Q&A: IFAD's new president on improving life in rural and agricultural areas

Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, newly appointed president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Photo by: IFAD

“When I was growing up, we had a severe drought in Togo,” Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, Togo's former prime minister and the newly appointed sixth president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, recently recalled. To reduce the impact on his household, Houngbo would bring his parents to the city, so they had access to clean water, he told Devex.

Although grateful for the provision, Houngbo’s mother wasn’t happy with the arrangement. Her appreciation for access to potable water in the city was outweighed by how much she missed living in the village. “You have to prefer my [satisfaction], not what you think would make me healthier,” she had told him.

That experience shaped how Houngbo approaches development work today. “It is crucial to ensure that people are provided with the right tools, the analysis, the modern technology,” he said, “But it is [more] crucial to have national or community ownership.”

With over 30 years of experience working in the government and development sector, Houngbo will now lead IFAD, the U.N. agency dedicated to investing in improving life in rural and agricultural areas.

IFAD appoints Togo's former prime minister as new president

Togo's former Prime Minister Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo beats seven other candidates, including three women, to emerge as IFAD's new president.

When he assumes office in April, Houngbo told Devex that he will prioritize a people-centered approach to development. He is cautious of moving too quickly or creating a reform fatigue. His priority will be to continue to build on the legacy of his predecessor and decentralize the activities of IFAD to increase its presence on the ground.

Devex spoke with Houngbo about his plans and goals as he takes the helm as IFAD’s new president. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What will be your top priorities during the first year of your tenure in office?

My priority would be to use the opportunity of our establishment to scale up IFAD’s overall activity, particularly IFAD’s impact on poverty alleviation — particularly extreme poverty — through agriculture and nonfarming activities.

I would like to make sure that we boost access to rural financing for smallholders through programs that help them address productivity challenges as well as encouraging climate-smart agriculture and improving their access to the market. The priority will also be to explore increased cooperation with the private sector by boosting the resource base of IFAD, or by using the private sector in making technology available and affordable for the smallholders to be able to increase productivity or have access to financial market data or access to marketing. There are so many demands on the resources, from humanitarian to security challenges, to the environment. The fear is that agriculture might suffer at a time when we know the need for food is increasing every year.

What specific changes or reforms will you make for the organization to be more efficient?

There have been a lot of ongoing reforms in the past several years. We have to continue that. You have to be very mindful not to create reform or change fatigue. I think in a modern world of international development — where the taxpayers are ultimately paying the bill and rightfully much more demanding concerning accountability, transparency and value for money — it is important that we keep improving our business process. This is a very critical point for me.

Another reform, which is subject to a briefing, is to make sure that we can maximize the use of our management system to embed more control so as to free up staff time for more substantive work. While IFAD is doing well regarding gender parity in staffing — I believe 59 percent of staff are women — when you disaggregate the data from the middle management to higher management, the number of women is in deficit. Without sacrificing competence, we also need to see how to make sure we continue improving on that, as well as the diversification of the staffing.

Another dimension will certainly be the decentralization of IFAD’s presence on the ground. IFAD has a comparative advantage in knowledge of rural areas, but it is also important that we strengthen that by increasing our presence on the ground.

Finally, we need to look at the synergy between the Rome-based agencies and the other development partners on the ground for a better synergy.

Drawing from your experience growing up in rural Togo and working in government, the International Labour Organization and United Nations Development Programme, what lessons are you bringing to IFAD?

It is one thing to have a vision; it is another thing to transform that vision into a proper action plan and implement it while making sure that you draw lessons. In development, sometimes you can fail or make mistakes, but it is important to be humble enough to draw the lessons and quickly adjust your next steps. When I was in government, I know that sometimes I made mistakes. But quickly I adjusted and learned from that for the benefit of the next cycle.

It is important in our international development business to keep in mind that two projects are never the same. Two rural communities are never the same no matter how close they are to each other. In your overall approach, it is of critical importance to think about the beneficiaries from day one. If you can solve a problem in one day — maybe it is better to address the issue in a day and a half — if the solution is going to come from the people who are going to benefit from it in the long run. In other words, it is crucial that the people be allowed to decide for themselves the future they want. We’ll provide them with means and capacity to achieve that.

It is important to keep focusing on concrete results on the ground. Sometimes you end up with very nice reports, very analytical work, which will end up on our shelves. I see IFAD focusing more on the tangible results on the ground by looking at how many women are benefiting from access to load, how many have their incomes increased. How are we preparing the community to resist extreme weather conditions? How have we been able to make the renewable energy affordable?

For IFAD, investing in women is not a matter of principle or value, but from an economic standpoint, the multiplying effect is so tremendous. I am interested in looking a bit deeper at equal access to productive resources, for example, in addition to mainstreaming our programs. We just need to improve on the great work that has already been done.

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About the author

  • Ehidiamen jennifer

    Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters (www.ruralreporters.com) with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.