Interview transcript: Georgian candidate for the FAO DG

David Kirvalidze (Photo credit: CNFA)

ROME - David Kirvalidze told the Italian Insider Wednesday about his campaign to become the next Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). You can read our story about that here. Published below is the full interview transcript.

 Italian Insider: so why did Georgia decide it wanted to have a director general of the FAO?

 David Kirvalidze: It was not only Georgia, it was a joint decision with partners. The decision was made based on my qualifications, the possibility that we can change something here. And secondly, the real need to make changes and make them quickly. We are behind schedule. Because if we make all these targets, say for 2030, sustainable development goals, all development goals, with this speed, it will hard to make it. If it goes like this, I can tell you, I can bet you that in 2028 or 2029, somewhere in a nice place, there’s gonna be a big fancy meeting with all the leaders and they’re gonna set another target for 2045 or 2055. It’s an endless saga.

We know what the pain is of this, being hungry, because it’s not something I see from my office in Brussels. I’ve seen true hunger in my country, which went through disintegration and civil war and unrest. I myself, I faced hunger for a few years and I can tell you it was miserable. I was a PhD student lecturing students at university. My wage was one dollar per day. The UN poverty line is 1.25 per day. I didn’t have those 25 even, it was a sharp one. That drove me to farm. That’s how I became a farmer. Because there was no way to continue.

When people say that I am a person who considers agriculture from all possible angles, it’s because I wanted to be all possible observers from all possible angles. I went to farm because I faced hunger. The life of my family and many families in Georgia in that period was dependent on bread - starting at 4 yen, and bread was coming at 10 p.m., and the quality of bread was not even good enough to feed the cattle. There was no other option to eat.

So I went to farm. That was the best period in my life.

 When was that?

In 1996 I started farming. My father was still alive at that time and he was my professor. Also a soil scientist. He told me: “Now you understand.” I was so upset. I was 28-years-old, PhD, ambitious, but I had done a lot already in science. It was a very interesting period in my life. For four years, I got a very important lesson: not only economic, it was a good lesson in life – to learn what it means to work the crop with your hands, to be there, not to delegate to someone but to work on your own.

 What kind of changes would you like to make at the FAO?

First of all, I would like to make everything quicker – quick decisions. It matters for many reasons. First, when someone is asking for help, there is no luxury to sit and wait. People who decide to ask already feel humiliated. Without responding properly on time, you are just increasing [this]. You cannot always say yes, but even when you are supposed to say no, you should do so quickly. And every “no” must be followed by the provision of reasons why it’s not possible, and what we can do in this case.

I remember many times in my life, especially being a minister in a poor country or being a farmer, asking for help. And I remember everybody by name and by face who granted this to me, and I remember also everyone by name and face who ignored me or just told me, “Listen young man, leave your proposal here and my supervisor will call you in a month.” And nobody called. “Expect a call from us” [they would say] and you know, in that period, you don’t have a call phone, you are living next to the station waiting for the phone to call. It doesn’t ring. They have forgotten about you, but you still have a hope: maybe this is a good person and they will remember you. They don’t.  

I’ll tell you something that would change my life. A farmer needs everything: capital, supplies, tractors, machinery, infrastructure, irrigation, drainage, food safety, everything. We had nothing. We had a piece of land, and a concept. Then in 1995 the Dutch minister of finance, Gerrit Zalm came to Georgia with 25 or 26 Dutch businesses. One day in Georgia, one day in Armenia. They were considering opening embassies in the region. We managed to go and meet the minister. Don’t ask how, but we managed and we did a presentation.

I remember many in times in this sort of situation, visitors would say, “yeah, yeah, leave it with us.” But he sent people to check our fields: that was already a good sign. So they came back and said the fields were fantastic. It was a really unique area – soil, climate, populations, microzone. You could grow valuable soft-skin potatoes. So he signed a cheque for us for one million Dutch gilder. Can you imagine?

I also remember there were a few Soviet crocodiles left, attending the meeting. They said, “no, no, give us the money and we’ll distribute it. Zalm refused and gave it to the three of us directly.

So we started the project, we moved fast, we worked hard. We made a lot of money and created a lot of jobs. We transferred European technologies for the first time in the post-Soviet era – new warehouses, totally different tractors, totally different [ways of] cutting potatoes. And brand new varieties of potatoes. To be honest, that was the first time I understood there was a different variety [of potato] to be fried, to be boiled, to be used for starch, to extract alcohol.

I was wondering how I could repay him. He had told me if you want to change something, you have to do it yourself. So I entered parliament and a year later I was appointed Minister for Agriculture. He visited again in 2000 in his election campaign, meeting the heads of banks and the Georgian finance minister. Then I got a call from the Dutch embassy, saying, “Zalm wants to see your project.” I said “great, let’s go.” We went there, he saw it and he told me, “David, you repayed me. For me the most important thing is sustainability.” Most projects are not continuing after 5 years. He stayed and had a nice glass of Georgian wine and spent time with Georgian farmers.

