Building people’s resilience in the face of crises

An interview with Delphine Borione, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of France to FAO, WFP and IFAD.

© FIDA, Edward Echwalu

Delphine Borione, you are Ambassador, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. In Rome, you experienced first-hand the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic on the most fragile countries and populations. Can you now assess the extent and consequences of the pandemic?

The health crisis broke out in a context where world food security was already deteriorating. The recent report on global food crises confirms this trend since at least 2017. At the end of 2019, there were 135 million people in the world suffering from severe hunger (CPI 3 and above), more than 50% of whom were in Africa. The causes of this deterioration can be explained by structural factors such as political or economic instability, the effects of global warming, or one-off crises such as the locust crisis. With this new health crisis, the WFP forecasts that nearly 130 million additional people could be in a situation of acute food insecurity.

The complexity and scale of this crisis is based on the fact that it affects all food systems, affecting agricultural production and upstream sectors right down to the level of food demand. Disruptions in distribution chains and restrictions on the movement of labour have been the main risks of destabilizing food supply. Demand and income declines also experienced a significant shock, following a rise in the first weeks of the crisis followed by a sustained decline due to the drop in economic activity.

However, it is noticeable that, at least in the short term, food systems have shown relative resilience in the face of a sudden and systemic shock. The question now is how these systems will adapt in a context of a sustained economic downturn and changing consumption patterns.

The crisis will also have long-lasting consequences on the nutritional quality and diversity of populations, as the effects of declining incomes and economic activity are likely to encourage impoverishment of diets. The temporary cessation of collective catering services has also contributed to the deterioration of the nutritional diversity of the most vulnerable populations, especially children deprived of access to school meals, in a large number of countries, both developed and developing.

In the face of widespread containment, border closures and the interruption of air transport, emergency food aid to the populations of countries in crisis has been hampered. What has been the response of the World Food Programme and with what results to date?

In response to the crisis, the World Food Programme’s first objective has been to ensure the continuation of its ongoing operations by pre-positioning food stocks as close as possible to its beneficiaries in order to cope with any possible disruption of supply chains. The organization has also had to adapt the way it distributes its aid, for example by transforming its school feeding programmes into take-home rations, or by switching to bi-monthly distributions. In response to growing needs, the organization also works with governments to provide technical assistance in the implementation of social protection systems.

But this is only part of WFP’s response to the pandemic. As part of the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan for VIDOC-19, WFP provides the logistical basis for the global humanitarian and health response, to allow the smooth movement of cargo and staff. WFP has developed a global logistics network of 8 strategically positioned hubs (Accra, Addis Ababa, Dubai, Guangzhou, Johannesburg, Kuala Lumpur, Liege, Panama), which serve as focal points for the movement of cargo by air and sea. An air passenger service has also been established to cope with the suspension of commercial flights, as well as to allow for the medical evacuation of humanitarian personnel who fall ill with the coronavirus. These services are available to all international organizations, NGOs and diplomatic personnel.

To date, nearly 4,000 passengers from 140 organisations have been transported on 300 flights. In addition, more than 22,600 m³ of medical and humanitarian cargo has been transported to nearly 140 countries on behalf of some 40 organisations. WFP also carried out 17 medical evacuations of humanitarian personnel. The use of these services is steadily increasing, underlining their crucial importance in ensuring the continuity of humanitarian activities, including emergency food aid.

©Pont aérien du PAM, WFP.

In view of the exceptional difficulties encountered in getting humanitarian personnel and equipment such as masks, gloves, tests and respirators to many countries, an airlift of some thirty flights is being organized by the humanitarian NGOs of the Humanitarian Logistics Network and financed by the European Union with the support of France and several other States. For the NGOs, this initiative is complementary to the action of the WFP. What do we think about it in Rome?

I am delighted that this airlift initiative, led by France and French NGOs, has been successful. It is truly a fine example of partnership between the European Union, its Member States and the NGOs. This initiative was very well received in Rome, despite obviously some initial concerns which we immediately tried to allay by emphasising the search for complementarity and close coordination. The consultation we conducted with the WFP prior to the implementation of this initiative was useful in this respect.

