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POLITICS: Six Compete for Agriculture Agency Head

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 26 2009 (IPS) - Against the backdrop of rising hunger, declining agricultural production and food shortages, the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is set to elect a new president next month.

The upcoming election has triggered a North-South divide with six countries competing for the job: Pakistan, Germany, Niger, Israel, Nigeria and India.

“We need a strong leadership at IFAD, particularly at a time when we are still trying to recover from last year’s food shortages caused partly by setbacks in agricultural production,” says one Asian diplomat.

At a two-day high level meeting on food security in Spain Monday, the outgoing IFAD president, Lennart Bage of Sweden, warned that although food prices have fallen from their peaks in 2008, “the food crisis has not gone away”.

“The world’s 450 million smallholder farms can increase production – lifting millions of poor farm families out of poverty while helping to feed the world – if they get the support and investment they need,” he added.

A key role in this daunting task will be played by IFAD and its new president, who will be elected for a four-year term, beginning April.

A specialised agency of the United Nations, IFAD has been on the forefront of recent efforts to increase agricultural production in the context of the global food crisis.

A successor to Bage will be elected by the Governing Council of the 165-member IFAD at its meeting scheduled to take place Feb. 18-19.

The six contenders for the job are: Mirza Qamar Beg (Pakistan), Joachim von Braun (Germany), Amadou Boubacar Cisse (Niger), Haim Divon (Israel), Kanayo Nwanze (Nigeria) and Phrang Kupar Melville Roy (India).

Beg is a former secretary for commerce and ambassador of Pakistan to Italy and the Rome-based U.N. agencies; Von Braun is the director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); and Cisse has held the position of prime minister and senior minister of finance in Niger.

Divon is head of Israel’s National Agency for International Development MASHAV; Nwamze is the current vice president of IFAD; and Roy, who has rural roots in northeast India, is a former IFAD assistant president and one of the first staff members ever to rise so high through the agency’s ranks.

The developing countries are making a strong pitch for the presidency on the ground that IFAD’s leadership, since its inception, has been monopolised mostly by donor nations: Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Kuwait and Sweden.

“IFAD has been well served by its leadership, staff, and donors,” says Ernest Corea, former senior consultant at the Secretariat of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Development (CGIAR) in Washington.

Right now, however, given the pressures on agriculture that continue to hamper development, IFAD’s effectiveness and the reach of its impact can be enhanced if it is led by a fully qualified president from an agricultural developing country, he told IPS.

Corea said IFAD was established as a result of the food crisis of the 1970s and started operations in 1978. Its mandate includes the provision of concessional financing to increase food production and eradicate rural poverty and malnutrition.

Beginning with last year’s steep increase in food prices, developing countries once again face serious difficulties in providing their populations with food security, according to the United Nations.

At the Madrid meeting Monday, the director-general of the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, said that right now, there are almost one billion people who are hungry, out of the 6.5 billion people who make up the world population.

He called for an investment of 30 billion dollars per year in agriculture to double food production by 2050 in the developing world.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the food crisis has not gone away. “Millions of people still experience it every day,” he stressed.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who is hosting the high-level meeting in Madrid, says that world poverty and hunger cannot be reduced – in line with the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals of slashing it by half by 2015 – without improvements in agricultural production and distribution.

Yet development assistance for agriculture has been falling off, from about 13 percent in the early 1980s to 2.9 percent in 2005-2006.

Corea said that official development assistance (ODA) for agriculture has slowed down, the global financial crisis has skewed investment in agriculture, food prices remain high, and agricultural research is said to need renewal.

IFAD’s record in the field, its involvement with the Global Forum on Agricultural Research which combines the interests of several regional developing countries, and the recognised vision and strength of its professional staff make it exceptionally well placed to be a leader in much-needed agricultural renewal, he added.

“A developing country representative at the head of IFAD will accelerate the realisation of that potential, with IFAD assisting developing countries in a variety of ways and also carrying out advocacy among donors and the general public,” Corea said.

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