Director-General  QU Dongyu

Leading in Times of Crisis


The year 2020 is already synonymous with the word crisis. Or crises. Natural disasters, made more deadly by climate change, ravaged many parts of the globe. Pests ravaged crops and spread quickly across countries. And, just as the year was beginning, an outbreak of a novel coronavirus, COVID-19, forced millions of people into quarantine and ground the global economy to a veritable halt. 

Early action, collaboration, and a people-centered approach marked FAO’s response to crises under the leadership of Director-General QU Dongyu.

Shortly after taking office, Director-General QU gave an idea of his approach to crises as he addressed in September a Special Conference on Peace and Stability in the Sahel Region. “First and foremost," he said "we need to respond to immediate emergencies and then focus on development." 


There was no crisis bigger in the past year than the COVID-19 pandemic. And swift was FAO’s response when the virus struck. The Organization leapt into action right away to begin its preparedness planning. For the new Director-General, safety and well-being of all employees and their families were his top priority. FAO’s emergency management team worked intensively since early February to discuss and devise measures to protect staff and ensure business continuity. When Italy, its host country, went into lockdown, FAO was ready with all the necessary plans in place. The Director-General held two town-hall meetings with employees, a first in FAO history. The first one, with Rome-based colleagues, took place when Italy was an early epic centre of the pandemic; and the second one with colleagues from around the globe as the pandemic ravaged on. A total of close to 7,000 people joined the meetings engaging directly with the Director-General.

The message from QU was clear: take good care to protect yourself. He reminded colleagues that it was not only a responsibility to oneself but to one’s family, friends and colleagues; and the best way one can contribute to the host community’s efforts to contain and defeat the virus.

Solidarity and collaboration with Italy, FAO’s host country, was close to his heart. At the start of the outbreak, volunteers from the Italian Red Cross were stationed at FAO Headquarters to take temperatures of all those entering the building and ensure that all health precautions were in place. As the country moved into lockdown, FAO adapted quickly, organizing everything to allow staff to continue their work safely from home without any disruptions to the Organization’s delivery of its mandate. While there are over 3,000 employees working at the headquarters, there has not been a single case of workplace infection to-date. 

While working to protect the safety and well-being of all employees, the Director-General also led FAO to respond immediately at the global level to help countries deal with the impact of the pandemic on food and agriculture, advocating for the right policies to help ensure food supply amid  lockdowns, and beyond. FAO’s message was very clear: there is enough food to feed everyone but we need the right policies in place to keep the food supply chains alive. The heads of the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization joined Director-General QU Dongyu in issuing a joint statement in late March calling for efforts to prevent a health crisis from becoming a food crisis. The Director-General reinforced this appeal in his address to the G20 Extraordinary Virtual Leaders’ Summit on COVID-19. 

Following up to the Summit, the Director-General worked with the G20 to organize a special session of agriculture ministers to discuss ways to minimize the impact of the pandemic on the food and agriculture sectors. On the eve of the meeting, the International Fund for Agriculture Development, the World Bank and World Food Programme joined FAO in issuing an appeal to the ministers.

 At the regional level, FAO worked with the African Union and its current chair, South Africa, to organize a meeting where over 40 African agriculture ministers came together to discuss how to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the continent’s food and agriculture sectors.

Over 50 policy briefs and other documents were published by the FAO to help promote evidence-based policy-making in response to the pandemic.  Meanwhile, FAO joined other UN organizations in launching a global humanitarian assistance programme helping the most vulnerable dealing with crises within crises. Close to 30 “hotspot” countries were identified for immediate assistance. 

By July, a comprehensive COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme was unveiled by the Director-General, enabling donors to leverage FAO’s convening power, real-time data, early warning systems and technical expertise to direct support where and when it is needed most. Initial investments of US$ 1.2 billion have been identified to provide an agile and coordinated global response to ensure nutritious food for all, both during and after the pandemic.

Fall Armyworm

A short four months into his tenure, the new Director-General launched in December 2019 the Global Action for Fall Armyworm Control, a three-year, multi-million dollar effort to scale-up efforts to curb the growing spread of the invasive pest, which had already caused serious damage to food production and livelihoods in many countries. Fall Armyworm, native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, has spread globally, causing significant damage to crops.

In collaboration with partners, FAO has developed knowledge products such as technical guidelines, videos, training and webinars to help implement the Global Action at country level. In the first six months of 2020, more than 3 500 fields had been scouted and nearly 3 400 traps checked and reported through the Fall Armyworm Monitoring and Early Warning System (FAMEWS) hosted by FAO.

"This is a global threat that requires a global perspective,” QU stressed. The initiative’s collaborative approach - leveraging partnerships to complement current FAO mechanisms as well as creating new cooperation channels - echoed the cultural change that QU was promoting internally at FAO. In this, as in other crises, QU stressed the importance of working together, listening to and learning from one another.

Desert Locusts

In January 2020, FAO warned that a desert locust invasion, worst in decades, was looming, as wet weather conditions allowed widespread breeding of the pest in East Africa, Southwest Asia and the area around the Red Sea. It called for immediate international efforts.

Designating the Desert Locust upsurge as one of its highest corporate priorities, FAO moved swiftly to support governments' response. Through its Desert Locust Information Service (DLIS), FAO used real-time data to closely monitor the global situation 24/7 and provided forecasts, early warning and alerts on the timing, scale and location of invasions and breeding. On the ground, FAO teams worked with governments and local authorities carrying out ground and aerial spraying operations, accompanied by public awareness efforts on safety.

The Director-General has taken the lead personally, briefing member countries and donors to drum up support. He also travelled to Pakistan to review the locusts situation on the ground.  Support has been pouring in from governments, international organizations, multilateral institutions and the private sector. 

Despite the additional challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic – movement of personnel, equipment and supplies were severely hampered – FAO made significant progresses working together with countries affected and other partners. An estimated 500 billion locusts have been killed to-date, saving crops that could feed several million people for a year.  

There are no doubts that more crises await us as we move forward. But as Director-General QU has said, working together with partners, FAO looks to help the world’s most vulnerable, prevent further crises, increase resilience to shocks, and accelerate the rebuilding and sustainable transformation of the food systems.    

See also: When we go together, we go further – working with partners to deliver