However, the WFP very quickly realized that the European humanitarian air bridge, which was intended to offer a limited number of flights from Europe on a temporary basis to meet very important needs that were not sufficiently covered, was complementary to its logistical services. The WFP welcomed this initiative in view of the scale of the needs and the urgency of the situation and is now working closely with DG ECHO to ensure good coordination and complementarity between these services. This is an excellent example of cooperation.

The United Nations recently stated that it has an immediate need for funding to extend the WFP airlift beyond the third week of July. Will the necessary funds be raised and what are the specific objectives of this new sequence in a new context?

WFP has estimated its needs at US$965 million to allow the entire humanitarian community access to logistics services until the end of 2020. To date, the organization has only received US$181 million, or 19% of the total amount, and this also includes cash advances made through WFP’s internal mechanisms. The WFP has alerted Member States to the impossibility, in the current state of funding, of continuing these logistical services beyond July, jeopardizing the continuity of humanitarian operations. It is therefore essential that more funds be raised, but we do not know today whether they will be raised in full and whether all the services can be maintained.

The additional funding will enable WFP to maintain all freight and passenger services by adapting to the geographical evolution of the pandemic, i.e. by strengthening its action in areas where VIDOC-19 disrupts supply chains, and conversely by terminating some routes where commercial connections have been restored.

Beyond the food emergency, how has agricultural activity in fragile countries been affected and how do you assess its impact in the medium and longer term? What measures and means have been taken by FAO and IFAD to help countries cope with this over the long term?

In the medium term, the containment measures will have significant effects on the level of activity and the income of producers. The decline in market opportunities and the loss of remittance income by migrant workers are sources of fragility in the livelihoods of rural communities, aggravating their situation of vulnerability.

In the longer term, there is a risk of a lasting destabilisation of production systems, through the difficulties of small producers to access imported inputs and seeds, a drop in productive investments and even the sale of production goods to meet household food needs. This destabilization could generate food insecurity, including in the usual agricultural production basins.

Since the beginning of the crisis, FAO has called on all states to keep trade borders open in order to avoid barriers to trade. It has mobilized all its capacities to assess the impact of the pandemic on food and agriculture. It is making available guidance and policy support materials to respond to the crisis. It is also collecting and making available up-to-date information on production levels and trade in agricultural commodities, to help countries ensure continued supplies.

For its part, the International Fund for Agricultural Development has taken the initiative to create a Rural Poverty Recovery Facility, which aims to provide enhanced support to beneficiaries of IFAD-funded projects, mitigate the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic in rural areas and contribute to the early recovery of countries. More specifically, the facility finances: (1) the provision of inputs to avoid disruptions in production; (2) facilitating access to markets to help smallholders sell their products; (3) cash transfers to small producers to ensure that they have sufficient liquidity; and (4) the provision of agricultural information through digital services. IFAD hopes to raise between USD 200 and 250 million through this new mechanism, which will help mitigate the medium-term effects of the pandemic. Longer-term efforts are currently being outlined through the discussions taking place in the context of the twelfth replenishment of the Fund, which will take place throughout 2020.


After the health crisis, we now fear an economic and social crisis which could also become political. What can and must the three international organisations with which you represent France do?

As multilateral organizations of the United Nations system, the three Rome-based organizations are primarily responsible for maintaining a constructive political dialogue between all Member States. The global nature of the crisis must lead us to multilateral and coordinated action at the international level, and this is an important opportunity to recall the legitimacy of the United Nations system to respond to crises of this magnitude.

At the same time, the Roman institutions are strongly committed alongside Governments to limit the socio-economic impacts of the crisis and thus avoid possible political tensions and violence. The crisis is particularly affecting the most vulnerable populations, who spend a large part of their income on food purchases. An example of the concrete impact of the Roman organizations’ action are the social protection systems, which make it possible to preserve the productive fabric by avoiding the use of short-term adaptation strategies, i.e. the sale by households of their productive capital, which would jeopardize their livelihoods in the post-crisis period.

