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51. Linguistic and cultural diversity are essential features of international cooperation. The ability of FAO members and partners to express themselves and receive documents and publications in the Organization's official languages enhances their participation in FAO activities and the value they gain from it. The Programme and Finance Committees undertook a review of FAO language policy (documents PC 81/6 - FC 92/13) in May 1999. The Committees reaffirmed the principle of statutory parity of FAO languages, as outlined in the Constitution, while reiterating the need to maintain a pragmatic and flexible approach. They requested that reporting on programme implementation should in future include a section on progress in the use of languages within the Organization. The current section is included in response to this request. Given that insufficient time has passed for a progress report since the Committees' request, the following information is intended to provide a baseline against which future progress can be reported. The main areas of concern are meetings, publications, electronic material (the World Agricultural Information Centre -WAICENT and the FAO Internet site), terminology and human resource management.


52. Meetings are convened by the Director-General under various articles of the Constitution for:

During the biennium, 249 meetings were held for which interpretation and document translations were provided. Of these, 155 were meetings of statutory bodies.

53. Within the areas mentioned above, four categories have been defined:

Under any of the categories, meetings can be convened either for statutory bodies, if they have been established, or on an ad hoc basis. Chart 2.6 shows the languages used by category of meeting.

54. The pattern of meeting languages at Headquarters and by region is shown in Chart 2.7. English is the predominant language used in meetings held at Headquarters as well as in Asia and the Pacific and Europe. In Africa, French and English are nearly equally used. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the main languages are Spanish and English. In the Near East and North Africa, they are Arabic and English. When meetings are held in a single language, it tends to be English; this was the case in 94 of the 100 monolingual meetings held in 1998-99. English is generally included when other languages are used; only one multilingual meeting was held in 1998-99 that did not include English.

55. The proportion of meetings using a number of languages is shown in Chart 2.8. While five-language meetings represented only 9 percent of the meetings, interpretation provided for them constituted 52 percent of the interpretation workload, measured in interpreter days. Four-language meetings represented 8 percent of meetings and 18 percent of interpreter workload. Trilingual meetings accounted for 23 percent of meetings and 18 percent of interpreter workload and bilingual meetings 20 percent of meetings and 12 percent of interpreter workload. On average, five-language meetings required some 24 interpreters, four-language meetings 12 interpreters and three- and two-language meetings 5 and 3 interpreters respectively. Generally speaking, each additional language doubles the number of interpreters required for the meeting.

56. Chart 2.9 shows the translation of meeting documentation by language, measured in thousands of words. Inter-governmental meetings (Category 1) accounted for over 92 percent of the meeting documentation translated and technical sessions attended by experts (Category 2) for about 6 percent. French and Spanish translations were each about a third of the total words translated, followed by Arabic with 18 percent and Chinese with 16 percent.

57. A significant reduction in translator/reviser staff positions took place in 1996, with 34 abolished out of 55. This resulted from a policy change to encourage outsourcing and a planned decrease in the volume of publications and meetings, following the reduction in the overall budget of the Organization. During 1998-99, there were 18 translators on post covering all FAO official languages, a level of staff insufficient to cover translation needs for meetings without using external contractors. For inter-governmental meeting documents, about 65 percent of the work in French and Spanish is contracted to freelance translators, compared to about 30 percent in the past. Although well-qualified external translators are cost efficient and generally provide good linguistic quality, it has been found that consistency of technical terminology and correct use of FAO titles and expressions can best be assured by staff translators who are fully conversant with the Organization's culture and who are specialized in its fields of work.

58. Similarly, staff interpreters cover 15 percent of the current interpretation workload and are too few to provide even one full five-language interpretation team. Interpretation needs are mainly covered by freelance contractors. Although the arrangement provides flexibility, the very wide variety of contractors does not always assure consistent quality.


