration and new mechanisms that will be established for the engagement of the private sector, through multidonor trust funds, for instance. Are any new such vehicles already in the works?

What we are trying to do is move away from the project model by which you negotiate a project for a certain amount, with a certain donor, [and] you have deliverables, you have monitoring and then you have results that you have to present back to your donors with a reporting system. That is very time- [and resource-] intensive both for the donor and the implementer.

Now, through a multidonor trust fund, what you can do is to get resources from donors who want to contribute to a specific set of objectives and they can choose to provide lightly earmarked funds or non-earmarked funds. They just provide funding and they would be satisfied with a kind of light reporting. We are accountable, of course, on how we use the funds, but we don’t need reporting project by project, donor by donor. It is a much more efficient way of getting the funds and ensuring that they are used [effectively]. 

Can you give an example?

We have an innovative kind of partnership, which is farmer-to-farmer collaboration, by which we help to strengthen farmer organizations in poor countries using the experience of [similar groups] in rich countries. The private sector would find value, for example, in producing off-season seeds, which in Europe cannot be produced during the winter. … FAO’s role is to identify the kinds of partnerships that [can be] win-win situations. It is the private sector, so it is for-profit, but profit in [such] a way that there is no exploitation. On the contrary, there is a development outcome with the strengthening of these organizations.

How can companies become FAO partners?

We have very strict risk-management measures because we have to protect our neutrality. We want to ensure that no partnership is going to have any kind of undue influence on the internal process of the organization. … We [also] have to ensure that no private sector company or group of companies is going to have any influence on the outcome of the research or information we provide to the countries. We have due diligence processes by which we look at any possible conflict of interest, any kind of undue pressure. …

On the other hand, we want to ensure that any kind of partnership we engage in is going to be with the companies that do not have any kind of issues with human rights abuses, child labour [and so on].

How relevant is the role of FAO’s decentralized offices in the selection process?

You have one kind of partnership at country level, another one at the regional level and another at the global level. At the global level, we are looking much more into decision-making processes, like participation in global policy processes. At the country level, we could be looking at simple things like provision of services in areas where the government doesn’t provide services. In any case, we have to ensure that whoever we are going to engage with has a clean record. 

Does this strategy imply changes in how FAO staff works?

Yes, definitely. They have to be more proactive in identifying opportunities. Right now, we do have several partnerships but some of these has happened in an ad hoc way. [For instance,] you find yourself at a conference, [there is] somebody else who seems interesting and you engage into a contact. It could end up being a really good partnership. [But] now we want to be much more proactive in identifying who are the partners that need to be around the table in order to achieve certain development objectives, including our five strategic objectives, the first one being the elimination of hunger. We have to find out and see what are the opportunities that maybe we are missing, identify them proactively and bring these different people to the table in different ways.

ARe you training your staff in these areas or looking for additional resources? 

We are training [our] staff. We want to make them aware of the changes in our policies and have people understand that partnerships are something which is not only desirable, but necessary in order to deliver on our strategic objectives. [They must be aware] of what those partnerships mean, what are the risks.

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About the author

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    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.