It’s time to radically re-think how the UN confronts food insecurity

International organisations need to change their aim from merely reducing problems to actively seeking and supporting new solutions. That means finding new strategies.

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Many of today’s major global challenges have one thing in common: hunger. Too often, this goes unaddressed or under addressed, and is seen as a consequence, not a cause.

A recent report on climate change by the United Nations showed the inverse. The result is the unnecessary prolongation and proliferation of problems. Bringing these conflicts to an end requires radically rethinking how we confront food security.

Waiting until things get really bad severely limits our options; action must come earlier. Frequently we engage on malnutrition only when things are desperate. Too often, international aid is limited to only putting problems on pause. The international community needs to be more aggressive and anticipatory in moving out faster and helping vulnerable communities to find their future.

Some will argue it largely comes down to a question of means; I disagree. The main issue is that most international organisations remain stuck in a reactive and recipient mode. Change in these bodies is coming far too slowly. They are applying yesterday’s solutions to today’s challenges.

Without exception, they largely ignore the largest source of potential support: the private sector is too often left sitting on the sidelines as the world confronts crises. Their knowledge, networks, let alone vast resources, could play a major role in developing sustainable solutions to food insecurity.

The numbers speak for themselves. Since 1964, just $5bn of the $127bn raised by the Investment Centre at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) came from sources outside the international finance institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. It is time to break the cycle of developmental dependency on the public sector.

International organisations like the FAO must do a better job of convening and connecting businesses to emerging opportunities and needs (disclosure: I am a candidate to be the next director-general of the FAO).

Putting on an annual investment conference would be an easy way for them to start. It should also work with companies to provide training and internships for talented young leaders from the developing world. This can help to quickly and effectively overcome skills gaps in key areas.

It’s also time to start speaking more clearly. The United Nations system produces an extraordinary amount of reports. Few of them are read or utilised by the business community or even those outside of the bureaucracy. I believe these immense stockpiles of information need to be unleashed. We need to put these documents into language and a format that can more quickly and effectively be used to make investment decisions.

We also have to change the culture. The staff at many international organisations are regularly told only to follow, not lead, which creates a stifled culture of innovation. I believe we need to empower them to make more decisions. Part of this also is about generating greater accountability for delivering results. We need to stop accepting mediocre results for major crises.

As someone who worked as a potato farmer and later served as Minister of Agriculture of Georgia, I know personally the problems posed by the United Nations’ bureaucracy. International assistance programs often arrive too late to have a real impact. They remain too focused on the conditions at headquarters, rather than those in the field.

800 million people around the world go to bed hungry each night. This is not a distant distress for me: my family and I spent many similar nights hungry during the difficult days in Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union. There remains far too little urgency in addressing this issue once and for all.

How many times have we returned to the same countries and communities? We need to take a hard look at decades of international aid programs that temporarily furnished food, but failed to help those they served find a sustainable future. I believe it’s because their mission was too limited.

We need an international system that also helps seed new possibilities. Indeed, the ability to open opportunities is one of our most powerful weapons against extremist groups or authoritarian rulers. It is too rarely utilised; instead, we mostly end up just responding to the consequences of the crises they create.

International organisations must evolve and become more entrepreneurial. They need to move faster, be far more flexible, and find new partners. Most of all they need to reorient their strategies from merely reducing problems to ones that increasingly seek and support new solutions. It is an approach that will end up saving a lot of money and lives.

Dr. Kirvalidze was Minister of Agriculture of Georgia and is now a candidate to become the next Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization