Director-General  QU Dongyu

2020 in review: A new FAO that is more inclusive, transparent and digital

The UN Agency turned challenges into opportunities

©FAO/Alessia Pierdomenico


Director-General QU Dongyu at the World Food Day 2020/FAO75 Celebration featuring FAO's first-ever video mapping show displayed on Rome's Colosseum ©FAO/Alessia Pierdomenico.

27 December 2020, Rome – 2020 will go down in history as a uniquely challenging year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it will also be remembered as a year in which the Organization turned challenges into opportunities and took steady steps to become more transparent, inclusive and digital.

“The world has continued to change rapidly and much has happened inside FAO. The adjustments we have introduced have helped us to react better to the new normal, and strengthened our capacity to better serve our Members,” said the Director-General QU Dongyu to the last session of the FAO’s governing Council in 2020 (30 November – 4 December), when he presented a comprehensive overview of the measures implemented and results achieved this year.

FAO Reform

Over the last months, Qu has spared no efforts to make FAO more efficient, open, dynamic and results-oriented. For that, with the approval of Members, he has reformed the UN agency, introducing a new organizational structure and modus operandi at headquarters.

Based on a systematic analysis of FAO’s work and mandate, as well as its historical evolution and technical expertise, the Director-General has established a flat, modular structure, streamlined departmental functions, optimized coordination and cooperation among FAO teams, and introduced clear accountability mechanisms.

For the first time since its establishment 75 years ago, FAO has now a Core Leadership Team, which includes the Director-General himself, the three Deputy Directors-General, the Chief Economist, the Chief Scientist and the Directeur de Cabinet, opening a new era of collective leadership in the Organization.

The new organizational structure also divides FAO units into Offices, Centres and Divisions. Offices play a cross-cutting function; Centres have a strong collaboration function with other UN agencies or with International Financing Institutions; and Divisions house the specific expertise of FAO or provide operational/logistical support. Each unit has also a dual reporting line to the core leadership members.

“These adjustments are to improve the Organization’s efficiency and effectiveness while avoiding silos and establishing transparency and accountability at the optimal levels. It is a modular management with some flexibility. It allows for optimal cross-sectoral collaboration and enables adjustments to managerial assignments to respond to emerging needs and priorities in coming months,” said the Director-General to the Members of the FAO Programme and Finance Committees in June.


©FAO ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Left: Virtual Opening of the FAO Council’s 165th Session. First Plenary Meeting. ©FAO;
Right: A FAO Core Leadership Brainstorming Session in September 2020. ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano.


Transparent and inclusive consultations with Members

Under the leadership of Qu, FAO’s work has also been based on the principles of inclusiveness, transparency, proactiveness and timeliness, particularly to support Members to implement the 2030 Agenda and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It is in this context that FAO Management and Members have been discussing the outline of the Strategic Framework 2022-2031. The document, which will be submitted to the FAO Conference in the summer of 2021, is being developed through an inclusive and transparent ongoing consultation process, which has already included discussions in the FAO Regional Conferences, technical committees, Programme and Finance Committees, the Council, as well as informal consultations with Members.

"Our aim is to have a document that is embraced by all Members and that allows FAO to provide maximum support in achieving the SDGs at country level," said the Director-General in one of those consultations.

In fact, the outlined framework uses key SDGs and their indicators, with focus on SDG 1 (No poverty), SDG 2 (No hunger) and SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities) around the Four Betters: better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life. It puts at its centre the strategic narrative of Leaving No One Behind through sustainable, inclusive and resilient agrifood systems.

Strengthening partnerships is also a key aspect of the proposed Strategic Framework, and Qu has called on Members and the international community to innovate their thinking models and working methods. In particular, he has encouraged enhanced cooperation with the private sector, aimed at exploring ways for the private sector to contribute to achieving the SDGs.

“To start a dialogue with the private sector and build trust, it is necessary to effectively manage risks through a completely transparent manner,” said the Director-General.

It was exactly through a transparent and inclusive process that Management and Members developed FAO’s new Strategy for Private Sector Engagement 2021-2025, which was approved by the FAO Council in December.

"A closer and improved engagement with the private sector is one of my top priorities, and this strategy is very important for the way forward," Qu added, noting that the contribution of the private sector is important not only in terms of investments but also innovation.

