Resurgence & Ecologist - Vol 21 No 2 - March / April 1991
alternative options are reviewed prior to the hardening of most aspects of project design; " • preclude apparently necessary investigations and analyses; " • make it difficult to carry government and, still more, the
beneficiaries along with a rapidly evolving project concept; and " • restrict the range of disciplines that can be represented in
the project preparation team to one which precludes specialized treatment of all major components." In this atmosphere of pressures for speed and volume, projects are pushed forward whether or not there is a real need for them. Often Third World governments know that the projects are inappropriate but accept them either because they bring certain prestige items — a Mercedes or equipment, for example — or because of the crying need for foreign exchange. In Nepal, for
The FAO Director-General is renowned for his squabbling with the heads of the other UN agencies in order to expand
the range of FAO's activities.
instance, a country where over 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, external assistance represents 70 per cent of the government budget. In many African countries the impact of "agricultural development projects" at village level is of marginal importance: their real role is to support the budget of the Ministry of Agriculture by providing salaries and equipment.
For UN agencies like FAO, there is the added attraction of gaining 13 per cent "support costs" on all projects they manage. This is a useful source of revenue. With the UN Development Programme spending some $750 million annually via the agencies, the stakes are high to get as large a share as possible of the cake (however, this source of funding may now dry up, see Box, p.49). Small wonder that the FAO Director-General is renowned for his squabbling with the heads of the other UN agencies in order to expand the range of FAO's activities — principally by taking over any activity that can remotely be classified as "agricultural" or "rural", including rural poverty and rural industry.
The Myth of "Participation" FAO's preoccupation with speeding up the project cycle, and thus expanding its power and budget, helps explain why despite its rhetoric, it has consistently failed to involve local people in the evolution and management of its development projects.
In July 1979, FAO organized the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD), which culminated in a "Declaration of Principles" adopted (with certain reservations) by 146 governments. In his statement at the end of the conference, Director-General Edouard Saouma called the Declaration, "a conceptual and moral orientation for future action", and described it as the "Peasants' Charter".10
FAO apparently thought that through this declaration it had broken the barriers to effective participation and that, together with an increased use of terms like "participatory" and "actionoriented" in documents, it would dampen demands for local people to participate effectively in projects. Yet the wording used by
FAO in its "Peasants' Charter" reflects its true colours. The chapter on "Objectives and Strategies", as drafted by FAO staff, incorporates a typical top-down approach: "promote people's organizations..." By contrast, the reference to public participation in the section "National Programmes of Action", drafted and sponsored by NGOs, uses a quite different language: "Remove all barriers to the free association of rural people ... "
Perhaps predictably, the Charter has achieved little in the field of agrarian reform. On the contrary, the International Federation of Plantation, Agricultural and Allied Workers (IFPAAW) points to "an increasing landlessness, unequal distribution of wealth, violence against the rural poor and a general malaise in the informal rural sector".11 IFPAAW also notes that, being conceived, adopted and applied by governments alone, the WCARRD Programme of Action "has implied government control" — thus denying the very principles of "people's participation".
A senior officer of IFPAAW states that her organization has virtually given up trying to change FAO' s attitude towards participation, be it at a theoretical level in the annual meetings between FAO and the trade union organizations, or in the field. "We simply don't see eye-to-eye with them", she says, quoting an attempt at collaboration in the Honduras (a women's training activity) which was simply presented by FAO on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
FAO's excuse for its failure effectively to involve peasants in projects is that it is governments who call the shots. Anisur Rahman, who has been involved in development issues for many years, recognizes that the problem exists: "Governments are mainly motivated by projects which will bring in foreign exchange". However, he points out that FAO could, i f it wished, make use of international law to ensure participation, in particular the International Labour Organization Convention Clause 141, which addresses "Organizations of Rural Workers and their Role in Economic and Social Development". This view is supported by IFPAAW which, while agreeing that FAO must "recognize the national sovereignty of governments", states that, "it can nevertheless use its influence to promote the much wider participation of people in agriculture and rural development by firmly supporting the principles" of the ILO Convention.12
ILO was founded in 1919 with a tripartite structure in which
Were FAO to permit effective local participation in its development projects, it is unlikely that its projects
would ever get the go-ahead.
workers have an official place alongside employer and government representatives. Such a structure has been mooted on various occasions for the agencies such as FAO which were created in the mid-1940s, but this has always been vigorously opposed. FAO has systematically refused to provide any facilities for NGOs to develop their relations with it (an "NGO room" for instance). Clearly, it is determined to adhere strictly to its mandate as an intergovernmental organization. It certainly does not see itself as an organization at the service of the world's peasants. Indeed, were FAO to permit effective local participation in its development projects, it is unlikely that they would ever get the go-ahead. Why, after all, should peasants actively participate in projects which are specifically aimed at transforming their whole way of life? Projects which, from experience, they know can only serve
The Ecologist, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April 1991
to marginalize and impoverish them? Why, in effect, should they participate in their own annihilation?
