Twists and turns as FAO DG race heats up: Who will succeed Jacques Diouf?

Candidates for Food and Agriculture Organization's director-general: (from top, left to right) Franz Fischler, Abdul Latif Rashid, Miguel Angel Moratinos Cuyaube, José Graziano da Silva, Indroyono Soesilo, and Mohammad Saeid Noori Naeini. Photo by: official photos

As the race to lead the Food and Agriculture Organization heats up, much of the real action happens behind the scenes, where diplomats appear engaged in a game in which politics may trump considerations about FAO’s future. One question at the center of the debate: Why did two Europeans declare their candidacies at the eleventh hour?

The ongoing race has the taste of a historic event for FAO: For the past 18 years, the Rome-based U.N. agency has been led by Director-General Jacques Diouf of Senegal, an increasingly controversial figure whose management style and spending habits have prompted some criticism. In June, the 191 FAO members will elect a successor.

FAO’s next director-general will be able to help the agency regain political clout despite ongoing funding concerns, particularly by continuing the transition of the Committee on World Food Security into a decisive body driven by public-private partnership.

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On April 13, the FAO Council heard directly from the six candidates: José Graziano da Silva of Brazil, Mohammad Saeid Noori Naeini of Iran, Miguel Ángel Moratinos Cuyaubé of Spain, Franz Fischler of Austria, Abdul Latif Rashid of Iraq, and Indroyono Soesilo of Indonesia.

Graziano, long considered the front-runner, emphasized the FAO Committee on World Food Security’s role in global governance. Naeini focused on staffing, aid transparency and value-for-money. Moratinos spoke about the creation of new financing instruments and partnerships especially in Africa. Fischler called for a modernized reporting and recruitment system before fielding some tough questions about European Union trade barriers and his record as a champion of free trade. Rashid, Iraq’s minister of water resources, stressed the importance of robust funding for technical cooperation and food emergencies, while Soesilo talked about FAO’s role of collecting and disseminating information to farmers and the global community overall.

Conventional wisdom may suggest that FAO is ripe for a leader from Latin America or Asia. After all, Edouard Saouma, who led the agency prior to Diouf, hailed from Lebanon, and Europeans hold many top U.N. leadership posts already.

And indeed, the strongest candidate appears to be Graziano, an economist who helped create Brazil’s Zero Hunger initiative, served as extraordinary minister of food security and the fight against hunger during Lula da Silva’s presidency, and later became FAO’s regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean and, in 2006, assistant director-general. He can count on the votes of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries and of the Caribbean, among them Cuba. Members of the South American economic alliance MERCOSUR and other governments in the region expressed support of Graziano’s candidacy in November, according to the Brazilian government.

But when Moratinos, Spain’s former minister of foreign affairs, declared his candidacy in January, followed by Fischler, ex-EU commissioner for agriculture and rural development, the race took a new turn. With two European candidates and high-level challengers from Indonesia, Iran and Iraq, June’s election results are all but preordained.

So as the June election approaches, more and more questions are being asked. Why have European diplomats begun to maneuver a race that for the longest time seemed destined to produce the first Brazilian head of a U.N. agency? Does the existence of two EU candidates suggest frictions within Europe, or are leaders seeking to send a message to Brazil, an emerging donor and economic powerhouse? Why make gestures that leaders in the developing world may read as unfair or even provocative? And why has the EU not endorsed a single candidate?

One of the insiders who’s puzzled by the EU involvement in the FAO race - and one of the few people willing to speak on the record for this article - is Antonio Onorati, president of the Italian nonprofit Crocevia and an expert on FAO history who helped spearhead a movement that gained civil society unprecedented power in the newly reformed U.N. Committee on World Food Security.

“The European candidacies are absolutely astonishing,” he told Devex. “Personally, I consider them provocative.”

Behind-the-scenes maneuvers

The FAO race has been clouded in diplomacy for a while. Italy, for instance, has criticized the decision by Lula to grant political asylum to Cesare Battisti, a left-wing terrorist, and Minister for Youth Giorgia Meloni indicated late last year that Italy will consider that action as it weighs “the appropriateness of the nomination” of a Brazilian candidate to lead FAO.

Italy is not officially backing any candidate now, but the country’s minister of agriculture has met only with Fischler and Moratinos, according to national media reports.

At one point, rumors emerged that Italy may have pressured Spain to enter the race to win over some of Graziano’s support in Latin America; they were quickly dismissed, not least by Moratinos.

“If I wasn’t convinced I could win,” the candidate said during a recent press conference in Rome, “I wouldn’t have put myself forward.”

Some insiders and diplomats – especially from northern Europe – have wondered aloud why Spain, a country that has been critical of ongoing FAO reforms and increased civil society engagement, would advance a nomination without seemingly consulting EU partners. Could Fischler’s eleventh-hour run stave off support for Moratinos especially within FAO’s European voting bloc?

On March 17, the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council discussed the FAO nominations without endorsing a candidate – to the consternation of some insiders who see European indecisiveness pave the way for a dark-horse candidate to emerge with a surprise win.

Soesilo could be that dark horse. The scientist and engineer, who currently serves as Indonesia’s welfare minister, is counting on the votes of many Asian countries, even though he has less experience in food and agriculture issues than his challengers. Soesilo secured the support of the African Union in November, and of the Association of Southeas Asian Nations’ ministries of agriculture in January.

Rashid and Noori Naeini are considered outsiders in the race to succeed Diouf. Rashid, Iraq’s minister of water resources, may struggle to secure the votes of Arab countries engulfed in political change. Noori Naeini, who has chaired FAO’s Conference Committee for the Follow-up to the Independent External Evaluation, is a respected FAO insider who may gain the support of some middle-income countries.

Noori Naeini enjoys broad support from civil society for his academic and field experience as well as his commitment to opening up FAO further to NGO stakeholders. Then again, the Confederación de Organizaciones de Productores Familiares del MERCOSUR and other Latin American groups are supporting Graziano.

“Civil society may have an easier dialogue with Graziano, who has had an important role in reforming FAO,” suggested Onorati, who sees Graziano and Noori Naeini as the best candidates to lead FAO for a four-year term starting January 2012.

During that time, civil society and farmers organizations want the next FAO chief to advance a series of reforms, starting with the rules surrounding the director-general election: To shed some light on this highly politicized process, NGOs want FAO members to explain how they select candidates, disclose who they are supporting and why, and create new avenues for debate among all stakeholders.

The director-general will be eligible for only one additional four-year mandate, under reforms ratified in 2009. Each FAO member country has one vote.

Read more food security and FAO news.

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.

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