By John Thompson, co-convenor, STEPS Centre food and agriculture domain and joint coordinator, Future Agricultures Consortium

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) chose Brazil’s José Graziano da Silva as its Director General, the first new leader in almost two decades as the world faces near-record food prices that are driving millions into poverty. Graziano da Silva, 61, the former Brazilian Minister of Food Security, will replace Jacques Diouf, who has served as the head of the biggest UN agency for 18 years, in January 2012. Graziano received 92 votes against 88 for Spain’s Miguel Angel Moratinos Cuyaube.

The FAO, which was set up in 1945 by the UN to lead international efforts to reduce hunger and help developing countries improve agriculture, has often failed in its duties. The agency, whose Latin motto ‘Fiat panis’ means ‘Let there be bread,’ needs a major reform to better tackle food insecurity and poverty. The current administration has been in power far too long and has failed to provide the leadership to fulfil this mandate. Relations between the FAO headquarters and field operations have tended to follow ‘an “all things lead to Rome approach” which, according to a 2007 external evaluation, ‘has been high on costs and low on benefits, with an absence of shared goals.’ This has led to disillusionment among its major donors, who have tended to look elsewhere for technical advice and support on food and agriculture issues. Consequently, the FAO’s funding fell 31% between 1994 and 2005, and staffing dropped 25%. Furthermore, the report concluded that its finances were ‘dire’ and ‘rapidly deteriorating’, and concerns by member states about FAO’s priorities and effectiveness were ‘well-founded’. As a result, today the agency suffers from a credibility and relevance problem, as other groups including the G-8/G-20, the World Bank and the UN Secretary General’s own High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, have filled the leadership vacuum and assumed responsibility for driving efforts to confront global food challenges.

But soon the FAO will have a new DG, one who has a strong track record of addressing food insecurity and appears reform minded. Graziano da Silva was in charge of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s ‘Zero Hunger’ programme, which started in 2003. The plan reduced hunger in Brazil by half and cut the percentage of Brazilians living in extreme poverty from 12% in 2003 to 4.8% in 2009. FAO awarded Lula the 2011 World Food Prize for Zero Hunger, but it was Graziano da Silva who led the programme. Thus, he has a track record of delivering on big commitments.

The Brazilian Director General-elect said in the statement before the election: ‘The FAO must work more transparently and ‘free staff from time-consuming bureaucratic procedures… Country offices need to enjoy greater autonomy in initiating and implementing projects.’ He went on to argue: ‘I subscribe to the view of FAO’s founders that ending hunger is entirely possible… Ending hunger is not a charity, but an investment in our poorest people and a key to sustainable development.’

Offering an ambitious view of where the FAO should go and what it should do is a good beginning, but if he is to succeed in revitalising that moribund organisation, Graziano da Silva will also need to roll up his sleeves and really get stuck in to driving through long-awaited reforms, including reducing the size of the sclerotic bureaucracy, devolving decision-making at all levels, rebuilding staff morale, and breathing new life into its country programmes and partnerships. He must champion improved governance and coordinated action on hunger and malnutrition internationally, even when it means speaking unpalatable truths to rich countries and agencies that give aid to developing countries to improve their agriculture with one hand, while maintaining restrictive trade tariffs and providing distorting subsidies for their own farmers with the other. Finally, he must build consensus among member states around a vision for a new future for agriculture which puts small-scale producers – who offer the greatest potential for increasing productivity, enhancing growth and reducing poverty and hunger – at the heart of any global food security agenda.