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Food and Agriculture

Q&A: “The Real Target Is Zero Hunger”

Claudia Ciobanu interviews MARCELA VILLARREAL, Director of the Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy at FAO

Marcela Villareal, Director of the Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy, FAO. Credit: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Under the leadership of Brazilian Director General (DG) José Graziano da Silva, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has been engaged in a process of deep reform meant to make the organisation leaner and more effective in the fight against hunger. 

“One transformational element in the vision of the new DG is to seek  synergies among the various aspects of our work, so that we can be more focused and efficient in eliminating hunger,” explains FAO’s Marcela Villarreal, director of the Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy. “I have been working for this organisation for 16 years and I can say that we are best when we take a multi-sector and multi-disciplinary approach: it is this kind of approach that will allow us to find innovative ways to solve age-old problems.” Excerpts from the interview follow:

Q: What are the core elements of the programme of work proposed by Graziano da Silva for FAO?

A: We are proposing five strategic objectives, the first of which is the elimination of hunger – we are no longer speaking just about reducing it. It is important to note here that, if years ago we thought that by increasing food production we could eradicate hunger, today we know that it is not only about production levels but also about access to food.

The second objective refers to increasing food production in a sustainable manner and the third calls for the eradication of rural poverty.

A strategic thinking process laid down the foundations of the current programme of work.  The MDG targets and indicators are very much focused on urban areas, despite rural poverty being one of the main challenges today.

In FAO’s work on rural poverty, we will focus on three rural populations at risk of poverty: the smallholders, whom we will help become more productive; those who sell their labour in rural areas, for the benefit of whom we will help countries generate decent employment increasing incomes and  access food; and, finally, for those who get left out altogether we need to advise countries on the creation of social safety nets, but in a way that is not just giving out of money but that eventually supports production and /or employment.

"If we in the U.N. systems can make [big corporations] be more mindful of their impact on the environment, labour, on issues around gender, then we have come a long way." -- Marcela Villarreal

Finally, last two strategic objectives refer to offering farmers better and more equitable access to markets and, respectively, building people’s resilience, thus lowering vulnerability to threats and crises.

It is our member states that will have to meet these objectives. Our role will be to contribute in a strategic and measurable way to their meeting of these objectives.

Q: How much leverage does FAO actually have on member states that might not be fully behind this vision of sustainable food systems proposed by the organisation?

A: We are very optimistic that we can implement this vision. We already see big progress happening: on Sunday, 38 countries were awarded for halving hunger levels, so the fact that we already got halfway gives us a good indication that we can work to achieve the real target, which is zero hunger.

At this conference, it is clear that governments across the board support the vision and the programme of work of the DG. Of course, a good measure of political will is to see budget allocated to these issues.

Q: Over the past years, FAO has expressed an increased willingness to engage with civil society. Have they been involved in the drafting of the five strategic objectives?

A: We cannot achieve any of these objectives without partnerships with civil society, the private sector, farmer’s organisations, cooperatives, research institutes and others.

The involvement of civil society is crucial in national policy dialogue processes, where their voices need to be heard and we are helping to facilitate their participation.

When it comes to the international level, civil society has been fully  involved in the World Committee on Food Security [the Committee is the part of the FAO structure focused on food security policies].

If we speak about partnerships, it is important to say that the private sector is also very important to us, from the smaller producers to the bigger ones, as they are the biggest investors in agriculture in the world, bigger than governments, international development aid, or foreign investors. Private actors can bring to the table a lot of knowledge and innovation.

Q: When it comes to the private companies, are you selective in choosing the ones you deal with, to make sure you avoid those whose business models hurt small farmers or the poor for example?

A: Yes! We have very clear mechanisms for assessing risk and dealing with it. When it comes to companies, we first run a due diligence process to see whether they have had problems with labour, human rights issues, environmental protection or other issues. Then we have a subcommittee on partnerships that analyses all the possible risks, and finally we have a committee on partnerships headed by the DG in person. So we take this issue very seriously.

We cannot ignore big corporations, they are big players in the world, but if we in the U.N. systems can make them be more mindful of their impact on the environment, labour, on issues around gender, then we have come a long way.

Q: When it comes to governments and national policies then, how can we expect FAO to react when a government allows for problematic practices to take place on its territory (e.g., land grabbing) or when it engages in problematic practices itself?

A: We are an intergovernmental organisation belonging to the U.N. system, so we work with governments who are our members. Our role is to ensure that they have the best knowledge and the best technical assistance so that they can meet the objectives set out above.

We promote good governance, which involves transparency, participation and accountability. Here, let me quote the words of Amartya Sen, who said that “by generating a public discussion, we have a part of the solution”.

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