Promoting Industrial Interests Indeed, reviewing FAO's record, it is hard to resist the conclusion that it is less concerned with supporting the efforts of small farmers in the Third World than with promoting the interests of national governments and multinational agribusiness corporations.
The close relationship between FAO and the agrochemical industry, for example, has been well-documented (see Barbara Dinham, this issue). From the early 1960s to 1978, the FAOIndustry Cooperative Programme was an official part of FAO's structures and among the most prominent industry participants in the programme were major chemical companies. According to a
recently-retired senior executive of the Swiss chemical giant Ciba-Geigy: "We always enjoyed very good relations with FAO. Sometimes there were a few problems but generally relations were excellent." In 1978, amidst growing criticisms of this special relationship, Director-General Saouma closed the Programme. This did not stop FAO from continuing to "market" pesticides through its advice and projects and it is only fairly recently that integrated pest management (the control of pests using largely biological methods and only small amounts of pesticides) has become part of its rhetoric.
The hand-in-glove relationship between FAO and the pesticide industry also explains the lax pesticide standards established by the Codex Alimentarius system — jointly administered by FAO and the World Health Organization. Codex standards are up to 40 times less stringent than those set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (see Mark Ritchie, 'GATT, Agriculture and the Environment', The Ecologist, Vol. 20, No. 6, 1990).
A Lord of Poverty Edouard Saouma's position as head of the UN's largest specialized agency confers upon him great responsibility. In the words of one observer: "He can, and often does, decide over life and death in the middle of famine".
Some extremely grave charges have been levelled against Saouma, and it is difficult to turn a blind eye to all of these. For example, it is alleged that in 1984, at the height of the Ethiopian famine, Saouma held back food aid for 20 days at a time when emergency consignments were urgently required. According to testimony from other FAO officials and the from the former Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner Dawit Wolde-Giorgis, this delay occurred simply because Saouma disliked Tessema Negash, then Ethiopia's Assistant Delegate to FAO, and wanted him removed from office: only when Negash was recalled to Addis Ababa was the food released. In Dawit's own words:
"I went [to FAO Headquarters in Rome] and tried to brief [Saouma] on what was going on in Ethiopia .. . He interrupted the discussion and told me that our representative was not a very likeable person .. . that it would be difficult for him to really cooperate with the Ethiopian government as long as we had Tessema Negash as our FAO representative .. . There I was trying to brief a senior UN official about the impending disaster and the number of people dying every day and I was confronted with personal problems .. . that was sickening." When I approached Saouma in 1989 for an interview to clarify this and other matters, he declared himself unable to receive me because of his "many commitments". I was, however, sent a duplicated press handout in which the accusations concerning Ethiopia were strenuously denied. I would have been more convinced if I had been given the opportunity to question Saouma face to face.
Edouard Saouma's third six-year term in office is worth a significant sum of money to him personally: $813,276 excluding fringe benefits. Not even his most impassioned detractors suggest that his single-minded pursuit of reelection was motivated entirely — or even mainly — by an urge to keep his hands on the Director-General's fat pay packet; it has been pointed out by more than one, however,
that there is something rather anomalous about running a development agency and at the same time earning so much. This, as simply stated by Raymond Lloyd — who himself resigned from FAO in disgust after 20 years service — is the "paradox of working for the poor and underprivileged from a position of wealth and power."
It is a paradox that is undoubtedly heightened by the style of FAO's autocratic Director-General. He insists on being called "Your Excellency", occupies an office that would do justice to an oriental potentate and makes full use of his annual "representation allowance" of $32,000 to entertain visiting VIPs.
More generally, the way that business is conducted at the agency's Rome Headquarters seems to be an extension of the Director-General's dominant personality. Visitors to the six-story white marble building near the ancient Coliseum only get past the patrolling security guards if they can prove that they have appointments; once inside they are required to wear coloured tags indicating their destination. In the case of journalists an escort from the Press Room is provided — presumably to ensure that no "snooping" takes place and that officials talked to give the right answers to questions. Several senior members of staff have been suspended for making "unauthorized statements" to the press and Saouma maintains additional control over the flow of public information about FAO by denying his more outspoken critics any access to Headquarters. Meanwhile the agency's information division disposes of more than $12 million a year producing lavish brochures and reports extolling — in full colour — the virtues of FAO's services to the dispossessed and disadvantaged.
One gets the sense from all this of an institution that has lost its way, departed from its original purely humanitarian and developmental mandate, become confused about its place in the world — about exactly what it is doing, and why.
This piece is extracted with permission from Graham Hancock's book Lords of Poverty (MacMillan, London, 1989 (hardback) and Mandarin, London, 1989 (paperback)).
The Ecologist, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April 1991