Changes ahead at food organizations

United Nations World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran announced Jan. 3 she will leave her post when her term expires in April, while Jose Graziano da Silva, the new director general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, an...

United Nations World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran announced Jan. 3 she will leave her post when her term expires in April, while Jose Graziano da Silva, the new director general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, announced that eradication of world hunger will be the goal of his 3 1/2 year term, rather than the previous U.N. goal of halving hunger by 2015.

Sheeran said in a WFP news release from Rome that she will become vice chair of the World Economic Forum, the Swiss-based group that puts on an annual conference in Davos at which leading corporate and government leaders meet.

Sheeran's announcement appears to pave the way for U.N. officials to appoint Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. agencies in Rome, as executive director of WFP, the U.N. agency that distributes food aid. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently sent U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon a letter nominating Cousin as the U.S. candidate for the post and giving her a strong endorsement.

The appointment is made by the U.N. secretary general and the FAO director general in consultation with the WFP board.

The job is technically open to candidates from other countries, but the United States contributes 40 percent of the budget for the WFP and an American has held the position since 1992. No serious candidates besides Cousin have surfaced so far.


The WFP board is scheduled to meet in February, and U.N. officials are expected to present a candidate to the board at that time.

Sheeran, a Republican who served in the Bush administration and was a former editor of The Washington Times, was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2007 and appointed by the U.N. officials.

In the news release, Sheeran said she "oversaw the agency's transformation from food aid to food assistance, where WFP buys 80 percent of its food in the developing world and uses new tools including mobile phones and vouchers to deliver assistance."

Sheeran has served on the World Economic Forum foundation board and also has chaired the Forum's Global Agenda Council on Food Security and is a member of the Forum's Global Issues Group, composed of the heads of major multilateral organizations, the news release noted.

"Josette Sheeran has shown in her career, especially as executive director of the WFP, a true commitment to address major global issues in a visionary and pragmatic way," Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, said in the WFP news release. "She has won the trust of global decision-makers across the spectrum of politics, business and civil society. Her appointment underlines the commitment of the World Economic Forum to furthering multi-stakeholder dialogue."

But critics said that despite the innovations and fundraising appeals at meetings such as the World Economic Forum, Sheeran neglected some management issues in the field. Although the Obama administration had nominated Cousin, Sheeran attempted but failed to keep her post, sources within WFP and outside food aid advocates said.

Cousin served in the Clinton administration and was a grocery store and domestic food aid executive and consultant before assuming the ambassadorship in 2009.

Priority: Ending hunger


Meanwhile, at his first news conference since assuming his position as FAO director general on Jan. 1, Graziano da Silva told reporters in Rome on Jan. 3 that the total elimination of hunger and undernourishment from the world will be his top priority, FAO said in a news release.

Graziano da Silva, 62, told journalists that with a term in office of only 3 1/2 years, there is no time to lose, and that FAO would begin by scaling up its support to a number of low-income, food deficit countries, especially those facing prolonged crises.

"Ending hunger requires the commitment of everyone: neither FAO nor any other agency or government will win this war alone," he said, adding that he wanted to work "in the most transparent and democratic way" with member countries, United Nations agencies, the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders.

Hunger eradication was the first of five strategic priorities he intended to pursue at FAO, Graziano da Silva said. The others:

n Move toward more sustainable systems of food production and consumption.

n Achieve greater fairness in the global management of food.

n Complete FAO's reform and decentralization.

n Expand South-South cooperation and other partnerships.


FAO was plagued by management problems and differences between donor countries and recipient countries during the 18-year tenure of Jacques Diouf, the Senegalese director general who retired on Dec. 31. Graziano da Silva won the job in a tight election, and he seemed to acknowledge the need to unify the FAO and its member countries behind his goals.

"We need to rebuild trust between the secretariat and member states to move forward, and I plan to do so by promoting a transparent and constructive relationship with member states and FAO governing bodies," he said.

Graziano da Silva also emphasized that he would strive to make FAO more effective and responsive by administrative cost-cutting and efficiency gains, the FAO said in the news release. He stressed that efficiency savings would not cut into FAO's technical work, and that he would try to use them to strengthen the organization's direct assistance to countries.

"I am convinced that the organization can make a significant and growing contribution to food security and sustainable food production and consumption in the world," he concluded.

Graziano da Silva's dramatic statement that he wants to eradicate hunger in 3 1/2 years reflects his background as the head of the Brazilian government's "Fome Zero" or Zero Hunger program, and his view that the previous goal of halving world hunger by 2015 was too modest.

In his campaign speech before FAO delegates last June, he noted that the FAO had celebrated the eradication of rinderpest, a cattle disease, and said he wondered what the result would have been if the goal had been to cut the incidence of the disease in half.

He also pledged to find consensus within the FAO and to bridge the internal differences, which he said have "hindered" the agency.

Graziano da Silva's ambitious goal is likely to be greeted positively by anti-hunger advocates. But despite his personal experience in reducing hunger in Brazil, the statement that he wants to eradicate hunger was somewhat surprising because FAO officials usually talk about increasing agricultural production and improving methods, even though its purpose is to end hunger.


"Just saying 'ending hunger' is really a tall order," said one experienced international food aid official. "Achieving food security through improved ag production may have been more appropriate for FAO to say. Also, improving agricultural markets is not mentioned, although it might be included in the eradication of hunger goal somehow."

Prices of some foods may ease slightly in 2012 because of a slowing global economy, but are unlikely to drop drastically from the high levels reached last year, Graziano da Silva said Jan 3.

He also said at the news conference that volatility in food markets was likely to continue and that more people would be at risk of hunger because of economic instability, Reuters reported.

Graziano da Silva's term is slightly shorter than usual because he is a transitional figure between six-year and four-year terms. His term will conclude on July 31, 2015. Under new rules, the director general is eligible for only two four-year terms.

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