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FAO to elect next director general

FAO to elect next director general

Former farmer running for UN leadership gets big endorsement

By Owen Roberts

Sunday in Rome, member nations will choose the next director general of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

It’s a hotly contested and highly coveted position. Even though we’re a world away, the decision increasingly affects us all … maybe even more so now that Canada has declared a national climate emergency.   

Some people call that declaration alarmist; others call it prudent. Whatever the case, environmental awareness is among the many Canadian values welcomed at the United Nations, a global organization with 193 member countries.

Members come together to confront common challenges, manage shared responsibilities and exercise collective action for what they call “an enduring quest for a peaceful, inclusive and sustainably developing world.”

The FAO is a specialized agency within the United Nations that leads international efforts to battle hunger. To the FAO, the environment is an imperative. So, the director general plays a key role in navigating the worldwide challenges of climate change and global hunger. 

With the director general race down to the wire, momentum appears to be gaining for reform candidate Davit Kirvalidze. He’s a former potato farmer, international development consultant and minister of agriculture for the country of Georgia, with 30 years of experience.

Kirvalidze, who stopped in Ottawa recently to meet with ag officials and drum up support from Canada for his bid, is one of just three candidates.

Qu Dongyu is from China and Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle is from France. Politically, each have their allies and their strengths. For example, many countries want to buddy up to China and France, given their trading influence. A vote for the country’s candidate doesn’t hurt the chances of a political favour later.

But eyebrows were raised when Kirvalidze, who is not from a world power or a particularly influential region, gained the endorsement of Kenneth Yalowitz, the former U.S. ambassador to Georgia. As well, on Wednesday, the U.S. administration came out publicly for Kirvalidze’s candidacy and is hosting a reception in Rome the night before the vote.  

Considering President Donald Trump’s international hostilities towards export markets, such an endorsement may mean less than it would have under a more trade-friendly U.S. administration. Nonetheless, the U.S. support carries a lot of weight.

Yalowitz says he saw Kirvalidze in action – under what Yalowitz calls extreme pressure – during his appointment in Georgia between 1998 and 2001.

“It was a tumultuous period for the newly independent Georgia,” says Yalowitz. “Beset by separatist struggles and civil war, the government was trying to bring peace and economic reform to what some feared could become a failed state.”

To make matters worse, a severe drought struck in the summer of 2000. “Fortunately for Georgia, … Kirvalidze was minister of agriculture and did a superb job of navigating the country through this crisis, which threatened food and seed supplies and the very future of Georgian agriculture,” says Yalowitz.

Kirvalidze says one of his strengths is building partnerships, like he did in Georgia during the reform. In Ottawa, he was looking for support for investment from both the public (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) and private sectors (particularly the fertilizer, seed and poultry industries), pending success in his leadership bid. 

Industry involvement is needed to help farmers feed the world and fight climate change, Kirvalidze says. Sustainability solutions must be tailor made for individual countries if they are expected to take ownership in them. No cut-and-paste, cookie cutter approach will succeed across continents, he says.

But Kirvalidze is convinced partnerships with the private sector can bring structure, sustainability and success to agricultural projects in countries where chronic challenges exist.

“It’s important for farmers working in hard conditions to have hope and know success is possible,” he says. “Being a farmer is different than any other business, you deal so much with nature. Farmers don’t get enough respect for what they do.”

Kirvalidze’s leadership will be distinguished from others because he knows, as someone who started farming to stave off his family’s hunger, what it’s like to ask for aid, he says. He has experienced the need to try to wait patiently for help to arrive while bureaucrats dither.

“Imagine yourself in the shoes of those who ask for help,” he says. “Show respect and act quickly. If the answer to their request for support is yes, then say yes. If it’s no, then say no.

“If that means officials have to work late some nights to make these decisions, then that’s what they’ll have to do.”

Elections will be held during the FAO’s 41st conference.

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