In 1943, when the end of World War II was still far from predictable, some 44 governments came together in Hot Springs, Virginia, in the United States and committed themselves to creating an international organization in the field of food and agriculture. Its role and purpose were described with extraordinary eloquence and foresight in The Work of FAO, a report prepared in June 1945 on behalf of the United Nations Interim Commission on Food and Agriculture by a committee under the chairmanship of Frank L. McDougall of Australia. The vision articulated in this document is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago, as is evident from the extracts in the box on the preceding pages.
The report of the Interim Commission and the draft Constitution served as the main input for the first FAO Conference, held in Quebec City, Canada, which led to FAO being founded as a specialized agency of the United Nations on 16 October 1945. From its birth, it was agreed that FAO would be multidisciplinary, and "concerned with that large sector represented by the world's farms, forests, and fisheries, and by the needs of human beings for their products." The report also stressed that FAO was beginning its work in the context of a much wider international effort, as it would be associated with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, and would have "as working partners ... bodies concerned with the international problems of labor, credit, monetary stabilization, commerce and trade, health, education, and other matters vital to the welfare of nations."
The intervening six decades have witnessed remarkable changes, changes that have had a profound influence on FAO and the other organizations of the United Nations system. In the years immediately following World War II, much of the focus of international effort was on feeding the hungry and undernourished in Europe and Japan and on rebuilding the shattered infrastructure and cities of Europe. In this context the Marshall Plan was established, providing some US$13 billion for investment in basic infrastructure and enterprises to spearhead recovery, setting a precedent for large-scale international aid deliveries that was later successfully applied in Asia and, to a lesser extent, in Latin America, but not yet in Africa.
As the process of decolonization moved forward in the 1960s, an increasing number of newly independent nations emerged to become members of the United Nations (UN) and its agencies. With the withdrawal of the colonial powers, the UN system began to assume many of the responsibilities for the provision of financial and technical assistance sought by the new states as they took charge of their own affairs, building the institutions and infrastructure on which to base their future economic growth.
The UN system, including FAO and others in the original group of specialized agencies such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), grew rapidly in size in the 1960s and 1970s to respond to these new demands. Concomitant with this growth was the foundation of new entities within the system, including, in areas of relevance to FAO, the World Food Programme (WFP) in 1963, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in 1965, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972 and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in 1977, and, closely allied to the UN system, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in 1971. From the 1960s onwards, the World Bank and the Regional Development Banks progressively built up their portfolios in agriculture and rural development, and bilateral donors began to establish specialized ministries of development cooperation.
Some of the most profound changes have occurred over the past three decades. These have seen a redefinition in most countries of the role of the state, which has moved away from many areas of activity such as marketing of agricultural produce or farm inputs and managing agro-industries, to concentrate its efforts on the assurance of essential services and infrastructure and on the provision of legal, institutional and policy frameworks that open up opportunities for the emergence of non-state actors. During this short period the private sector has become an increasingly important player in national economies, often the major supplier of technologies, inputs services and markets for producers - a phenomenon that calls for new definitions of the respective roles of the private and public sectors in development.
Equally significant has been the growth of institutions within civil society, especially non-governmental organizations (NGOs), both national and international. Many were created to fill a gap between the state and the private sector and to respond to the wish of individual citizens to be able to contribute directly to the reduction of human suffering at times of emergency. As their resources have grown, their role has expanded to providing development assistance (with several having a much larger presence in developing countries than FAO) and particularly to becoming powerful advocates for a more just and equitable world.
FAO has had to respond to these changes taking place in the wider world and adapt its role while continuing to focus on the purposes for which it was founded. The Organization that came into being with 42 Members now has 188 and is expected to reach 190 on 1 January 2006, endowing it with a truly global reach. At this global level, FAO has brought nations together to agree on a range of crucial treaties, codes of conduct, conventions, standards and voluntary guidelines to ensure better stewardship of the world's shared resources such as plant genetic resources and marine fish, to reduce the dangers of trade in hazardous pesticides, to set uniform standards for foodstuffs that both protect consumers and facilitate trade, and to assure the right of people to have access to adequate and safe food.
