FAO Secretary General Elections – Part 2: What is to be Done?

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In this second post, I want to provide some more details about how the budget works within the FAO. My purpose is to highlight how the majority of Member nations wield political power, while top donors wield financial power.

Today, to win the FAO, is to gain the authority to define the right to food and to significantly influence, if not determine, the right to food’s ability to change the world food regime. Lately, however, the FAO has not invested enough into the right to food for it to even appear as a line item in its budget. Instead, it is buried in a way that is difficult for the public to determine how much is actually spent on the right to food.

The FAO broke new ground in 2004 with the publication of the Right to Food Guidelines. But the work seems to have stopped there. If the right to food is not constantly contested, redefined and operationalized as the world changes, it loses its relevance. In the last two decades, the right to food was re-empowered as a political tool wielded from below by the transnational peasant movements, Indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, pastoralists, and others who overcame their differences to form the food sovereignty movement. But in important spaces such as Committee on World Food Security it remains unclear what role the right to food will play in world’s future food regime. If the FAO continues to disinvest from the right to food, this tool will be blunted from above.

With these normative stakes in mind, I think the political question surrounding the FAO should be: what would a right-to-food budget look like? More specifically: how can the world’s most food insecure have more control over the FAO’s budget?

The FAO’s budget comes 39% from assessed contributions from Member nations (it’s interesting to look here to see who is in arrears). These assessed contributions make up the FAO’s regular budget. The remaining 61% comes from voluntary contributions from Members and other partners; this makes up the extrabudgetary funding that supports technical and emergency assistance to governments in support of FAO’s work and also supports FAO’s core work. If we take Member nations’ assessed as well as voluntary contributions along with other partners’ voluntary contributions, the FAO’s top 10 donors are the following:

  1. United States of America;
  2. European Union;
  3. United Kingdom;
  4. Japan;
  5. Global Environment Facility;
  6. Germany;
  7. CERF administered by UNOCHA;
  8. Italy;
  9. UN Donor Joint Trust Fund administered by UNDP; and
  10. France.

The donors’ power lies in how they can direct their funds towards particular funds or programs. But donor’s financial power must still run through the FAO’s legal framework and political matrix of governing bodies. While I don’t have access to the internal machinations of the FAO, the fact that voluntary contributions constitute the majority of the budget, my guess is that a big part of the Secretary General’s role is fundraising and negotiating with the top donors’ needs.

If developing countries significantly increase their political power and influence within the FAO, this might bump against some of the more powerful donors’ agendas. If that were to happen, developing countries will have to be prepared to live with a reduced voluntary budget and have an FAO with a smaller regular budget.

An even more daring approach would be to find ways to work with an FAO that had a smaller budget but was more politically accountable to the people it served. It would take a talented Secretary General to push the boundaries as much as possible in order to increase the political power of the world’s most vulnerable people – such as Indigenous Peoples, Peasants, and Rural Workers – and ensure they have direct access to an effective FAO as a matter of entitlement. Otherwise, political power will always be limited by financial power and the FAO will be more part of the problem than any solution. In the future, this would require finding creative ways of granting food insecure communities the ability to engage with, or even the power to cast a vote for, FAO Secretary General candidates. Or maybe a seat on the Finance Committee. Whatever the institutional redesign, a lot depends on this upcoming election. A number of FAO Secretary Generals of the past have been visionaries and clever political actors. The world’s hungry deserve nothing less.

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