Edouard Saouma, the sixth Director-General of FAO. FAO publicity claims that Saouma is "leading FAO's drive for ecologically-sound and conservation-based 'sustainable development'." It is hard to find any evidence of this from his three terms at the helm of the UN's largest specialized agency. (Photo: FAO)
FAO has done nothing to assist Third World farmers to develop alternatives to high-input systems. It has not committed a single staff member to the study of traditional agricultural practices.
So keen is FAO to promote chemical inputs that at its 1987 conference it put forward a plan to provide such inputs in the form of aid-in-kind.5 FAO insisted that "without modern agricultural inputs, Africa will be seriously constrained by being locked into traditional production technologies". The conference report records that, "inputs would inevitably play a critical role in raising agricultural production and productivity in Africa". The programme, which would have been managed by FAO, was aimed at pleasing both Third World governments (particularly in Africa) and the industrialized countries. Both were expected to grasp at the chance of filling the "possible supply gap" of $400 million worth of fertilizers, tractors, tools and pesticides. Doubtless, the proposal was not unrelated to the re-election campaign of the Director-General, Edouard Saouma, which was then in full swing.
In the event, the proposal received only lukewarm support, not only from potential donors but even from African and other Third World countries.6 But the debate served its purpose: to stress to the assembled delegates and the watching world that feeding the poor depends on modern inputs and that insufficient supplies of them would lead to increasing famine and misery. Sadly, not a single delegate suggested that there was scope for up-grading Ideal technology and traditional inputs. FAO's brainwashing on this subject is virtually complete.
Export Crops and Debt FAO is equally intransigent in its commitment to boosting export crops. When Third World countries gained independence, they inherited economies geared to exporting agricultural raw materials and minerals. Today, in large part due to FAO policies, Third World governments are placing even more stress on export crops. Burkina Faso's cotton production, for example, multiplied 37 times to 75,000 tonnes between 1960 and 1984, while output of the subsistence food crops millet and sorghum, barely doubled. The chief reasons for this are that: • Export crops, necessarily passing through controllable
channels, can easily be taxed by governments, contrary to food crops marketed locally; • With the exception of the major cereal grains (wheat,
maize and rice), virtually all research, be it national or international, funded by ex-colonial powers or by international institutions, has been directed towards improving export crops. Only in very recent years has attention finally been given to local food crops such as sorghum, millet and cassava; • As external debts have increased, and adjustment
programmes have been imposed on Third World countries by the IMF and the World Bank, the need for foreign currency has further increased, placing greater stress on cash crop production and exports to the detriment of food production. FAO can hardly be blamed for the inheritance of the colonial system. But ever since the late 1960s, when the agricultural trade balance of many countries moved from surplus to deficit as their food imports increased, it has been clear that agricultural exports were no solution to the Third World's food problems. Indeed, for the past three decades, FAO staff and government representatives have been repeating the same cycle of reports and discussions in which the instability and unreliability of international commodity markets are regularly deplored. Yet FAO has steadfastly refused to draw conclusions from experience.
International Market Instability Some typical lamentations can be found in the 1989 report of FAO's Committee on Commodities. It records that the FAO export price index (1980= 100) stood at 92 in 1988, and "even in current terms, prices were lower than in 1980". In the second half of the 1980s, the prices for cocoa, coffee and tea (on which many countries depend for a large share of their export receipts) were bringing in 25 per cent less than at the turn of the decade. In 1987, coffee prices averaged little more than half their price of a year earlier. Coconut and palm oil in 1986 were barely more than onethird of their value at the turn of the decade and in 1989 — after 10 years of heavy world-wide inflation — brought in only twothirds of their 1979 value.
Some countries' exports are concentrated on a very limited number of primary commodities. In 1986, nearly 90 per cent of Somalia's exports consisted of cattle and sheep; nearly all of Uganda's exports were coffee; one-third of Bangladesh's exports consisted of jute and jute products. These countries are extremely vulnerable to international market instability, and the resulting swings in government revenues make forward planning, and even planning current expenditure, virtually impossible. The serious rioting in Ivory Coast in March and April 1990, which was
The Ecologist, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April 1991 provoked by the government's inability to pay civil servants as a result of the collapse in commodity prices, illustrates the gravity of the problem.
Despite its wide-ranging technical mandate and assumed competence, FAO has been unable to assist member countries to find effective solutions to the problems its export-led policies have created. Indeed, at times the deliberations of the Committee on Commodities have a surreal quality. At the June 1989 meeting, for instance, the "situation" discussions covered 1987 and the "outlook" discussions 1988. It is thus possible to read in the committee's report, dated September 1989: "Regarding 1988 .. . the global volume of agricultural trade [is] expected to rise". Rip Van Winkle would have felt at home in such a committee!
