An Interview with Vimlendra Sharan – Director of the FAO Liaison Office in Washington
February 16, 2017
Vimlendra Sharan is the new Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Liaison Office in Washington, DC, which advises and assists in the development and implementation of FAO policies and programs by facilitating communication and cooperation between FAO and the Governments of Canada and the United States, and between FAO and the international and inter-American organizations based in Washington. Mr. Sharan’s experience in rural development, food security, and agricultural development spans over two decades, and includes work for the government of India as well as the FAO. His bio can be viewed here.
On February 15, the Alliance to End Hunger had the opportunity to interview Mr. Sharan on his experience, observations about food and nutrition security, and his new role in Washington. The interview responses below have been edited for brevity without making substantive changes.
Could you tell us a little about your background? How does someone evolve from working on agriculture in rural India to running an FAO office in Washington, DC?
I have worked for the Indian government for the last 25 years, of which about 10 years have been spent working on issues related to agriculture and food security. Before joining as Director at the FAO Liaison office in Washington I served as India’s Permanent Representative to Rome based UN Agencies [related to food and agriculture].
Coming to the more interesting part of your question on how one goes from working in rural India to working for FAO in Washington, let me suffice by saying that all that FAO works for and wishes to impact, whether it be food security or nutrition or hunger or poverty or climate change, are conditions endemic to India. My experience of working on these issues both in the field and with the Indian government at the policy level has equipped me well for delivering as Director of the FAO office here.
What are the predominant issues you see facing food security and agriculture in the United States and around the world in the coming years?
The U.S. is vastly different from the rest of the world in more ways than one. While it has some issues similar to the rest of the world – like hunger, malnutrition (especially obesity), climate change impacts, food loss and food waste, it has far greater resources and more advanced technology to tackle them than much of the developing world. But the fact that hunger and malnutrition, food loss and food waste do exist, does raise definite concerns and call for concerted effort to eradicate them.
Similar and more numerous issues facing the developing world get exacerbated when seen in the context of inadequate finance, inappropriate technology, weak governance and institutional capacity. Added to this is the inequitable growth story in most poor and developing countries—and therefore has had little positive impact on the lives of the poor and marginalized. In many areas of the world civil strife and wars have had their own detrimental consequences on the lives of the poor and the destitute. Climate change necessitating a need for newer adaptation and mitigation strategies and harmonization of both these into a coping strategy calls for resources far in excess of what is currently available with the developing countries.
It is necessary for the US and the whole world to see eradication of hunger and poverty and ensuring food and nutrition security important both from the human health and well-being point of view, as well as through the lens of productivity and economic loss.
How have conversations about food security and agriculture changed in the past decade? What transformations in these sectors have you witnessed since beginning your career?
Between two and two and a half decades back, when I joined the government, the government’s advice was predominantly on increasing production and productivity with a focus on calories and calorific intake as the tool against hunger. Over the years the conversation has gradually changed to emphasis nutrition as an important constituent in this fight against hunger. Now we ask if we are in a position to provide not just adequate, but adequate and nutritious food to everyone around the globe in order to give them a healthy and active lifestyle.
The other major conversational shift that has been around issues of climate change and its impact on agriculture. Concerns on the issue have been around for some time, but concerted action on adaptation and mitigation strategy is a more recent phenomenon. It appears to me that Climate change and its impact on agriculture including animal husbandry and water availability is going to shape much of our agricultural strategies and policy prescriptions in the days and years to come.
Unfortunately, especially over the last decade or so, we have also seen an increase in civil strife and unrest around the world. When you research them you find that food and water scarcity has played a role in the flaring up these conflicts. So, witnessing food security in context of political instability, civil strife, and perhaps war, may become an unescapable reality now.
One other emerging issue is around transboundary disease and the impact it has on food security issues. Issues like AMR [antimicrobial resistance] have taken center stage and are calling out for the urgent attention of global leaders.
How has FAO evolved with these changes?
FAO is very responsive to the changing circumstance and contexts in which it operates, and quick to introduce changes necessary to meet emerging needs. FAO is delivering on its mandates through its strategic objectives which are very closely aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals, and thus in tune with what is required to help member countries deliver upon the 2030 Agenda. Today, our work plan takes due cognizance of changing contexts is emphasizing climate change, nutrition, resilience building, etc. We are a membership-driven organization and in introducing any policy shift or focus, we have always adopted an approach based on consensus. We find that this may be more time consuming, but always more effective in rolling out our plans and programs in individual countries.