59. The language of a publication is usually determined by the publication category. The large majority of publications made available to member countries are priced publications (category P) and main documents (category M). Priced publications consist of printed texts which, by reason of their importance, permanent character or value to a widespread readership, are intended for publication in the five working languages of the Organization. For budgetary reasons, however, they may be issued in fewer languages, usually English, French and Spanish. Main documents are printed texts which are expected to be of a reasonably lasting nature. Some main documents are published simultaneously in the five languages but most tend to be published first in one language (usually English). The text is produced in other languages for which there is demand at a later date as resources permit.

60. As shown in Chart 2.10, English accounted for more than half of all priced publications and main documents produced in 1998-99. French accounted for 17 percent, Spanish 15 percent and Arabic 5 percent. Chinese language documents accounted for 9 percent of the total and were published both at Headquarters and in China, through the Chinese Publishing Programme. This programme is carried out in cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and has the advantage of the direct involvement of that country in the selection, publication and distribution of the documents to be translated.

61. Dissemination of priced publications and main documents to member countries is largely determined by the quota distribution system set by the FAO Conference. Free distribution of documents through this system can have significant cost implications. As a result, the quota distribution system was reviewed in 1998-99 and much lower requirements established, as shown in Table 2.10.



Old quota

New quota


Priced publications


Priced publications



2 742





2 276




















Electronic Material (WAICENT and the FAO Internet site)

62. The inclusion of languages in the FAO Internet site is complex, with technical solutions for languages other than English, French and Spanish still evolving. During 1998-99, WAICENT introduced a number of technical solutions to enable users to view and search Arabic and Chinese pages on the FAO Internet site and CD-ROM products. A system to allow users to select the language used on the FAO Internet site was implemented. WAICENT also initiated a phased implementation plan designed to ensure an appropriate language balance. This plan was based on a classification scheme for the different Internet pages and navigation tools. It assigned language requirements to Internet pages and menu items depending on their importance and permanence on the FAO site. Table 2.11 shows the classification scheme and the implementation achieved in relation to the long-term goals.

Table 2.11: Classification Scheme for FAO Web pages and Navigation Tools




Menus for navigation:

- FAO home page

- FAO information finder

- FAO document repository


English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

all FAO languages

Corporate databases:



English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese

all FAO languages

Major programmes:





- Special relief operations

- TeleFood

- Gender and food security

- Uruguay Round agreements

- Rural youth

- Desertification

- Small island developing states


English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

English, French, Spanish

English, French, Spanish

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

English, French, Spanish, Arabic

all FAO languages

Departmental pages

English, French, Spanish

all FAO languages

Divisional pages

English, French, Spanish

all FAO languages

Regional pages

English, French or Spanish as appropriate

languages of the region

Technical documents

English, French or Spanish as appropriate

same as print document



63. In order to standardize terms used in FAO documents and publications, an electronic terminology database, FAOTERM, has been developed. Accessed through the Internet, in 1998-99 it included over 50 000 terms in English, French and Spanish. A technical upgrade was initiated during the biennium in order to include Arabic and Chinese. An effort was made to identify and research Arabic terms during 1998-99, doubling the number of Arabic terms in electronic format to cover 42 percent of English terms, compared to 86 percent coverage for Spanish terms and 99 percent coverage for French terms. Research and identification of Chinese terms for inclusion in the database were also initiated.

Human Resource Management

64. Language is related to the overall requirements of a post. For many posts above P2, a minimum of two languages is required. Chart 2.11 shows that over 85 percent of the vacant posts advertised in 1998-99 required two languages, with 3 percent requiring three languages. In addition, 80 percent of posts requiring one language had a second language as a desirable qualification. Language proficiency is emphasized at the time of recruitment; upon confirmation of appointment, newly-recruited staff may be required to undergo a proficiency examination in the relevant official language(s) - English, French, Spanish, Arabic or Chinese. For many current staff, language proficiency has become an important criterion for promotion.

65. Approximately 25 percent of resources allocated to staff development are used to promote competence in a second or third language. Language training is organized by the Staff Development Group of the Personnel Division. In 1998-99, some 370 staff participated in courses. Nine training levels were available and staff participating in the three hours per week training sessions could expect to move from zero ability up to working knowledge in three and a half years.

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