FAO, which for years did its best to promote international commodity agreements as a means of achieving greater price stability, now argues that, "it is essential to continue and intensify the [agricultural] reform process in the interests of improving conditions of world agricultural trade". Such advice is purely theoretical, lifted from the best economics text books. No account is taken of the practical realities of export-based development. Political vulnerability, the power of multinational corporations (which control as much as 90 per cent of the market for certain commodities), declining terms of trade, the ecological damage resulting from export crop monoculture, the negative trade-off between export crops and food security — all of these factors are squarely outside the scope of the Committee on Commodities
Given that FAO was set up to assure that the world is properly fed, one wonders how it can justify committing the poorest and least well-fed countries in the world to exporting the bulk of their agricultural produce to countries which, in many instances, have an embarrassing surplus of food? As Susan George points out, encouraging small farmers to produce, say, green beans for the
export market, contributes nothing to the producer's security.7
One can go further than this: it is often a recipe for starvation.
Agriculture: Toward 2000
In 1979, FAO published a major study, Agriculture: Toward 2000, a shortened version of which was distributed in 1981 to professional and academic bodies worldwide. The study has been widely quoted and used for further research and academic publications. Insofar as FAO has any official policies, Agriculture: Toward 2000 might be seen as its policy for world agriculture.
The study contained a doomsday picture of what would happen to Third World populations unless they adopted modern technology wholesale. A revised version, issued in July 1987, argued that from 1985 to the year 2000, the use of fertilizers and other inputs including "chemical plant protection" agents — FAO-speak for pesticides — should double.8 While the original Toward 2000 concluded that an annual rise in agricultural production of at least seven per cent was required to improve Third World diets, the 1987 "realistic" study halves this growth rate to 3.5 per cent. Yet the assumed Third World population by 2000 is roughly the same as in the previous version (3485 million compared to 3630 million). Consequently, either the previous study was way off the mark, or the 1987 one is under-estimating the dietary shortfall.
True to form, the need for modernization of Third World agriculture is unquestioned, while traditional methods are demeaned. Reference is made, for example, to the transformation of agriculture into "a dynamic productive sector". The point is also made that "labour productivity in [the developing countries] rose by a half, although in absolute terms it is still only a fraction of that in developed countries". The comparison could hardly be more
Where Does FAO Get its Money From? FAO's budget is approved biennially, by the FAO Conference, on the basis of proposals from the Director-General. The Regular Budget for the two-year period 1991 -92 is $560 million. This is funded almost entirely from obligatory contributions from its 158 member countries. The biggest contributor is the US, which pays a quarter of the Regular Budget under the agreed UN budget sharing system. The US continues to stick to its 25 per cent of agency budgets as this gives it considerable leverage throughout the UN system. Japan and Germany, the second biggest contributors, pay 13.5 per cent each ($75 million for 1991-92). The UK's share is $32 million or just under six per cent of the budget. These four countries, together with France, Italy and Canada, contribute almost 70 per cent of the organization's core budget.
The size of the payments are assessed in accordance with the UN contribution scale which, in principle, is proportionate to the national incomes of the member countries. Few developing countries contribute more than the minimum quota of 0.01 per cent. As the budget is decided on a basis of "one country, one vote", Third World governments are able to pass the Director-General's generous budget increases with the knowledge that most of the funds will have to be paid by the rich countries.
No country is allowed to withhold its contribution to the Regular Budget. Thus, in theory the main contributors must maintain their contribution or withdraw from the organization. However, in the 1980s, the US, citing various technicalities, withheld its funds from FAO due to concerns over the nonaccountability of the agency. President Bush has now promised to pay up its £360 million of arrears over a fiveyear period. The only other significant debtors as of early 1991 are Brazil at about $4 million and Argentina at just under $1 million.
Further to its core budget, FAO also manages trust funds valued at $332 million in biennium 1986-87. In addition, it executed technical assistance projects for the UN Development Programme worth approximately $300 million. This "extra-budgetary funding" is based on voluntary allocations from other UN bodies as well as from individual member countries. The contributions from governments are mainly used for the funding of special "action programmes''. FAO's biggest financial worry comes from UNDP's decision in 1990 to fund projects direct to national governments rather than through FAO or the other UN specialized agencies. FAO therefore looks likely to lose its biggest single source of funding.
The Ecologist, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April 1991