FAO has on many occasions used its convening powers to bring its Members together to strengthen their joint resolve to address critical global issues. Most notably, it has convened, at the level of Heads of State and Government, the World Food Summit in 1996 and the World Food Summit: five years later in 2002. The 1996 Summit for the first time set a quantitative goal for hunger reduction, calling for the halving of the number of undernourished persons in the world by 2015 and setting out a blueprint, in the form of a Plan of Action, for achieving food security for all.
For many people, especially in the developing world and in countries in transition, however, FAO has been most visible for its practical development work and for its timely intervention during emergencies. FAO has played a fundamental role in many countries in inventorying their land, water, fisheries and forestry resources and in completing agricultural censuses that have provided the base for formulating development policies and strategies. Institution-building support by the Organization has been fundamental in establishing national government structures for the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors in many developing member countries, often from the moment of their birth as independent nations.
Many of the programmes for disseminating high-yielding varieties of crops and for the construction of the irrigation schemes that played such an important role in underpinning the Green Revolution were planned and implemented with the help of FAO's engineers and agronomists. The livelihoods of artisanal fishers throughout the developing world have been safeguarded by legislation governing fishing rights, drafted by FAO's lawyers. Large numbers of poor households have been empowered to manage fragile forest resources through community forestry programmes that have improved environmental sustainability, safeguarded water sources and strengthened household livelihoods. Millions of small-scale farmers have learned how to grow healthy and more profitable crops without undue dependence on hazardous pesticides, and farming communities struck by drought, hurricanes or floods have got back on their feet thanks to timely relief and rehabilitation interventions.
As FAO commemorates its 60th Anniversary, the Organization can therefore look back with satisfaction on its many achievements. One of the most remarkable success stories of the second half of the twentieth century is the contribution of the world's crop and livestock farmers, fishers and those whose livelihoods depend on forestry towards the expansion of the global economy and the uplifting of living standards, responding to the demands for food, fibre, shelter and woodfuel of a population that has tripled in number. Moreover, in this period, average per capita food intake increased by 23 percent and since 1960 the proportion of people living in hunger has been cut from 35 percent to 13 percent (in 2000-02). Expanded production has enabled commodity prices to fall, reducing costs to consumers. FAO can legitimately claim to have played its part, in line with its mandate, in these major accomplishments.
At the same time, the Organization and its Members have to admit to failing to attain FAO's founders' expectations in two highly critical areas:
first, over 800 million people, about 1 in 8 people on earth, are still not free of hunger; and
second, in responding to the explosion of demand, incalculable damage, some of it irreversible, has been done to the world's natural resources.
The central issues that FAO must address as the twenty-first century unfolds are, therefore, how to increase the effectiveness of its work with its Members towards eradicating hunger and poverty, and how to step up its contribution to meeting global needs for food and forest products without compromising the sustainability with which the earth's natural resources - its land, water, biodiversity, forests, fishing grounds - are used.
At the turn of the Millennium these concerns were taken up by the international community as a whole, and incorporated into the broader set of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that, taken together, define the immediate key objectives for countries and for the UN system at the outset of the twenty-first century, and set specific targets to be reached by 2015. On 13 September 2005, at the High-level Plenary Meeting of the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly (the 2005 World Summit), Heads of State and Government strongly reiterated their "determination to ensure the timely and full realization of the development goals and objectives agreed at the major United Nations conferences and summits, including those... that are described as the Millennium Development Goals, which have helped to galvanize efforts towards poverty eradication." Countries agreed to "Adopt, by 2006, and implement comprehensive national development strategies to achieve the internationally agreed development goals and objectives, including the Millennium Development Goals."