China Poised to Seek FAO Leadership Role in Quest to Increase Influence at UN

Beijing set to field a candidate to head the hunger-fighting agency, sources say
October 7, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

ROME—China is aiming to field a candidate to head the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to further increase its growing influence at the United Nations, diplomatic sources say, in a move that is sure to irritate the United States, which is the largest donor to the hunger-fighting U.N. agency.

Candidates to be the next director general of the FAO, succeeding Brazilian agronomist José Graziano da Silva, have until the end of February to throw their hats in the ring for the job at the Rome-based agency.

So far, the only country to field an official candidate to run the troubled agency is France. Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, the former head of the European Food Security Agency, is backed by the French agriculture ministry. Geslain-Lanéelle, 55, has the support of French President Emmanuel Macron, although both the International Monetary Fund and UNESCO are currently headed by French citizens.

If the U.N. rotation system is used, the top position this time should go to a person from Europe or from Asia.

Against the background of Asia’s credentials in the rotating spoils system and China’s ascendancy within the U.N., there is mounting speculation that France’s bid to run the sprawling FAO headquarters will be challenged by a Chinese candidate.

The most likely Chinese candidate has been identified by Western diplomats as Shenggen Fan, who has been director general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) since 2009. The Western diplomats based in Rome and Washington spoke on condition that they not be identified.

Fan joined IFPRI in 1995 as a research fellow, conducting extensive research on pro-poor development strategies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He led IFPRI’s program on public investment before becoming the director of the Institute’s Development Strategy and Governance Division in 2005.

Another possible candidate would be Ren Wang, a former assistant director general at the FAO since 2013 who previously was head of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for food security, the sources say.

There has been no European director general of the Rome-based FAO for over 40 years since Dutchman Addeke Hendrik Boerma held the title from 1968 to 1975. It also has never been led by a woman.

Delegates from the FAO’s 194 member states will hold an election for the next FAO director general in June 2019, ahead of the Aug. 31, 2019, expiry of Graziano’s second term.

In addition to the French and Chinese interest in the job, two people from India, Rakesh Muthoo and Manoj Juneja, are considering a run for the post, diplomatic sources say.

Candidates are expected to lobby David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Programme, because of his friendship with Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

“Since Haley is an Indian-American, you can rest assured that both Rakesh and Manoj will try to get to her personally,” a veteran FAO-watcher told the Insider.

Beijing’s expected shot at taking over the FAO follows increased Chinese activity in the U.N. in other areas, after decades of taking a back seat at the world body, diplomatic sources say.

China has increased its participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations and also has become more strident within U.N. forums in criticizing human-rights defenders and opposing financing for NGOs that promote defense of human rights, the sources say.