In his first year as FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu had shepherded the Organization through plagues, pests and a pandemic.
Throughout the challenges that arose during his first year, he remained unwavering in his vision that food and agriculture are at the heart of solutions for many of the challenges the world currently faces. “Under my guidance,” he promised prior to his election, “FAO will be further strengthened as the global centre of agricultural policy coordination.”
The idea that food and agriculture hold the keys to creating a better life for millions of people has informed and shaped QU’s decisions during his first year in office. In order to offer solutions for long-term and complex problems such as hunger, malnutrition and rural poverty, he engineered a set of reforms designed to make the Organization more efficient and responsive, while ensuring that sound scientific and technical knowledge would remain at the core of FAO’s work.
An agile new structure
The new, modular structure the new Director-General has introduced to FAO is designed to make the Organization more agile and responsive, and less bureaucratic, breaking down silos and removing layers. In a meeting with all FAO senior managers at the end of July, shortly after his reform proposals had been endorsed by the FAO Council, Director-General QU said, “To be clear: We introduced the most significant reform and reorganization since the founding of FAO.” “This reform leads to a cohesive and flat structure; a management system with increased delegation of authority; and an environment that encourages creativity and initiative. That is the new agile FAO,” QU told the gathered senior managers joining him online from around the world.
QU emphasised the leading role foreseen for senior managers in this new structure. The directors of Divisions, Centres and Offices, as experts in their respective subjects, will report directly to the Core Leadership team, consisting of the Director-General, his three Deputy Directors-General, the Chief Economist, the Chief Scientist and the Director of Cabinet. Calling it a new “sharing economy of FAO,” QU said the new structure would help strengthen internal communication, consensus and accountability, while avoid silos and minimize bureaucracy.
While the directors will be empowered, “this approach will be challenging at first; as you will need to adapt and adjust the way you work. But very soon it will bring more benefit, decision-making and opportunity,” said the Director-General. He asked senior managers to think beyond their own immediate units and to always think how their activities could contribute to the overall benefit of FAO. “When you open up to the world, the world opens to you.”
The reform package approved in July was only the latest of a series of organizational changes that the new Director-General introduced in his first year.
To strengthen the coordination of the cross-cutting work on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) both within the FAO and with UN and other parters, a new SDGs Office has been created, under the direct supervision of the Director-General himself. Likewise, to strengthen the coordination of FAO’s work for the most vulnerable, an Office of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) has been established.
An innovative and digital FAO
One of QU’s first proposals upon assuming office was the creation of an Office of Innovation, and a key leadership role of Chief Scientist, a nod to his emphasis on innovative agriculture and science-based solutions.
Indeed the Director-General has been unceasingly championing innovation, digital solutions and big data to address challenges in food and agriculture, with a suite of digital tools made available on FAO’s website – itself has been undergoing successive renovations to make FAO more transparent and accessible. The efforts saw a major milestone in July 2020, not just for FAO but for the wider international community, with the launch of the Hand-in-Hand geospatial data platform.
A digital public good that is open to all, the platform boasts one million geospatial layers, thousands of statistical series, bringing together data over 10 domains in food and agriculture – all indispensable for an evidence-based, integrated approach to sustainable agriculture.
“Geospatial technologies and agriculture data represent an opportunity to find new ways of reducing hunger and poverty through more accessible and data-driven solutions,” said the Director-General at the launch.
Another major effort underway is the creating of an International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture, tasked by over 70 agriculture ministers. The proposed platform is aimed at promoting coordination and strengthening the linkages between international fora for agriculture and those for the digital economy to enhance the awareness of the international community to issues specific to the digitalization of the food and agriculture sectors; and supporting governments with policy recommendations, best practices, and voluntary guidelines that can enhance the benefits of digital technology applications on agriculture. The platform, once created, will be hosted by FAO.
Opportunities in a crisis
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, while a challenge to all, also saw FAO making a tremendous leap into the digital age, with a five-fold increase in online meetings across the organization every day. Administrative processes have been streamlined and simplified, and workflows adapted, to better fit a teleworking environment.
In April, when FAO convened a virtual meeting of Africa’s Ministers of Agriculture to address the impact of the pandemic on the food and agriculture sectors, online simultaneous interpretation was offered in all official languages, making FAO a leader in the UN system. The service has remained a standard feature in all virtual FAO official meetings and events.
Though his first year in office came with a set of unprecedented challenges, Director-General QU remains steadfast as he looks towards the future. “We must see advantages when we are at a disadvantage, and not lose hope in times of difficulty,” he said.
From chief designer to chief engineer
When he addressed FAO senior managers around the world at the end of his first 12 months in office, the Director-General spoke of his vision becoming reality, “In my manifesto, I wrote that we are what we think. The new thinking will lead us to a different journey. Our journey started 364 days ago, and today the path ahead of us should be clear to all of you. A path that will lead us to a better tomorrow through better production, nutrition, environment, and then we can have a better life, not only for farmers but also for the society and the consumers.”
QU Dongyu also spelt out the next steps as he were entering his second year of his tenure, “This profound transformation affects us all. I see myself now moving from leading a think tank to guiding an action tank, from Chief Designer to Chief Engineer.”
“I count on you to contribute to the historical transformation of FAO and to walk this path together,” so came the rallying call of the Director-General. “The future is in your hands. Let us build a dynamic FAO for a better world with your hands.”