FAO Secretary General Elections – Part 1: What is at Stake?

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The FAO Member Nations are set to elect a new Director General this 22-29 June. The four candidates, nominated by UN Member States, are Qu Dongyu (China), Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle (France), Davit Kirvalidze (Georgia), and Ramesh Chand (India). Social movements, Indigenous peoples, and NGOs are frustrated because they do not have an opportunity to directly interact with the candidates and engage in a conversation about expectations and plans. They have started a campaign around the hashtag #AskFAO to encourage people from around the world to publicly engage in the process. The implicit purpose is to put pressure on the FAO to make the Secretary General more accountable to the people they serve.

Since the 1990s, a very popular way to engage in questions of democracy and international institutions has been through the language of legitimacy. In these terms, political questions become something you measure as a matter of normative theory, sociological fact, or political reality. This emphasis on measuring makes legitimacy a passive idea. Even when people attack international institutions for being illegitimate or defend it as legitimate, this is still a muddled politics. These argument are often opaque because they rely on a principle that remains implicit and avoids debating the stakes in clearer terms such as power, status, and wealth (but here is a wonderful exception to that generalization).

I want to instead rely on the language of authority and treat the FAO as something someone may want to politically win in order to wield power. In this post I examine what is at stake in the Secretary General elections. In my second blog post I touch upon what is to be done more as an introductory outline than a detailed plan.

My thinking is informed by a very basic notion of fairness: the more vulnerable you are, the more you should be politically empowered. An exemplary Secretary General has to figure out how the FAO can empower all people living with hunger, famine, and starvation.

While the theory is simple, the political results are unknowable in advance. People will struggle over how subjects constitute themselves, how those subjects determine who gets to define the terms of food security, and what new institutional practices arise. In the FAO, vulnerability is defined through ever-changing understandings of food security. What has given social movements a foothold over the past two decades is the fact that the FAO is partially defined by a right-to-food mandate. This right-to-food mandate means that access to the FAO itself by the world’s most food insecure is a matter of entitlement not charity.

One thing at stake in these elections is control of the FAO’s budget. For the past three years, FAO’s working budget has been around USD 2.5 billion. One way to understand the FAO is as a development institution in which a significant portion of its budget is dedicated to development programs. How the FAO distributes its resources will have all sorts of effects on the ground empowering some people and disempowering others. You can also think of FAO staff as an international civil service. As of 14 February 2019, FAO employed 11,561 people drawn from the 194 Member nations. In these terms, you can see how the FAO is a place for civil servants from all over the world to gain good wages, status, and a high level of training. Thirty-two percent of FAO staff are based at headquarters in Rome, while the remainder work in offices worldwide. Regional offices are decentralized which means that today the five regional offices, ten subregional offices, and 85 fully fledged country offices have some amount of autonomy over their own budget (this was Secretary-General Eduouard Souma’s Third Worldist innovation).

What is also at stake in these elections is the meaning and power of the right to food. Let me first explain how the right to food a creature of the FAO from the beginning. This highlights how the FAO has the authority to define and implement the right to food within its own constitution. From 1963-1965 FAO Secretary-General B.R. Sen redefined the right to food in order to change the FAO from an institution that gathered and published statistics to an institution that created and implemented specific programs. On 14 March 1963, Sen assembled 28 world-renowned personalities in Rome with the objective of ‘bringing their moral authority to bear on the aims and purposes’ of a Freedom From Hunger Campaign. This ‘Special Assembly on Man’s Right to Freedom from Hunger’ as it was known released a manifesto that stated: ‘Freedom from hunger is man’s first fundamental right’. This was the prelude to the World Food Congress in June 1963, which brought together more than 1,300 private citizens, academics, national diplomats, and NGOs.

This empowered Sen to argue during ICESCR treaty drafting negotiations that hunger is such an important issues that it warrants specific enumeration within the covenant itself. (UN Doc. A/C.3/SR.1232 (1963)) This proposition was controversial in how it singled out the right to food and created legal obligations addressing how the right was to be realized. Despite this contentious move, Sen’s proposition was accepted and provided the basic language for Article 11 as we have it today. The result is that the right to food is unique in the ICESCR in that it is more detailed the other enumerated rights.

Sen then maneuvered within the FAO leveraging the fact that FAO Members would not want Geneva to have more power over food than Rome. After Sen successfully activated the right to food at the ICESCR, the FAO Council and Conference in turn responded to the human rights treaty by amending the FAO constitution in 1965 to include amongst its purposes ‘ensuring humanity’s freedom from hunger’ – which was understood then as it is today as granting the FAO authority over the right to food. Sen could claim victory because the right to food allowed the FAO to argue that rich countries and international institutions should invest more in the FAO in order for it to achieve the ambitions outlined in the Freedom From Hunger Campaign.

Finally, what is also at stake are competing Third World projects. If we take developing countries as a political bloc that formed in Bandung in 1955, this alliance always been made up of competing Third World projects. Since the FAO is an autonomous organization with 194 Member nations, each with one vote, it will come as no surprise that developing countries form the majority. This has meant that some FAO Secretary Generals in the past have taken up Third World agendas. This also means that the FAO has always been a site where different alliances compete with each other to gain institutional power. To win the FAO is to gain a powerful way to push your particular version of the Third World project.

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