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close this bookCERES No. 105/109 - October 1985 (FAO Ceres, 1985, 50 p.)
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Edouard Saouma, Director-General of FAO: Rediscovering a sense of urgency

The fusion of ideas and action that led to the creation of the Food and Agriculture Organization 40 years ago is well recorded. In the decade before the Second World War, dedicated individuals like Walter Aykroyd, Frank McDougall and Sir John Boyd Orr assembled impressive evidence to support their argument that hunger could be eliminated through the collective efforts of national governments. The League of Nations, though frustrated and enfeebled, roused itself to produce a study on the relationship of nutrition to health, agriculture and economic policy. If no immediately tangible results emerged, at least more thought was given to the absurdity of a state of affairs in which farmers went bankrupt and their unmarketable produce was destroyed, while millions of impoverished workers and their families suffered hunger and malnutrition.

The story of how these perceptions percolated upward to a point of political decision carries its own touch of drama. The intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt in bringing Frank McDougall's ideas to the attention of the President of the United States is a cherished tidbit of FAO pre-history. It is not necessary to try to assess the importance, in historical terms, of that luncheon meeting between the First Lady of the United States and the Australian economist who happened to be in Washington negotiating a wheat agreement. But it is worthwhile to contemplate that from that meeting in September of 1942, little more than three years elapsed before 42 nations had signed the Constitution that established FAO as the first of a new generation of international agencies. In the midst of the most destructive and widespread war in human history, the political support and needed resources were made available to establish a framework for action designed to benefit people everywhere. Political will has long been acknowledged as the primary element in international cooperation. Today the same imperatives for political decisiveness in matters of food and agriculture remain with us. Hunger persists anti its victims increase each year in absolute if not proportionate terms. At the same time unmarketable surpluses of foodstuffs, and underutilized resources for food production, continue to embarrass governments and burden their treasuries.

Such evident parallels between the 1930s and the 1980s should not lead us to despair. There have been remarkable achievements as well as disappointments. Through much of South and East Asia-the world's most populous regions -agricultural productivity has advanced significantly to reach the level of a precarious self-sufficiency in basic cereals. A balanced view is essential if the record of four decades of agricultural development is to be judged fairly.

The initial mandate. For a start, it would be useful to recall that the patterns of hunger portrayed for the League of Nations half a century ago were drawn almost exclusively from data pertaining to what we now call the industrialized world, including countries, such as Australia and Canada, whose economies were then still dependent primarily on agricultural export. Initial political support for the FAO mandate centred upon the need to resolve the agricultural and nutritional problems in nations whose independent economic and social development had been underway for decades if not for centuries. Development of agriculture in vast colonial regions was not then of paramount concern.

It is, however, to the credit of those who drafted the FAO Constitution that its terms of reference were sufficiently broad in scope to permit its resources to be applied under a wide range of conditions in a rapidly changing world. In 40 years the Organization's membership has very nearly quadrupled. The centre of gravity of its governing bodies, at least in terms of simple voting power, has shifted accordingly. And so, in a certain sense, has the nature of the problems needing to be addressed by governments at different levels of development.

One of the primary lessons to be learned by newly formed sovereign states was that political independence held little meaning without a matching degree of economic viability. The quality and quantity of natural resource endowments enclosed within these new political boundaries varied greatly. Cultural and historical backgrounds were equally diverse. Even so, there were certain common elements that confronted governments of developing countries as they emerged from the colonial era. Most of their economies were heavily dependent upon primary production, with agriculture in most cases the dominant sector, usually divided between a relatively modern sub-system geared to export crops and a traditional subsistence agriculture producing some surplus food for domestic consumption. Finally, as improved post-war health services dramatically reduced crude death rates, most countries experienced a corresponding surge in population growth rates.

Thus it was not unnatural that many developing countries found in the patterns of economic growth exhibited by the industrialized countries an attractive model for their own future development. If Europe and North America had been able to draw upon surplus labour from their agricultural sectors to man burgeoning industries and services, even while achieving remarkable gains in agricultural productivity, was this not a reasonable target for Third World nations as well? Massive unemployment and underemployment in many developing countries argue persuasively for this approach. There is also the lure of diversifying a national economy so that its viability within the global economic order is less dependent upon a few primary commodities whose values on international markets have so often been erratic. Finally, there is a psychological factor: that understandable human urge of the twentieth century to be considered "modern".

