What it is, what it does

An Introduction to FAO

The Organization was founded in October 1945 with a mandate to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living, to improve agricultural productivity, and to better the condition of rural populations.

Today, FAO is the largest autonomous agency within the United Nations system with 169 Member Nations plus Puerto Rico (Associate Member) and the EEC (Member Organization) and more than 2 000 professional staff. The Organization's 1994-95 biennia l budget is set at $673.1 million and FAO-assisted projects attract more than $2 150 million per year from donor agencies and governments for investment in agricultural and rural development projects .

Since its inception, FAO has worked to alleviate poverty and hunger by promoting agricultural development, improved nutrition and the pursuit of food security - the access of all people at all times to the food they need for an active and healt hy life. The Organization offers direct development assistance, collects, analyses and disseminates information, provides policy and planning advice to governments and acts as an international forum for debate on food and agriculture issues.

FAO is active in land and water development, plant and animal production, forestry, fisheries, economic and social policy, investment, nutrition, food standards and commodities and trade. It also plays a major role in dealing with food and agri cultural emergencies.

A specific priority of the Organization is encouraging sustainable agriculture and rural development, a long-term strategy for the conservation and management of natural resources. It aims to meet the needs of both present and future generation s through programmes that do not degrade the environment and are technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.

Development Assistance

Sustainable agriculture and rural development provides an essential foundation for improving the nutrition, food security and standard of living of millions of people living in developing countries.

In addition to ensuring adequate food, it creates employment and generates income through farming, processing and distribution sectors and contributes to overall national development. FAO promotes development that provides long-term solutions to the fundamental problems of poverty and hunger.

In promoting sustainable agricultural development, FAO gives practical help to developing countries through a wide range of technical assistance projects. The Organization encourages an integrated approach, with environmental, social and econom ic considerations included in the formulation of development projects. In some areas, for example, particular combinations of crops can improve agricultural productivity, provide a source of fuelwood for local villagers, improve soil fertility and reduce the impact of erosion. By encouraging people's participation, FAO aims to draw on local expertise and ensure a cooperative approach to development. In doing so, it brings new skills, ideas and technologies to rural communities.

On average, FAO has some 2 500 field projects operating at any one time. They range from integrated land management projects to policy and planning advice for governments in areas as diverse as forestry programmes and marketing strategies. The Organization usually takes one of three roles: implementing its own programme; executing a programme on behalf of other agencies and international donors; or providing advice and management assistance to national projects. FAO's Investment Centre a ssists developing countries in formulating investment projects in agricultural and rural development. During 1993, FAO-assisted investment projects were worth some $2 126 million.


Knowledge is a vital tool for development. Scientific and technological advances have brought unprecedented changes to every field of human endeavour - including agriculture and food production.

In addition to encouraging the direct transfer of skills and technology through field projects, FAO undertakes a variety of information and support services. Computer databases are maintained on topics ranging from fish marketing information to trade and production statistics and records of current agricultural research. The Organization's GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION SYSTEM provides data on soils, vegetation cover and other aspects of land use. Satellite imagery is among the many tools used by the GLOBAL INFORMATION AND EARLY WARNING SYSTEM to monitor conditions affecting food production and to alert governments and donors to any potential threats. The information gathered by the Organization is made available through publications, vide os, filmstrips and computer disks.

FAO's information activities also include grassroots communication programmes that reach rural people directly, encouraging community awareness and action on agricultural and environmental issues. Public information campaigns address major issu es at a broader level.

Advice to Governments

Agriculture is one of the foundations of national development. It helps feed a nation's population, provides employment and income and can prove a crucial source of foreign exchange earnings.

FAO works with governments to promote agricultural and rural development and to foster international cooperation on issues such as food standards, fair trade, environmental management and the conservation of genetic resources.

Drawing on its sophisticated information networks and on the skills of its technical staff, FAO is able to give independent advice on agricultural policy and planning, on the administrative and legal structures needed for development and on way s of ensuring that national strategies are directed towards rural development and the alleviation of poverty. FAO has Country Representatives covering more than 100 developing countries, providing a direct link to the Organization's resources. FAO also sends missions, often in conjunction with other agencies, to assess resources, offer advice on management strategies, review development programmes and assist in dealing with emergencies.

FAO's mediation at the international level has resulted in a number of intergovernmental agreements, such as the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources and the World Soil Charter. The Organization works to improve regional coordin ation, particularly in the management of shared resources - supporting the Amazonian Cooperation Treaty, for example. Through TCDC, the Organization's programme for technical cooperation among developing countries, FAO identifies opportunities for countries to share expertise and technical resources.

Neutral Forum

International cooperation is essential for meeting global, regional and national development goals. Shared resources and responsibilities require coordinated management strategies.

FAO's role as a neutral forum is closely tied to its work as an adviser to governments. Five specialist committees - on commodities, fisheries, forestry, agriculture and world food security - advise the FAO interim governing body, the Council, o n current trends and suggest practical management strategies in their fields of expertise.

The Council, in turn, reports to the FAO Conference, the Organization's supreme governing body. Through the Conference, Member Nations contribute to debate and participate in policy formulation of major food and agriculture issues. Member Natio ns meeting at the Council commit themselves to supporting developmental initiatives, such as the World Food Security Compact and the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides.

FAO convenes top-level international conferences covering areas of particular concern. In the past, conferences have included the World Food Conference, the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development and the World Conference on F isheries Development and Management. The Organization also hosts regular technical meetings on topics ranging from specific commodities to biodiversity.

Focusing on nutrition, FAO joined with the World Health Organization in setting up the December 1992 International Conference on Nutrition to re-awaken global awareness of the most basic human needs and to ensure that all people have access to the food they need for a healthy, productive life.

Structure and Finances

FAO is governed by the Conference of Member Nations, which meets every two years to review the work carried out by the organization and approve a Programme of Work and Budget for the next biennium.

The Conference elects a Council of 49 Member Nations to act as an interim governing body. Members serve three-year, rotating terms. The Conference also elects a Director-General to head the agency. The current Director-General, Jacques Diouf, be gan a six-year term in January 1994.

In a restructuring proposal approved at a special session of the Council in June, 1994, FAO is to be divided into eight departments: Administration and Finance, General Affairs and Information, Economic and Social Policy, Technical Cooperation, Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry and Sustainable Development.

The Organization's work falls into two categories. The Regular Programme covers internal operations, including the maintenance of the highly qualified staff who provide support for field work, advise governments on policy and planning and servi ce a wide range of development needs. It is financed by Member Nations, who contribute according to levels set by the Conference.

The Field Programme implements FAO's development strategies and provides assistance to governments and rural communities. Projects are usually undertaken in cooperation with national governments and other agencies. Nearly half of Field Programm e finances come from national trust funds and 30 percent is provided by the United Nations Development Fund. FAO contributes about 10 percent - drawn from the Regular Programme budget - through its Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP).

Last Update: 8 June 1995