That is a lesson about how you should make decisions: how easy and simply you can change the lives of many people. I believe 99 out of 100 won’t act like Zalm.

 So you think your chances of winning are good now, after India left the race.

I cannot tell you whether my chances have grown or lessened after they left. Chances of election are very unpredictable. I know that I’m doing everything I can. And I think what I think. I’m not hunting votes or [trying to] present things nicely. I’m telling people that it will be very hard: if I’m there, people will be working twice as much. But they’re gonna gain respect. Because that’s how I manage in all my offices – I have 25 worldwide – and also in my ministries. Everyone smiles in the morning, not because they must, but because they enjoy it. They feel like part of the family, engaging their fellow staff in decision making.

The professional side [should] be utilised way better. FAO professional staff have seen many director generals coming and going. But they’ve hardly been asked to lead. Normally they’re directed to follow, getting instructions from left and right. But they know what works and what does not.

In the first 100 days, I want to sit down with all the professional people at the FAO and go through this exercise. To make a real plan. Deliverable action. Engage the private sector, and to make that a top priority: to bring a pride to business, install a fellowship programme for education, to young leaders from developing countries, and in general to make everything quick. This is especially important in the agricultural sector, because we have seasonal work. If we delay a decision, we may miss the season: and missing the season by a month means you have to wait 11 months until the next year. The season is gone.

Meeting with many countries, talking to them, they like it. They like it that we should respect the sovereignty of all countries. No one in Rome knows better [than me] what is needed in [?], what is needed in Georgia, what is needed in the U.S. They should ask first, get professional feedback from the place, and respect the sovereignty of every country. Only that way can we deliver.

 Your English is very good. You worked in U.S. for a long time?

 I was first a Fulbright scholar in College Park, 2005 to 2006. I was writing a book – I’d just finished my first ministerial term – about the effectiveness of foreign aid to transition countries. I couldn’t finish it. I still remember all the places which I could not put a full stop on.

I was also a lecturer on agriculture policy. I had the role of this model for strategy, sustainable agriculture and rural development, for countries in transition. And I did presentations on different occasions.

After that, in 2006, I worked for CNFA [Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture, an NGO based in Washington] for six years. I was senior adviser to the president, John Costello, the great man, on new business development for this part of the world. I raised for the company up to 125 million dollars. In 2012 I went back to Georgia because I was appointed a minister for the second time, in 2013 I left again. In 2014 I was elected a board member [of CNFA], the only non-American board member. I enjoyed it very much. They had two former (U.S.] secretaries of agriculture, there was the former defence secretary Frank Carlucci, who just died last year, a member of congress John Cavanaugh, big American businesses.

So you see the future of agriculture in terms of the development of the private sector, above all?

The private sector drives. But it is not like the wild west. So the private sector drives and it is the job of the government to set the rules - the rules of the game. The private sector is always successful when you have the rules set, when it is predictable and it is fair. When no one is privileged due to some western interest…Well-set competitors and competition which gives success to the best products and services has a role. You are well aware about that, because your country [UK] was one of the first to open the door to international competition.

As soon as you start protecting something artificially, it dies. My friend used to joke: create a minister for tomatoes, and tomorrow you will have a problem with tomatoes.

What about genetically modified technologies. The French candidate was criticised because she said she supports their use in certain situations.

Why was she criticised, because of her support?

Yeah. Some people within the FAO thought that she would be less open to them.

What do you think, just your personal opinion on this?

I’m not an expert…

Do you eat [GMO crops]? Japanese food? Soy sauce? There is no soy sauce left that is not produced with GMO. I have not seen anybody whose nose has grown [long] after eating GMO. This is politics, this is not about GMO. I’ll explain why.

There are two large groups of countries, which either adopt or reject GMO. One says that it’s harmless, demonstrating their studies and research, saying “it’s alright.” The other group says, “no no no, here are the studies about humans, about rats, about monkeys, which says it gives you cancer.” We – Georgia is a small country – and many similar to us, countries without the financial and technical capacity to conduct our own trials and research into GMO, must look to these two giant [groups] fighting each other. One of them is lying. The only way to get to the truth is to get rid of the politics.

Nobody should impose on you that you must use GMO, nor that you should never do so. It’s your personal freedom to make a decision, your own decision. But you need evidence-based information. Many countries enjoy wide a wide diversity of crops, and they don’t need GMO. But others do not, they should be granted the free choice based on honest research, science-based evidence. Only then can they make a humble decision about this.

It became a cornerstone for debate. It shouldn’t be. As soon as political interest is detached from this topic – likewise any other technology – it moves smoothly and easily.

