FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean

Alliances are critical

An interview introduces the new ADG, RLC, Julio Berdegué, his commitment to the region and the importance of partnerships in the work that lies ahead.

The Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (RLC) has a new regional representative: Julio Berdegué.

We spoke to him in a spare moment among his whirlwind of briefings while at headquarters to find out a little bit more about him and what he's thinking as the new head of RLC.

Welcome! Brand new to FAO but not brand new to the region

Yes. I am from Mexico, studied agronomy in Mexico and the USA, and have been living for many years in Chile, but I've worked in many countries in the region. When I arrived in the mid-80s, I became involved with indigenous peoples and smallholders who were in difficult conditions. It was really an amazing and eye-opening experience for me - to see first hand how people try to cope in such difficult conditions and more often than not, with few opportunities.
That is when I realized that even the smallest of efforts could make a huge difference in people's lives.

Since then?

Latin America has become much richer, much more prosperous. The region has done well overall in reducing poverty in many countries. Although it has done less well, in fact not at all well, in reducing inequalities. Large segments of the population have not done well out of this prosperity. Yes, improvements in access to basic services - but the gap between urban and rural is as large or larger that it was. Rural women, youth, and some sectors of family farming face incredible challenges. FAO can be part of making prosperity more evenly shared.

Through our strategic programmes?

Yes. Let's begin with SP1. We have enormous problems of obesity, in Latin America over half, I believe 57 percent, is overweight. Seventy-eight percent of the 33 FAO member countries in my region have a rate of obesity of 20 percent or more. This is the biggest killer of my people today, and is completely related to the radical transformation that our food systems have undergone in recent years. That's an area where I intend to work very hard. The team in Latin America is already doing a lot but we can do more. Partnerships are key; we already have a strong partnership with WHO - this is a critical alliance, and we need to get the private sector on board to be part of the solution.
Latin America is a global contributor to food security but has a lot of work to do to make agriculture more sustainable (SP2). Just take the amount of water we consume. It is simply impossible to sustain, environmentally and economically. If governments have to choose between importing food and continuing to use 70 percent of the available water for agriculture, their decision will be clear. This is a severe problem in many countries.
Rural poverty (SP3) is still a major issue. We were doing well but since the crises in 2007-2008 we really have slowed down; in many cases, we have stagnated and in some cases gone back. Governments are asking themselves, what's next - we've done social protection, family farming and we've done it well yet we still haven't overcome the problem. FAO needs to play an important leadership role here - again more partnerships, other agencies, national governments, civil society.

Partnerships are key then?

Without a doubt. Look at food systems (SP4): These are rapidly transforming in Latin America - our concern is how smallholders and family farmers can keep up and take part when things are developing at such great speeds? I cannot emphasize enough how important partnerships are. The challenges are too complex and too large for FAO alone, or even the UN alone.
Where resilience (SP5) is concerned, we have a number of countries that we know will be most impacted by climate change: We need to focus here, it's a huge area and we must choose wisely if we want to make an impact.
FAO is also moving into areas that until now have not been our priority, but that are at the top of the list of concerns of policy makers, such as migration. We need to establish the best way to work on migration. If a person, having a choice, decides to migrate, I am perfectly fine with that. But if a young person is forced to migrate due to economic hardship or climate change, then we have work to do; I personally I think that once such a person has bought a ticket to leave his or her place, we have lost another chance. If we focus on rural territories that are "hotspots" of forced or distress migration, the Organization can be a game changer.

How do you see the relationship between headquarters and decentralized offices?

I'm new to the Organization and perhaps I'm naive. But I have a sense that we have a region that has been tremendously empowered through the decentralization process. I was involved in the external evaluation of FAO some time ago, and visited many country offices as a result. It was so obvious then that those offices lacked just about everything in terms of decision-making. That has really changed.
I think we now need to pay more attention the other way around - decentralized offices should be thinking about how they can better cooperate with headquarters.
Too often it seems we're involved in a tug of war - who gets the largest share or say - and that's not helping us to work as best we can. I really would like to see if we can improve the way we work together, country offices, regional offices and headquarters - altogether.
We have enormous capacity within the Latin America region - universities, think tanks, social movements, government agencies - and we need to bring them in, and not as consultants but as partners. We need to look at who is best at what and establish a framework of work where we tackle these things together - and that includes our sister agencies, like IFAD and WFP. The whole question of partnerships is crucial, I cannot emphasize this enough. That is the way to go. That is how we can deliver the added value that governments expect from us.

Tell us about the team in RLC

I live in Santiago and as soon as I was appointed my team was extremely generous and organized a whole load of interviews for me before my travel to Rome and my official start in Chile. I must say, now that I have also attended all the briefings here in headquarters and heard so many good things about the work being done in RLC, I feel extremely proud to be leading the team. Because it is a good team, we can do more and do better: We can play in the major league.

Free time?

I am an avid reader. I tend to read several books at the same time - I particularly enjoy Nordic thrillers. I also try to keep up with young Latin American writers. When I'm not reading I do a bit of exercise (I admit I'm not a huge fan but I try!) so I can contribute to reducing the statistics on obesity. And then I have a very large family (five children), all grown up and out of the house but still keeping up with them takes up a large part of any free time.