The Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations:
An Insider's View
by Khalil Sesmou
FAO, set up to "develop" world agriculture so as to enable the world to feed itself has disastrously failed in its task. It has ignored and even derided traditional agricultural methods and permits no internal criticism of its policy of promoting Western-style intensive farming and the export of cash crops. FAO's performance is judged on the amount of money it spends, not on
the effectiveness of its projects, it ignores the voices of the people it is supposed to be helping and it has close links with agribusiness multinationals, whose products it actively promotes. The
organization's Director-General has been much criticized by FAO staff and others for his autocratic style, and the political manoeuvring he has engaged in to ensure his re-election. A massive overhaul of FAO's basic philosophy, structure and function is urgently needed.
"It is astonishing how often and how badly development professionals have been wrong."
The Food and Agriculture Organization was the first specialized United Nations agency to be founded after the Second World War. Officially it came into being in October 1945, a few days before the UN itself. It remains to this day the largest of the UN agencies.2
FAO currently handles something over $500 million each year in core and "extra-budgetary" funding (see Box, p.49). This is less than 10 per cent of the $5.2 billion in net official development assistance devoted to agriculture in 1987, and a very small share of the total ODAin 1987 of $39.4 billion. As of June 1989, FAO had a staff of 6483, divided roughly two-thirds to one-third between desk jobs and field work. Approximately half of the staff are employed at the Rome headquarters.
Though the following is essentially critical of FAO, the organization does a lot of good work which is insufficiently known. Its success in keeping the desert locust in check (albeit partly with toxic chemicals), its defence of plant genetic diversity and its vernacular languages programme (which brings technical literature to a wider audience), are among its many achievements which deserve recognition.
FAO originated during the colonial period. As the Third World gained its independence, many in the colonial administrations left to place their "expertize" at the service of FAO. The agency's
The author is a senior FAO official. Khalil Sesmou is a pseudonym.
whole approach to development was moulded in those early days and has scarcely changed since: then, as now, the promotion of export crops and the application of modern inputs was seen as the key to agricultural development.
Although the introduction of modern techniques through the much vaunted Green Revolution (see Vandana Shiva, this issue) has arguably been a technical success, considerably increasing yields, it has proved an environmental, social and human disaster. Poor and small farmers have been systematically marginalized, the environment has been degraded, genetic diversity has been drastically eroded and the dependence of the South on the North has been increased. Even within FAO itself, voices of concern could be heard as early as the 1960s. By the mid-1970s, the criticism was out in the open, with a report from the UN's own Research Institute for Social Development highlighting some of the many problems.3
At the time, dissent was accepted and even allowed to flourish. Today, however, staff contest the official wisdom at their peril, and FAO remains committed to modernizing agriculture along the lines of the Green Revolution while disparaging traditional agricultural practices as out-moded and unproductive. One report notes:
"Many low-external input systems [i.e. those using fertilizer, seed etc. produced on the farm, instead of being bought] available for the tropics and sub-tropics cannot produce the required output levels or match the net producer returns of the high-input systems they would have to replace."4
This statement is not backed up by any supporting evidence. On the contrary, study after study reveals the farming systems being swept aside by FAO's modernization policies to be efficient and productive and well suited to their specific social and ecological contexts (see pp.93-106). Nevertheless, throughout its 45 years,
The Ecologist, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April 1991