Representatives at the Food and Agriculture Organization vote this weekend to give the largest U.N. agency its first new chief in almost two decades _ an election that comes at a time of critically high food prices and malnutrition across the world.
Six candidates are vying for the top job at the Rome-based agency, but the vote Sunday is likely to come down to a battle between two men: a Brazilian who had a leading role in his country's campaign against poverty and hunger and a Spaniard who has served as his nation's top diplomat.
The new chief will succeed Jacques Diouf of Senegal, who was first elected in 1993, a long tenure that sparked reforms limiting the mandates of the director-general.
Any new chief will have a tough challenge trying to curb world hunger at a time when food prices remain high, putting the lives of millions at further risk and raising fears of a repeat of the high-price-driven social unrest of 2007-2008.
The FAO's food price index hit an all-time high in February. It has since decreased slightly, but experts warn the prices remain far too high for many poor communities. The agency put the number of hungry people in 2010 at 925 million, the overwhelming majority living in developing countries.
Aid agency Oxfam said the election of a new chief at FAO "must kick start a new era for the organization if it is to play a leading role in the fight against high and volatile food prices and growing hunger."
But the new leader will also be under pressure _ including from the agency's largest contributor, the United States _ to enact ongoing reforms to streamline the FAO's centralized bureaucracy, reduce its budget and better define its priorities.
"Only if we complete the reform process in a very real and vigorous manner will we eliminate the bureaucracy in FAO," said Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. ambassador to U.N. agencies in Rome. It's necessary "to ensure that the reforms are not simply a box-checking exercise for FAO but truly a transformative implementation program."
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Cousin declined to identify Washington's preferred candidate. But she singled out commitment to fiscal responsibility, a leaner budget and an effort to increase voluntary contributions at FAO as key factors. The U.S. has long advocated reform at the agency.
The FAO regular budget for 2010-2011 is US$1 billion. Voluntary contributions are expected to total $1.2 billion in the same period.
As the agency opened a weeklong conference Saturday, the candidates promised strong leadership and stressed the need to reform FAO, decentralize its operations and enhance its credibility at a time of financial crisis.
Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish diplomat seen as a front-runner, switched effortlessly between his native Spanish, English and French as he pointed out that he had traveled to 90 countries, including 35 in Africa, for his campaign. He vowed to speed up the reform process, commit to zero growth of the regular budget and promote public-private partnership programs.
Moratinos was Spain's foreign minister until 2010. According to his application for the job, he doubled Spain's amount of foreign aid for development from 2004 to 2010, a period in which Spain became the sixth largest donor to the U.N.'s development programs for poor countries.
His main rival is Brazil's Jose Graziano, who served as food security minister under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In that capacity, he helped implement the "Zero Hunger" initiative that helped dramatically decrease malnutrition among Brazil's 190 million people. More recently he served as a FAO official in Rome.
Graziano also promised to quickly deliver reform. He said FAO should give priority to Africa and play a central role in water resources management.
On Sunday, each of the agency's 191 member states will cast a vote secretly to elect the new director-general. Successive rounds of balloting will be held until a candidate reaches the half-plus-one majority required, progressively eliminating those with the fewest votes.
"A lot will depend on how many votes the Spanish candidate will manage to snatch among Latin American countries," said one observer with knowledge of the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because the balloting is secret.
One candidate seen as a potential threat to the pair is Indroyono Soesilo, a U.S.-educated Indonesian government official who has been working on issues of sustainable development, nutrition and poverty in his country.
"Since he's Asian he will have a good number of votes from Asian countries, and Indonesia being a Muslim country, he is expected to receive significant support for that reason," said the source. "He can be a serious challenger."
Franz Fischler of Austria, previously an EU agriculture commissioner, delivered stinging criticism of the agency's bureaucracy and inefficiency during his final campaign speech Saturday.
"I will eradicate patronage and favoritism," Fischler said. "I will turn FAO from an organization with great ambition and weak delivery to an organization with great ambition and great delivery."
The other two candidates are veteran Iranian diplomat Mohammad Saeed Noori Naeini and Abdul-Latif Jamal Rashid, a former water minister for Iraq.
The new director-general takes over at the beginning of 2012, remains in charge until July 31, 2015, and is only eligible for one additional four-year term. Diouf has been elected three times for six-year terms.
The FAO was founded in 1945 to raise nutritional standards and living conditions around the world. During the conference, the agency will also approve the 2012-2013 budget and discuss the state of global agriculture.