José Graziano da Silva took up his three-year post as the new director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome, in January. The agency, which was founded in 1945, is tasked with eradicating hunger worldwide, particularly in rural areas. Graziano da Silva was the agency’s assistant director-general and regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean from 2006 to 2011; he replaced Jacques Diouf of Senegal, who held the post from 1994 to 2011.
The agency’s deputy director-generals are Ann Tutwiler of the United States and Manoj Juneja of India. Its biennium budget of 2012-13 is $1 billion, with $1.4 billion more expected from voluntary donations. The United States is the largest donor and Japan is second. Last year, Britain’s development arm threatened to cut its donations, about $6.7 million in the 2010-2011 biennium budget, to the UN agency, after a review found its performance “patchy,” particularly at the country level, and cited the need for major reforms.
As director-general, Graziano da Silva said in a recent statement that he would push for more focus on food security and scale up the agency’s aid to low-income and food-poor countries — especially those in protracted crisis. Cooperatives and producer organizations will also be more vital in eliminating hunger and reducing poverty, he added.
“We will create teams that draw together the organization’s skills in policy advice, investment planning, resource mobilization, emergency response and sustainable development,” he said. “Hunger eradication should not be separated from responses to other global challenges, such as reviving national economies, protecting natural resources from degradation, and mitigating and adapting to climate change.”
This month, the UN announced that a food crisis is looming in the Sahel region of Africa, at the bottom of the Sahara Desert, potentially threatening up to 12 million people. A combination of drought, poverty, high grain prices and other factors are the cause.
Speaking at a recent press conference, Graziano da Silva confirmed that global food prices would remain high in 2012, adding, “We are expecting that prices will not grow and not drop. There will be some reductions but not drastically, volatility will remain.”
In an interview last year with Devex, an international development network group, Graziano da Silva elaborated on the UN agency’s priorities in fighting hunger, saying that it required a more concerted local and regional approach. “It means not only to improve local production, but to improve the capacity of the consumers to buy that food and to have access to that food. So, it’s very important to think about placing webs, social webs that could support those programs, especially in the most poor rural areas.”
The agency also needed to find new sources of donations at country and regional levels, noting that it had too few “traditional donors,” he said.
He also discussed the “land-grab” problem in South America, where corporations buy large tracts of land, leaving the poor local farmers in a “transfer of ownership” to big international enterprises.
“Land grabbing is a concern for those countries, but for FAO the main concern is access to land and the preservation of natural resources,” he said. “We have been working on a proposal of voluntary guidelines for land use and land ownership.”
Brazil’s Zero Hunger leader
Graziano da Silva was formerly a food security minister in Brazil, where he led the formation of the country’s “zero hunger” program in 2001 and carried it out. Zero Hunger, which began operating in the early days of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidency, combined numerous social programs, with the biggest component being the “family allowance” welfare plan. The program gave monthly stipends to families if they committed to send their children to school. Over all, the government estimates that 28 million people rose out of poverty from 2003 to 2010.
A Brazilian and Italian by nationality, Graziano da Silva, 62, earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and a master’s degree in rural economics and sociology from the University of São Paulo; and a Ph.D. in economic sciences from the State University of Campinas in Brazil. In addition, he has two post-doctorate degrees, in Latin American studies from the University College of London, and environmental studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He is married to a journalist, Paola Ligasacchi.
[This article was updated on Feb. 21, 2012.]