What do you see as the role of the Liaison Office in Washington?
The FAO Liaison Office is FAO’s eyes and ears in the USA & Canada. Our primary responsibility is to liaise with the US and Canadian governments to ensure effective communication between the government and our Headquarters in Rome. We are responsible for conveying the concerns and ideas of these governments to Rome and also to bring to the notice of authorities here and in Ottawa important developments within FAO.
Our second role is to interact with foundations, NGOs, academia, and think tanks here in the U.S. and Canada involved and interested in food security and nutrition issues; and in doing so, relate to them and through them to their clients FAO’s work, vision and aim while at the same time understand their work and educating ourselves on recent developments affecting issues of agriculture, food security, etc.
We also attempt to forge partnerships with many such institutions, similar to what we have with you at the Alliance to End Hunger. Through these, we try and bring the work of FAO and other such originations closer in support of each other. In Washington, we aim to partner many such organizations to organize conferences and roundtable discussions around themes in which we are mutually interested—and we try to bring a broad audience of relevant stakeholders around the table for the generation of thoughts and ideas.
It is an interesting and educative task, and I am really looking forward to interacting with the government, academia, foundations, NGOs and all others.
With the universal nature of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal #2, How is the FAO working to tackle issues of food security and agriculture right here in the United States and in other “developed countries”?
I agree that our focus is and perhaps rightly so on developing countries. When we say there are 800 million hungry people are in the world, we have to remember where the vast majority of these people are.
Having said that, I must underline that the SDGs are all-inclusive and do not distinguish between developed and developing countries. They are country-generated and not a top down prescription for the developing world to deliver upon.
Let’s take the example of SDG 2 [on hunger, agriculture, and malnutrition] to understand the cross cutting nature of the issue. How is the world going to deliver on nutrition targets unless developed countries like the U.S. also deliver on the nutrition goals? Obesity, which is also a form of malnutrition, is widely prevalent in many developed countries as it is in many developing countries, and therefore calls for action by all. Take the issue of climate change or transboundary deceases – they know no boundaries and impact all. Action by one country has both direct and indirect impact on others; thus the need for collaborative and cooperative strategies.
FAO is aware of the leading role the US and other developed countries can play both in combating these issues domestically, as well as in helping other countries develop capacities to do the same. This leading role could be through finance, through technology, through capacity development, or even through simply setting the right example. In this interconnected world, only welfare of all can guarantee welfare of one.
The Alliance to End Hunger is working to build the public and political will to end hunger, both in the United States and around the world. What advice would you give to those of us who are trying to raise food security as a political priority in our own country and more broadly?
Well first, you at the Alliance are doing a wonderful job. You have the full support from our side for the work that you do, and we expect our partnership to remain strong. I am highly impressed by the work you have done over the years and am extremely supportive of your role in building public and political will and consensus around hunger and food security issues in the U.S. We have to remember that building a consensus around issues of food security, agriculture, and nutrition in the United States will go a long way toward eradicating food insecurity and poverty around the world. Your work is contributing both to those within the country who suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and to those who are hungry and vulnerable around the world.
What else would you like for our coalition and broader network to know about FAO in Washington or the organization as a whole?
People must understand clearly what FAO is. I find that there is sometimes a communication gap between FAO and the wider community working in food and agriculture. FAO is not a pure research organization, in that we do not have labs or trial fields. What we are is a repository of scientific knowledge which we use to produce global knowledge goods important for developing and developed countries alike. FAO also plays a very important role in standard setting through CODEX Alimentarius, whose secretariat is housed within FAO and which governs food safety standards the world over. FAO Stats is another area, unique to it, as it gathers and is a repository for global agricultural statistics.
With a membership of nearly 180 countries we command a huge convening power which has helped us seat countries seen as political adversaries at the same table, and arrive at a consensus on issues around agriculture, nutrition, and food security. That we are an absolutely neutral organization has further helped us in our endeavor to reach consensus, and come out with numerous widely-accepted guidelines and principles like VGGT [Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure], RAI [Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems], etc. While not legally binding, these guidelines and principles have really helped shape how policies are being framed on these issues in many member countries.
FAO is always striving to better its work and improve on its delivery, but as others do, FAO also finds at times a lack of understanding of its role and mandate, which has led to some unfounded criticism of its work.
We encourage and invite the broader network of stakeholders interested and working on issues around agriculture and food security in its multifarious facets to interact with us, forge partnerships with us and work with us to eradicate poverty and hunger from the face of the earth.