FAO is Electing a New Director General. Why It Matters

April 25, 2019

In late June, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) will convene representatives from its 194 member states to elect a new Director General.  Far from a routine procedural matter, FAO – and its leadership – is monumentally important for our anti-hunger community as we work to end hunger around the globe.

If you are interested in information about the election process or the candidates, our colleagues over at SDG2 Advocacy Hub lay it out nicely. However, the election does provide an opportunity to explain why FAO is important to our collective efforts to reach Zero Hunger, and thus why its leadership is so critical to our work.

FAO describes itself as a specialized United Nations organization with the goal of defeating hunger and ensuring that everyone has sufficient high-quality food to meet their nutritional needs. How they accomplish this is multifold, but its impact on civil society, particularly our own multi-sector anti-hunger advocacy work, can be broken down into three distinct aspects: knowledge, partnership & collaboration, and impact on the future.


People working on global food security issues are usually aware of FAO – at least in passing – through the organization’s annual flagship publications, including The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) and The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI). In our own articles and presentations at the Alliance to End Hunger, and in those of many other organizations, we often quote facts such as, “There are 821 million hungry people in the world. After a decade of progress, this marks the third straight year of a rise in food insecurity.”  These statistics are based on FAO publications.

But to call FAO primarily a research organization would not be quite right. Back in 2017 the Alliance interviewed Vimlendra Sharan, the Director of the FAO Liaison Office for North America, who stated, “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.”  He goes on to explain that FAO has convening power to bring countries to the table that may not agree about many other issues, but are able to agree on standards and practices to end hunger and improve agricultural productivity in a sustainable way.

Ultimately, the knowledge collected and disseminated can transform into generally-agreed-upon best practices such as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of [land] Tenure and Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems.  On the less-technical and wonky side of things, this information can also feed into national and global goals and targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

The knowledge also plays a unique and valuable role in FAO’s collaboration with national governments and other stakeholders, as strategies to eliminate hunger and build resilience are put into practice.

Partnership & Collaboration

Rebecca Middleton, Executive Director of the Alliance, meets with FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva in April 2019.

The Alliance to End Hunger has a history of partnership with the FAO going back more than a decade.  At the outset of this relationship was a commitment to find ways to bring civil society coalitions together with policymakers in the developing world – ensuring that food security, nutrition, and agricultural development policy was sensitive to and incorporated input from a wide range of stakeholders.  Since this time, the Alliance-FAO relationship has evolved to focus on building communication between FAO and American civil society, as well as exploring opportunities to utilize FAO knowledge in advocacy efforts at the federal level.

FAO builds similar partnerships around the world – working with civil society, governments, private sector, academia and other multilateral organizations  to build enabling environments and capacities to put broad commitments to food security and development into specific policies and practice. How this is done can vary greatly by the philosophy of its leadership, and relies on who is brought to the table to discuss the way forward for a nation, region, and even globally.

The convening power of FAO plays a valuable role for our community and is central to the mission FAO sees for itself. Leadership is key to making this possible.  The Alliance has enjoyed a terrific relationship with Director General José Graziano da Silva. While the nature of the work of the Alliance and FAO make the two organizations natural partners, the current Director General’s commitment to civil society collaboration and empowerment has been critical to an environment of cooperation.  FAO’s organizational culture reflects this, and has made it a valuable partner for our own work and that of our broader community.

Impact on the Future

In current discourse around the best ways to enhance agricultural development, build resilience, and end hunger, there is balance between national interests and growing economies, and issues of social justice and sustainable practices promoted by civil society.  This balance must be navigated by organizations like FAO, and how these multilateral bodies approach this balance can have a profound impact on the work of civil society in tackling issues of hunger and agriculture.

Without getting into the politics of the upcoming FAO Director General elections, it is sufficient to say that leadership has the potential to matter a great deal. Leadership cannot dictate the vision, mission, and role of FAO; but it can steer the conversation in a number of different directions and a plethora of recommendations for policy and practice. We have every confidence that the culture and history of FAO will see that the conversation moves in the right direction, but we are racing against the clock. The world committed itself to do everything in its power to reach “Zero Hunger” by 2030.  FAO may not be an organization we think of often, but they matter to us, our community, and our collective vision.  At the very least, it is worth paying attention to the upcoming election and the direction its new leadership will take the organization.