By Rasit Pertev, Secretary of UN’s International Fund of Agricultural Development
Many years ago, when I was working for the World Federation of Farmers, I had tried to get the most out of the UN system for smallholder farmers. I went and knocked on their doors. I met with officials and held many meetings. I tried to link them up with smallholder farmers’ organizations and groups. It worked in some cases; often, it did not. I was faced with a succession of unexplained dead-ends and a parade of closed doors. At a moment of desperation, when everything looked bleak, a UN counterpart patted me on the shoulder. “Empty boxes, my friend” he said, “These grandiose initiatives you are trying to reach are all empty boxes”.
Over time, the situation has improved due to pressure from member states for accountability and results. Nowadays, while governments may be at a loss over how to solve political problems, they have a surprisingly strong consensus on certain global development issues. And they do want UN agencies to deliver.
Agenda 2030 is a key landmark of our time, as a formal emanation of what most people around the world strongly want and desire. Among its 17 goals are the elimination of poverty and hunger, mostly housed in rural areas. The achievement of such a colossal challenge requires not only an intensity of effort, but also an unprecedented partnership and cooperation on a global scale, which UN institutions are well placed to foster and facilitate.
Yet working together in eliminating rural poverty and hunger is precisely where UN agencies have somehow faltered. In November 2016, after more than five years of foot-dragging and resistance, the three UN agricultural agencies in Rome were finally pushed by member states into preparing a document on how they would cooperate minimally among themselves.
The slack is not only within the United Nations. It extends to tens of thousands of development professionals, in the multilateral and bilateral development agencies – not forgetting the governments of developing countries themselves. These highly-educated, highly-skilled individuals are all too often uncoordinated, working in silos in parallel to – but unconnected from – each other, unaware of each other’s work.
But slack is only a bad thing if it remains unchallenged. Right now, it presents an opportunity. At a time when countries are becoming more inward-looking, when other priorities dominate political discourse, additional funds may not be forthcoming for development cooperation. Harnessing this slack can be exactly what is needed right now to drive the system forward. By tearing down the walls between institutions, getting rid of senseless rivalries, duplications of responsibility and red tape, we can unleash incredible synergies. Let us not forget that most development professionals were once, and still are, idealists at heart.
In order to do this, a new generation of UN agency leaders is required, who would be prepared to go beyond institutional boundaries and traditional thinking to achieve global goals.
Getting such a new generation of leaders, with the right background, motivation and experience, is often challenging. When politics step in and there is an urgency to park outgoing ministers or top bureaucrats into new positions, all other considerations dwindle into oblivion, including for EU and OECD countries. However, it must be done.
Early on in my career, I worked on one of the first community driven projects in the remotest villages in North Western Zambia, working under local conditions and salary. Only one car used to pass by the village every month, being either ivory hunters or missionaries. Whenever there was the hum of a vehicle at the horizon, everyone used to gather by the roadside to see who was going to pass by. In the beginning, I had thought this practice to be funny. A short time later, I found myself waiting by the roadside among them every time.
The question today, as the rural poor await, is: will Agenda 2030 finally arrive?
It is always very tempting to build bureaucratic empires and fight turf wars. These, however, should not be done with international public money, nor by turning UN institutions into arenas for political horse-trading. Not when the stakes are the elimination of rural poverty and hunger.
Agenda 2030 is a lofty and noble objective. This time, we cannot afford to deliver empty boxes.
Rasit Pertev is the Secretary of UN’s International Fund of Agricultural Development (IFAD), currently on recusal due to his bid for Presidency of IFAD
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