Graziano da Silva: Make or break on FAO reform

José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization: A Machiavellian autocrat or the man who could save FAO? Photo by: Giulio Napolitano / FAO

His detractors portray José Graziano da Silva as a Machiavellian autocrat, but his admirers insist he is the man who can save the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Elected FAO Director-General in 2012 after the 18-year-long tenure of Jacques Diouf, the Brazilian has been tasked with concluding a long-overdue reform within the agency, a process that started almost nine years ago but from the beginning seems destined for failure.

Graziano da Silva believes the goal must be achieved by the end of the year. Despite exhausting negotiations, the threat of a strike over changes in staffing, demands by member states to save an additional $37 million and criticisms over his open door policy with civil society and the private sector, the FAO chief is determined to turn the bureaucratic giant into an efficient and effective organization.

Is he is moving in the right direction? Will his (perceived as) radical changes work? It’s too early to say. If the reform is a success, all the credit will go to Graziano da Silva — but if it doesn’t, it will be seen as his own personal failure.

“I have been elected to make decisions,” the FAO Director-General said during an exclusive interview with Devex, who sat down with Graziano da Silva in his office at the organization’s headquarters in Rome to learn more about the challenges his planned reforms are facing in the final rush before December, when all changes should be ready to be set in motion.


Graziano da Silva’s reform keyword is “de-centralization”, which means giving a greater decision-making role to local and regional offices, shaking off some headquarter functions and connecting all the bureaus in a global network.

“When I entered here, at the headquarters … [I had] the … perception that we were not really connected to the ground”, he said. “Just to give an example … During the implementation of the Global Resources Management System, I found out that instead of 5,000-6,000 staff members … we have 11,000 people working for FAO! [And] we don’t even have a list of [all of] them. Now, I am trying to build one FAO [instead of] 120 FAOs around the world.”

Concerns remain about the capacity of the organization to monitor what happens on the ground and prevent what has been the most serious allegation the agency has ever faced: corruption.

“Not everything [has been decentralized] … About procurement, we retain the control at the headquarters on some decisions … or on finances management, when a partnership involves the United Nations, we are a little reluctant to decentralize totally,” explained Graziano da Silva, adding that the Rome central offices will continue to manage control functions to verify, for example, if there are conflicts of interests when partnering with the private sector.

Corruption, he stressed, has never been a big issue, with only a few cases reported, most recently involving external consultants.

Nevertheless, a new policy will be implemented for these employees, including monitoring their work, setting hiring standards and compiling a roster from which to recruit.

“Now [that selection] depends much more on what each officer involved proposes [which] gives open space for hiring friends,” said Graziano da Silva.

Staffing woes

Consultants are just one aspect of the contentious staffing issues within FAO. Much more controversial are the proposed job cuts and sweeping changes to human resources policy.

Staff threatened to go on strike after Graziano da Silva announced that 56 contracts — mostly in administrative positions — would not be extended and start the re-deployment process dreaded by employees, who see the cuts as the easiest but cruelest way for management to save the $37 million requested by member states during FAO’s last bi-annual conference in June.

“That’s not the easiest way,” argued the FAO chief. “On the contrary, it’s very difficult. I do not want to cut posts. Nobody wants to cut his own body. It’s like cutting my arm or cutting my finger. I don’t want to do that, but instead what should I do? To cut vacant posts?”

The latter has been an option on the table, but it would mean terminating some positions that are necessary, he said, to decentralize the agency, like up to 50 jobs that need to be filled outside of the Rome headquarters. Graziano da Silva noted FAO has no choice but to implement the reforms, which have already been discussed step by step with unions and staff representatives.

“Consultation doesn’t mean that we necessarily agree. When there is difference of opinion, who makes the decision? Who is responsible? I have clearly said it’s the Director-General,” he explained.

However, staff consider the HR reform strategy “de-motivating,” accuse management of intimation and undue pressure and depict Graziano da Silva as a “dictator,” while he tells employees: “You must not consider staff and staff representative bodies [as the same thing].”

HR management is now trying to re-deploy the employees whose posts have been cut, and according to insider sources consulted by Devex, many of them have already been re-assigned to vacant positions.

Money, money, money

Dealing with the state of FAO’s finances are another headache for Graziano da Silva.

Will the agency be able to attract sufficient funding to implement the programs set up by the reform process? The Director-General wants all resources to be directed to projects in line with the five objectives of the new strategic framework approved last June.

“What we are trying to do is not to take any money that are not under [those] priorities,” said Graziano da Silva.

But about 58 percent of the organization’s budget comes from voluntary contributions managed through trust funds more or less lightly earmarked for programs that traditionally represent those member states’ own agendas. Contributing member states would thus have to change their mindset and adapt to FAO’s new priorities, rather than control what their money is being spent on.

According to the FAO chief, it’s a question of gaining their confidence: “When you don’t have the transparency and confidence of the members, [they] don’t give you the money, they try to orient the resources and micro-manage.”

Just a few weeks ago, the organization held a seminar to present to the member states the new resource mobilization strategy and “offer them like a menu of opportunities among which to choose [where to put their money],” explained Graziano da Silva.

No overlapping

The second test of Graziano da Silva’s ability to translate into practice his ambitious vision will be to halt the constant overlapping of roles in FAO management and conciliate the divergent interests of the actors, in tune with the Director-General’s open-door policy toward civil society organizations and the private sector.

“Member states try to manage instead of giving guidance; management take decisions that are up to the member states; unions try to co-manage, most of the times,” said Graziano da Silva. “There is a red line. It must be [up to the] members [to provide] guidance and management’s role [is] to implement their [suggestions]. We should not mix them,” da Silva said.

However, CSOs worry about member countries’ meddling in choosing even the implementing partners, and fear the growing role of private sector could lead FAO to bow to certain corporate interests. Member states are likewise concerned about the role the private sector and CSOs can play on the ground, and seem to be against any attempt to adopt the participatory model of the Committee on World Food Security within the organization.

So is the agency ready to engage effectively with the different stakeholders and safeguard its role as an honest broker?

According to da Silva, the new partnership strategies are an attempt to set clear rules and roles for everyone. FAO managers, for example, will choose the partners, in consultation with governments, but not the other way around. As for the private sector, a specific trust fund has been recently set up to avoid companies being seen merely as funding partners.

“We don’t have significant funding from private sector now [and] I don’t believe we will have in [the] future,” said Graziano da Silva.

The challenge in engaging the private sector is not to provide financial resources, but technical expertise. However, companies can push for their own interests even through technical assistance.

“Of course they will … That’s why we are the ones that took the decision of accepting or not. We partner with who we want. We don’t need to partner with everyone,” concluded the FAO chief.

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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.