Inclusive, pro-poor growth is crucial since almost four-fifths of the very poor live in rural areas while unemployment, underemployment and desperate out-migration continue to rise.
THE Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, better known as FAO, was established in 1945 after the end of the Second World War. Its headquarters was later established in Rome.
Several decades later, two major responsibilities of the FAO were “spun off” to create the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme, respectively a UN fund and programme.
When FAO marked its 70th birthday last year, there was considerable reflection on its mission and mandate which have evolved over the decades. Most member governments of FAO are represented by their agriculture ministries, usually working closely with their foreign ministries.
However, the scope of FAO’s work and responsibilities is far wider than what most agriculture ministries are responsible for.
FAO continues to play a leading role in world animal health and husbandry, fisheries, forestry, water, land and other natural resources.
When the international community approved the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the next decade and a half in September last year, FAO found itself responsible for and involved with many of the 169 targets under at least 15 of the 17 SDGs.
Hence, when the FAO’s Asia-Pacific Regional Conference convenes in Putrajaya from March 7, it deserves the attention of much more than the agricultural sector, traditionally conceived. Ministries, businesses and civil society responsible for and interested in natural resources, the environment, rural development, agro-processing, nutrition, food safety and other aspects of FAO’s broad mandate should pay close attention.
For example, Malaysia has the dubious distinction of leading Asia in terms of the share of the overweight and obese, with huge health implications adversely affecting the quality of life, life expectancy, health costs and much more. The solution is not exercise alone.
Diets, and hence, the quality, quantity, type and preparation of food, must change. Unfortunately, the popularity of convenience foods of various kinds has contributed to severe problems which need better attention.
Similarly, for most people, micronutrient deficiencies can easily be handled through balanced diets, instead of the growing reliance on nutrition supplements, often of dubious value.
With the UN’s “one-health” approach, FAO is also involved in addressing many new challenges such as the rapid spread of anti-microbial resistance with the excessive use of antibiotics in animal husbandry and aquaculture. As a consequence, more and more consumers are less and less responsive to antibiotics in dealing with health threats.
The election of Jose Graziano da Silva as FAO director-general in 2011 and his resounding re-election last year are responsible for recent changes to the organisation.
Probably drawing from his experience with Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and its precursors in Brazil, he has raised the level of ambition at FAO, seeking to eliminate, rather than reduce, hunger.
National leaders of the Latin American and Caribbean Community formally adopted such a collective commitment in Santiago, Chile, in 2013.
African Union leaders followed suit in 2014 in Malobo, Equatorial Guinea, making a remarkable commitment despite modest progress in reducing hunger in sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade and a half. Similar national pledges have been forthcoming from some South-East Asian countries.
Drawing from Brazil’s Bolsa Familia experience, Graziano has promoted “social protection” to guarantee food access as well as to foster inclusive, pro-poor growth.
This is especially relevant, indeed necessary, since almost four-fifths of the very poor live in rural areas, while unemployment, underemployment and desperate out-migration continue to rise with the dismal state of the world economy since the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
The prices of primary commodities have fallen sharply since late last year, increasing the need for special measures to address widespread rural poverty.
In the build-up to and following the Second International Conference on Nutrition in November 2014, Graziano has emphasised the need for FAO to take on greater responsibility for nutrition.
Meanwhile, countries have become increasingly aware of the burdens imposed by malnutrition – not just hunger, but also ‘hidden hunger’ or micronutrient (vitamin, mineral and trace element) deficiencies, as well as diet-related non-communicable diseases, often associated with obesity.
Thus, despite the severe budget constraints the organisation faces and the multidimensional complexities of the challenge, FAO has re-emerged from decades of corrosive neglect of nutrition, restoring the leadership lacking since the departure of its first DG, an eminent nutritionist.
The post-2015 Sustainable Development agenda will seek to eliminate poverty, hunger and malnutrition by 2030. At the third Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa, the Rome-based UN agencies presented an affordable proposal to rapidly eliminate poverty and hunger by combining expanded social protection with a big push for pro-poor investments to raise incomes and ensure food security for all.
Most importantly, FAO has re-asserted itself as the UN’s – and the world’s – leading food security and sustainable development organisation. FAO can help governments and societies rise to meet new challenges, especially to foster more sustainable agricultural, ecological and consumption practices.
FAO’s increasing reliance on donors’ discretionary extra-budgetary support undermines its capacity for global leadership.
Developing countries in this region can revitalise FAO in order to better address the challenges we face, both those inherited from the past as well as new ones of the present and future.
Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram was Assistant Director-General for Economic and Social Development at the FAO from 2012 to 2015.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.