Director-General  QU Dongyu

A People-Centred New FAO


At a recent meeting, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu declared that he was “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  To all those working at FAO, invoking the phrase summed up the new boss they have come to know over the past twelve months.

Everyone recalls the arrival of the newly-elected Director-General from China, but in August 2019, no one really knew what to expect.

The new "DG" - as he's most often called -  turned up at almost everyone’s desk,  spending his first three work days walking every floor of the FAO complex, shaking hands and talking with staff: from economists to security guards; from workers in the nursery to veterinarians.

It was a first in the FAO’s 74 years of history - and Director-General QU sent a clear signal that the FAO would not be the same under his stewardship.

FAO would become people-centred and the new Director-General himself would remain people-focused - regularly taking lunch, for example, in the staff cafeteria, joining colleagues at tables, exchanging ideas and always listening to them.

Recognizing that empowering staff and investing in youth would be crucial to creating a dynamic and innovative FAO, the new DG established FAO’s first ever Youth Committee in September 2019, just a month after taking office.  “Young people are our future,” he said at the time. “If any country or organization doesn’t care for their young people, they will not have a bright future.” 

The volunteer-based Youth Committee is made up of FAO colleagues from offices around the world and draws upon a broad cross-section of FAO’s expertise areas. Together, they devise programmes and initiatives such as Innovation Wednesday ("powered by FAO Youth") to encourage young FAO employees to exchange and discuss new ideas. "In the coming years, these young people will become the next leaders," Dr QU underlined. "The committee’s ethos will be inclusive, dynamic and paperless," he added.

True to his vision, the Director-General would later propose an innovative new scheme whereby promising young talents will be sent to FAO country offices around the world for several months to serve as Deputy Representatives to gain first-hand, solid, on-the-ground experience.   

He also brought together young employees to learn from the experience of FAO's retirees in the first-ever virtual event designed to promote inter-generational knowledge and inspiration exchange. Five retirees were invited to share their experiences at the online event attended by more than 400 current employees.

Another "FAO first" arrived a month later - in October 2019 - the creation of the Women’s Committee, bringing together woman colleagues from diverse backgrounds and experience from around the world. Through sharing and learning from each other, friendships were fostered and ideas incubated, placing women empowerment right at the centre of FAO.

The two Committees would later prove to be instrumental in bringing employees together and keeping people connected during the difficult months of lockdown and working from home as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world. 

The new Director-General put money, literally, where his mouth was. Right after assuming office, maternity leave for staff was extended and travel entitlements were put at the same levels as the rest of the UN system.

2019 ended at FAO with a celebration of 100 Outstanding Employees and 100 Best Young Employees.  However, that was not the end of the new Director-General’s people-centred initiatives.

When 2020 began, no one could have anticipated the tumultuous times ahead.

When COVID-19 struck, FAO’s crisis management team swung into action in early February. The mandate was clear: ensure staff health and safety and business continuity.  “Staff health and safety are my Number One priority,” the Director-General said on many occasions in the weeks that followed. That was his clear message when FAO Representatives in the 130 country offices joined other senior colleagues in the regional and sub-regional offices and at headquarters for an online meeting. It was the first time in the Organization’s history that all FAO representatives from around the world were together in one meeting. The sense of "togetherness" was remarked upon by one and all.

There were other “firsts” in FAO history - like the Joint Meeting of the Finance and Programme Committees, normally held behind closed doors, which was livestreamed on the intranet for all staff members to follow. And the DG himself participated and addressed the virtual assembly of the Union of Local and Non-local General Service Staff.

The online meeting of FAO Representatives was followed by yet another two “firsts” - Town Hall meetings between staff and the Director-General.

The first was with Rome-based colleagues, when Italy was the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 2,000 employees, representing two thirds of all staff based in Rome, joined online to listen and engage with the DG. “I care about the health and safety of you and your family,” Dr. QU told the gathered staff, “I am so happy to see you all here today looking well.” 

As the pandemic spread, and most of FAO’s global workforce started working from home, Dr QU called a second Town Hall meeting, this time for all colleagues around the world. Over 4,000 people joined the virtual event - across time zones and in spite of connection difficulties for many. Certainly, it was a gathering with a difference, as attested to by many during and after the meeting!

Seeing the many different faces on his computer screen, the Director-General commenced the meeting by inviting colleagues to greet each other in their mother-tongue. Hundreds of messages - in all kinds of scripts - flooded in.

The sense of "connection" was palpable.  “This is the first time in my more than five years with FAO that I have had the chance to engage in a discussion with senior FAO officials, and also with colleagues from around the globe,” said Tamara Palis-Duran, from FAO’s office in the Philippines.

After engaging with colleagues from around the world, Dr QU ended the session by urging everyone to make sure to take good care of oneself. “It is not only important for yourself. It is important for your family, friends and colleagues. And it is important for me.”

The term “FAO family” was often used during the pandemic lockdowns to describe how people were supporting each other. As many commented in the chat box during the Town Hall meetings and subsequently on the intranet, people sensed a changed culture at FAO, a new FAO that put its people first and centre stage.