China has been trying to increase its presence in the UN worldwide, including trying to take control of specialised agencies like the FAO. Should people be concerned about the possibility of China running the FAO? Is that another reason why people should vote for you?

I’m not a magician, I can’t make this evaluation properly of the great minds who decided about [China’s] running for the FAO. I can tell you that if you want to be successful in the FAO, you must understand the need of developing countries. The voices of small countries must be delivered not only here in Rome, but in the upper levels of the UN. [You must] be their advocate.

It’s always up to member states to make a decision, to vote for one candidate or another. I can tell you one thing: Georgia is coming without any political agenda. Georgia does not create any kind of worldwide agenda in agriculture. Whenever you’re talking to Georgian candidate, you’re talking to them, not to a big power behind them. I think this is what the FAO needs.

Some people are concerned that Georgia has support from Russia, that you will be a Russian candidate.

I don’t know. They never expressed their support for my candidacy. But getting support from a country doesn’t mean you are their candidate. And not getting support from a country doesn’t mean you are not their candidate. If you are doing this position, there should be no difference between big and small countries. Everybody needs an individual approach.

What about the EU? Have they tried to persuade you to drop your candidature, from France?

There have been a few occasions – and not only from France. But like I said, everyone must respect the sovereign right of every country. In the fifth month of this race, we are not alone: we’re with our friends, with people who think a similar way. We’re talking about changes we want to bring, so I believe will resolve itself on Sunday and we will see how it goes.

We think we are with pretty good numbers. But again, it’s a close battle. As one ambassador told me, only he and God knows how he votes: not even his prime minister or president knows.

Has it been difficult during the campaign to get your message across? Were you surprised that the presentations by individual candidates at the FAO Council were not webcast?

I was asked, and I said that I am for open, broadcast. I really wanted the FAO staff to be able to listen to this. They must know what to expect, your opinion to judge. Unfortunately it was not there. Well…

And only two candidates went to Chatham House, including you?

Yes, that’s right.

So it seems some of them are afraid of presenting their positions.

[Mr Kirvalidze shrugs]

Some women working for FAO like the idea of the French candidate because she’s a woman, and they think she could help end the sexual harassment that everyone knows goes on at the FAO, since the beginning and [which] has flourished under the Latin American regime. Would you be tough on ending sexual harassment?

You are not supposed to be a man or a woman to end sexual harassment. You just need clear lines: you either want it or you don’t. This is something which could be promoted by man or a woman, and could be prevented by a man or a woman.

Lots of male leaders worldwide can take a lead in empowering women. In Georgia, we had a queen in the 12th century in the golden renaissance of Georgia and her title was “King.” We have a wide representation of women in the Georgian parliament and in executive power.

I believe we made it very clear to everyone concerned about this: we are very strong on sexual harassment…to make sure we’re preventing it. To make gender not just on paper – to make it inclusive, empowering women and young people in rural areas. It’s a very solid foundation for quick progress.

We shouldn’t leave all this as a declaration: we will be very active in increasing agritourism. We are all concerned with access to the market for small farmers. Agritourism means that you bring exports to their gates.

Georgie is smaller than 4 million, but 8 million tourists visit. Almost all of them want to visit the countryside. The first thing they ask is, What is the local product? The local delicacy? If you make sure your farmers, are meeting those demands, your export is there. Women and youths are engaged in this hospitality industry.

But you must make sure that the food safety is there. As soon as someone gets an upset stomach, with social media, everyone knows that place is not good. So this is very important for any tourist destination worldwide.

It’s about the market and sales. It’s also about engaging women and youths, and about creating jobs in farming in rural areas.

Of course, the FAO is only one of the food agencies in Rome. There is also IFAD and WFP. There have been some reports that the American administration wants to merge these, because it is wasteful to maintain lots of offices around the world.

I have never heard about this. But those three are very complementary.

The WFP arrives quickly and gives people immediate food help. The WFP is very good at this. But as soon as this is over – we’ve been through this, in Georgia, recovering from war – next people must recover their livelihoods. It is a good sign for a country when the WFP leaves. The FAO helps mainly with policy, with technical assistance. And IFAD can lend a big amount of money to your government to start particular projects.

Synchronising those three, having them in close cooperation, will bring success.

There have also been reports that Mr Graziano would like to retain a role at the FAO after the election, that he would like to remain at least a senior consultant. And maybe continue to help on day-to-day operations, which would be something which has never happened before. In the past, director generals have always left when they finished.

Look, if you work really hard – and you should word really hard – it is a health-damaging job. It’s like a sentence. That’s why it’s defined by a term. When you’re done with your term, you must leave. Everyone should leave. That’s how I see it.

I don’t know, most probably it’s up to the new director general whether they want to have an advisor or not…I firmly believe that if you serve, if you did work hard, you really want to go and rest.