With the new strategy, FAO aims to engage with the private sector to support and scale up innovation, promote investments, mobilize scientific expertise and generate data for SDG monitoring, based on shared resources, networks, knowledge and technologies.

Digital FAO

Creating a digital FAO was one of the main campaign promises of Qu when running for the post of Director-General. The emergence of the new coronavirus accelerated this process. Since the beginning of the pandemic, FAO has taken measures to turn the crisis into an opportunity to embrace the digital world.

In the first days of the crisis, the Director-General, driven by technology and taking employee safety as his top priority, decided that all FAO meetings would be virtual and encouraged employees to work from home.

This paved the way for an increasing connectiveness among FAO employees that seemed impossible before.

In April, for the first time in FAO’s history, a virtual meeting gathered all the Organization’s Country Representatives (FAORs) around the world. FAO has more than 130 country offices.

This was followed by a virtual town hall meeting with more than 2 000 FAO employees based at headquarters in Rome. In June, a virtual town hall meeting was held with a record-breaking 4 300 FAO employees that work around the world.

And just some days ago, on 17 December, some 1 500 people from around the world joined the virtually held FAO Employee Recognition Awards 2020, which recognized 10 teams and 200 employees across the UN agency for achievements in the areas of innovation; knowledge-sharing; operational effectiveness and efficiency; teamwork and collaboration; as well as diversity and inclusiveness. The event was moderated live by FAO employees from Rome, Bangkok, Budapest, Cairo, Juba, Montreal, and Santiago.

"Together we can accomplish the thinkable and the unthinkable!" said the Director-General during the event.

Virtual meetings have also narrowed the distance between FAO and its Members in a more modern, transparent and inclusive way. FAO provided interpretation in all the six official languages to online meetings early in the lockdown, showcasing procedures that can be applied by the  entire UN system.   

In 2020, the five Regional Conferences were all held in virtual format, which was also a historic first for FAO. The heads of government and ministers attending the conferences hit a record high. The virtual modality allowed for more interaction and elevated levels of discussions.

“One of my first priorities as Director-General was to transform the Regional Conferences from largely formal, stand-alone events, into dynamic and efficient platforms for policy setting; capturing feedback from all involved I am happy to say that we achieved this in 2020, as the Regional Conferences were a success,” said Qu.

FAO’s digitalization was also applied to products and processes, such as the improvement and revamp of the entire FAO website's functionality, content and look, to serve as platform to support Members, partners and farmers. This also includes the launch of digital public goods such as the Hand-in-Hand Geospatial Platform and the Earth Map, as well as the ongoing development of the International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture.

Furthermore, FAO has created an FAO Digital Portfolio, a global catalogue of more than 250 FAO digital products that support the work of the Organization in the field and empower its digital technologies.

The Digital Service Portfolio, a cloud-based platform, has also been established to offer information and advisory messages to the farmers in the field and connect governments directly to farmers.

FAO’s E-Agriculture Community of Practice has now about 18 000 Members. This global platform offers capacity development activities, shares updated information and collects best practices in digital agriculture.

"Today, we are proud to say that FAO's Virtual and Digital Workplace is a reality", said the Director-General. "We will continue to spearhead the holistic concept of a digital organization within the UN family, being well ahead of the curve," he added.




Farmers in Somalia queue at a registration point to receive assistance during the cropping season. Over 350,000 households, comprising more than 2.1 million people, have registered on the Mobile Money Platform, while 240 000 Somalis are receiving e-vouchers via SMS to get seeds and farming equipment. ©FAO

FAO’s 75th anniversary and World Food Day

Another digital highlight in 2020 was the virtual celebration of FAO’s 75th anniversary and World Food Day, with the participation of Pope Francis; Italy's President Sergio Mattarella; Lesotho's King Letsie III; Spain's Queen Letizia Ortiz and UN's Secretary General António Guterres. FAO’s 75th anniversary was also marked through an innovative video mapping and light projection show on the FAO headquarters building and the Colosseum.

The first-ever virtual World Food Day celebration in Rome was followed by 76 000 participants via Zoom, webcast or live streaming on social media. In addition, over 860 000 users viewed World Food Day content on FAO web pages and the FAO messages reached over 1.5 billion accounts on social media.

“We are coming to the end of 2020 that I had declared FAO’s Year of Efficiency. We can proudly look back at an unprecedented transformative process internally and a widely recognized leading role externally,” said Qu to the Council.