This crisis is not about the food dependency of countries where a large part of the population is made up of farmers and herders. Shouldn’t we support them to become more resilient and to better assume their food independence for the security of their populations?

The issue of food dependency is indeed a risk factor that should lead us to seek more sustainable and resilient models of agricultural development, especially when we know that it is rural populations that are the most vulnerable to declining incomes. A recent FAO report shows an increase in food aid needs in June and lists 44 countries in a situation of food dependency.

This issue of resilience is a priority for France, and has been for a long time: we insist on the need to strengthen the resilience of populations in the face of these multiple crises and to propose responses based on sustainability in economic, social and environmental terms. These are themes that were part of the conclusions of the CICID in 2018 and of France’s International Strategy on Food Security, Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture adopted in 2019, and I have defended them a great deal in Rome all these years. It is essential to support family farming and small producers, on whom the vast majority of agricultural production in many developing countries depends. Among these producers, women and young workers are both essential and more vulnerable links in these food systems.

Among the positions that I actively defend in the Roman organisations FAO, WFP and IFAD is to encourage practices that both strengthen the environmental sustainability of production and allow for better quality and quantity production. Practices such as agro-ecology offer the advantage of relying on local labour, promoting crop diversity while reducing dependence on imported inputs and the drain on natural resources. Reducing crop losses and food wastage is also a key issue that is becoming increasingly important in work on food systems.

As Ambassador to these organizations, can you explain to our readers what your work with these organizations consists of and what is the added value?

My role at the head of the Permanent Representation of France to FAO, WFP, IFAD (and which also monitors the Committee on World Food Security – CFS), is to ensure good cooperation between French actors and these institutions so that they can best fulfil their mandate and respond to needs. In concrete terms, this means keeping the French authorities informed about the functioning and developments of these institutions, representing France in their governance bodies, promoting French and European positions and major strategic priorities, monitoring French financial contributions, and developing cooperation projects and partnerships with French research. We also have a role to play in defending the French-speaking world and supporting the French people working in these agencies. We can advise French companies in their relations with these organizations. In short, we play a role of advocacy, of facilitator, of transmission belt between French actors and these institutions.

To conclude, what is the final word?

The covid-19 pandemic has shaken the world, sparing no country, and has exposed the many flaws in our systems, particularly food systems. This crisis has given high visibility to the challenges of agricultural production and food security, unprecedented since the food crises since 2008. The brutal revelation of these flaws has fuelled reflection and discussions between States and their citizens on the future of our food production and consumption. Here in Rome we were at the forefront of our work with the Roman institutions. The crisis has also brought to light how far we are from achieving the sustainable development goals we have collectively set for ourselves.

In this respect, the UN Summit on Food Systems, which will take place in the autumn of 2021, is a unique opportunity. Convened by the UN Secretary General, this Summit is part of the Decade of Action for the Achievement of the 2030 Agenda and aims to catalyze efforts to make food systems more inclusive, equitable and sustainable. This event will be both an action-oriented “Summit of Solutions” and a “People’s Summit” where everyone must participate (States, civil society, businesses, producer associations, etc.). It should be an opportunity to create a strong political impetus for a transformation of our food systems, taking into account the fragilities revealed by the pandemic, and to bring solutions for more sustainable and resilient systems.

France is committed to bringing its priorities such as family farming, agro-ecology, the resilience of food systems, the “One health” approach, territorial approaches and the employment of women and young people in rural areas to the fore. We are very directly involved in the organization of the Summit, since France has been appointed to the Consultative Committee, which will provide strategic guidance on the vision, development and implementation of the Summit.

Delphine Borione

A career diplomat who has held numerous positions in the fields of sustainable development and economic, cultural and educational cooperation, Delphine Borione is Ambassador, Permanent Representative of France to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), WFP (World Food Programme) and IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development).

She was also France’s first ambassador to Kosovo, technical advisor to Jacques Chirac at the Elysée Palace, director of cultural policy and French language at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Secretary General of the Union for the Mediterranean.

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