The rural-urban gap. Far too often, this tempting rationale has outweighed other considerations that would counsel a more gradual shift toward modern, industrially based economies. The industrial growth of Europe and North America, after all, was achieved over not one generation, but many. It was accompanied, and in some instances preceded, by significant advances in the agricultural sector. In both agriculture and industry growth depended in turn upon the development of an ever more complex web of supporting structures: universal schooling, research institutes, extension services, banking and credit systems, producer and trade associations, communication, transportation and marketing facilities. If farm incomes and living conditions often lagged significantly behind those of other sectors, agrarian interests were able to organize effectively, penetrating markets through their cooperatives and influencing legislative processes through their associations, ironically gaining both economic and political strength even while their proportionate share of the labour force was declining sharply.

Few of these conditions obtained in the developing countries. Basic infrastructures were lacking. Agricultural research and technology had focussed principally on export crops. Capitals and major cities were often more closely linked to former colonial powers than to their own hinterlands. Even with the best of intent, interaction between new urban bureaucracies and rural populations was difficult. Even though the latter represented overwhelming majorities of the population, their participation in national political processes has been feeble and their share in the material benefits of national economic growth disproportionately small. Millions upon millions of the Third World's rural youth saw little incentive for staying on the land and joined the swelling urban masses seeking a more promising lifestyle.

With significant proportions of their populations marginalized within their own economies, many Third World countries face an analogous situation within the global economy of nations. An abundance of low-cost labour has not proven to be of significant advantage in efforts to promote industrial growth, given the political strength that labour organizations in developed countries have been able to exercise in protecting domestic jobs. And abundance in the harvest of major export crops has not ensured increased returns to producers, given the volatile nature of world markets and the absence, for the most part, of truly effective commodity agreements. Where domestic food production has been concerned, there has been the temptation to use food aid available on a bilateral government-to-government basis as a means of providing cheap food to urban consumers rather than as a tool for supporting development programmes and projects that would enhance domestic productive capacity.

With a ready-made palliative applied to the problem of provisioning politically volatile urban populations, it was much easier to accord agriculture a lower priority in the national budget. When financing could be found for the development of food and agricultural production, it was often more convenient to channel it to highly visible projects in the modern sector, such as major irrigation works, rather than to devise ways of reaching smallholders practicing rainfed agriculture.

An invaluable resource. Persistence of these conditions underscores the strategic importance of a vigorous collective effort by governments to discover and apply enduring remedies. The basic mechanism required for such an effort has been in place for 40 years. Through the deliberations of its governing and statutory bodies, the Food and Agriculture Organization has been able to define clearly many of the causal factors of hunger, poverty and underdevelopment. Through the experience and expertise accumulated from thousands of missions and field projects undertaken at the request of its member governments, the FAO Secretariat has been able to test and refine solutions to many fundamental problems of rural development. This blending of a continuing inter-governmental dialogue with pragmatic problem-solving in the field represents an invaluable resource for development initiatives undertaken in either the national or the international context.

To achieve its maximum utility, however, the resource requires a properly supportive environment. It needs a high degree of political commitment from governments in both North and South. Such commitment cannot be measured only in terms of the material resources.. | Its ultimate value will derive more from the degrees of willingness demonstrated by all parties concerned to address problems with a minimum of cultural and political bias and to support bold and innovative solutions. The urgency of the hunger issue demands nothing less.

There is no particular magic in 40- or in any other number. The majority of FAO's member states attained sovereignty after the Organization had completed its first decade. The vast majority of the poor within their borders were not yet born when FAO was founded. Depending on the weather, levels of inflation, rates of interest and world commodity prices-influences over which they have little control -their lives in the next year may be marginally better, or depressingly worse, than in the present one. If there is any message of hope for these people to be extracted from the many achievements of the Organization's first four decades, it must be framed within a clear demonstration that governments have not weakened in their resolve to act together to overcome hunger nor lost that sense of urgency with which the Organization's mandate was created 40 years ago.

I believe that this special number of Ceres, in publishing the comments of heads of state and government on a wide range of questions involving hunger, poverty and underdevelopment, testifies to a rising level of political concern over these issues and will contribute substantively to the continuing dialogue. FAO and Ceres have been signally honoured by such prestigious participation in this initiative. We commend its results to all our readers.