Gilbert Houngbo: “I want to focus on the poor”

Gilbert Foussoun Houngbo took charge of the presidency of the International Fund for Agricultural Development — IFAD, on April 1st, 2017. With just a few months in the organization, Houngbo already has his goals in mind. “I want to ensure IFAD’s focus on the poorest countries. And we put special emphasis on the most marginalized groups, such as women and young people”, he says.

Born in rural area of Togo, Gilbert has always relied on his parents efforts to get a good education. Today, at the age of 56, he holds a Master's Degree in Business Management from the University of Lomé in Togo and a Diploma in Advanced Studies in Specialized Accounting from the University of Quebec in Canada.

From 1996 to 2008, he worked in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Between 2008 and 2012, he served as Prime Minister of his country. In 2013, he worked at the International Labor Organization (ILO) as deputy director-general.

With over 30 years working to promote better living in vulnerable regions of the world, Gilbert now uses his expertise in diplomacy, financial management and international development to guide IFAD. In an interview for ATLANTICO magazine, he talks about his mandate and the expectations for the institution’s future and the pioneering Brazilian experience in agriculture and how this legacy inspires other nations.

ATLANTICO — What will be your main priorities during your first term of office?

GILBERT HOUNGBO — My priority is to scale up IFAD’s programme of work and IFAD’s impact on reducing poverty — particularly extreme poverty — through support for agriculture and non-farming activities. Poverty and hunger are concentrated in rural areas. Smallholder farmers are key to achieving global food security, but they face a wide spectrum of challenges, from lack of infrastructure and access to markets and finance, to impacts of climate change and insecure rights to land and other resources. I would like to make sure that we increase access to finance for smallholders, help them address productivity challenges, encourage climate-smart agriculture, and improve their access to markets. I want to ensure that IFAD maintains its focus on the poorest countries, and we put particular emphasis on the most marginalized groups such as women and youth. I will also focus on broadening the resource base of IFAD, and working with the private sector to enable smallholders to increase productivity, gain access to technology and information, and improve their livelihoods. We are aligning our business model with these goals and to increase IFAD’s impact on the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the eradication of hunger and poverty. There are so many demands on development resources today, from humanitarian crises to security challenges to the environment. The fear is that agriculture and long-term development might suffer, though we know the need for food is increasing every year. So we also have to make sure that agriculture and rural development remain high on the global agenda.

ATLANTICO — Does the fact that you are from the countryside contribute, in any way, to your activities as an executive? In which manner did your personal experiences inspire you to become a key person to the development of agriculture in poor regions?

GILBERT HOUNGBO —As a child,I quickly understood the link between the ability of my parents to pay for my education and food production. It was clear that when the season was good, when the yam and cotton production was higher, my parents would make more money and could provide what I needed to remain in school. I also saw that my parents were ahead of others because they were completely focused on food production. When times were hard, other people would leave their farms and look for quick riches that weren’t guaranteed. From my parents I saw the impact of being resilient, of persevering when facing a difficult situation, and not giving up on your dreams. When I was growing up the population of my village was about 2,000 but there was no secondary school. So at 11 years old, I moved 250 kilometers away from my parents to the capital to finish school. It is an adventure that I am very glad to have had, but it was difficult. It helped build my character and gave me a sense of purpose at an early age. From this I learned that we have to work in a way that not only focuses on food security and nutrition, but we also need to connect our work to other dimensions of human development — such as education, health, security, freedom and human rights.

“So we also have to make sure that agriculture and rural development remain high on the global agenda”

ATLANTICO — How IFAD can act, objectively? Financing projects?

GILBERT HOUNGBO — IFAD is a financial institution, so the fact that I have a financial background is a plus, but it is not a must. What you need, first and foremost, as the head of an organization like IFAD is leadership and a sense of purpose — to really understand the ultimate goal and to lead the team towards this. A financial institution is built on trust, so we have to make sure that our financial management is really state-of- the-art and make sure that proper audit controls and a fiscally-prudent approach is in place. I can also use my financial experience to help us to see how to broaden and deepen our resource base to scale up our overall programme of work, which will be central to our replenishment discussions.

ATLANTICO — How is it possible to make the countryside more attractive to the youth, increasingly more interested in urban activities?

GILBERT HOUNGBO — I am fundamentally convinced that we at IFAD have to be part of the solution when it comes to the global migration challenge the world is facing. Lack of opportunity is often what drives people to migrate, including from rural areas — some 40 per cent of remittances (the money migrants send home) are sent back to rural communities. Agriculture can be a viable profession for young rural people, but only if we overcome the constraints and challenges facing rural areas today. If we support investments targeted toward the needs of young people, making sure that they have access to finance, training in the most up to date and sustainable agricultural techniques, and access to modern technology, they will be able to see a future in a rural setting instead of looking to move to cities or abroad.

ATLANTICO — What is the relationship between female empowerment and agricultural development?

GILBERT HOUNGBO — Rural women are key agents of change in building a world without hunger. Women and girls play a crucial role in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and in particular, the goal of eradicating hunger and extreme poverty. For one thing, women make up 43 per cent of the agricultural workforce and are more and more the farmers of the developing world. And yet, they are particularly disadvantaged, in areas ranging from access to finance and services to secure land tenure rights. We have ample evidence from around the world that greater empowerment of women in rural and urban areas leads to higher economic growth and a better quality of life for women and men alike. It also improves the nutrition of children and families. But despite progress, it is still the case today that rural women’s double burden of farm labor and unpaid domestic work prevents them from participating fully and fairly in income-generating activities. Improving rural women’s access to technologies that save time and labor is essential to reducing their workloads. Transforming gender relations within the family is also crucial to empowering women and enabling them to make decisions about their lives. This is why IFAD is mainstreaming a gender focus throughout all the investment projects it supports.

“Rural women are key agents of change in building a world without hunger”

ATLANTICO — How does IFAD see the Brazilian experience in family farming and what can other countries learn from it?

GILBERT HOUNGBO —Brazil has been a leader in terms of poverty reduction and fight against hunger in recent decades, and a champion of innovative rural development policies and programmes. Since the second half of the 1990s, Brazil has increasingly addressed the issue of poverty. The Zero Hunger and Brazil without Poverty programmes, among others, have improved the livelihoods of millions of people. Family farming is vital for Brazil’s staple food production, employs three quarters of the farm labor force and is responsible for one third of agricultural income. It is a reminder that family farmers are essential to feeding the world. Brazil has developed a number of public policies, including dedicated financial services and public purchases programmes, to support family farming. Family farmers are now central to the government’s poverty reduction strategy, as both beneficiaries and as food suppliers. Brazil has tried to give farmers the tools they need to succeed. Through FIDA, MERCOSUR and REAF [i.e. MERCOSUR’s Specialized Commission for Family Farming], IFAD has also contributed to sharing Brazil’s experience both within the country’s regions within Brazil and outside with other developing countries, both in Latin America and the Caribbean and around the world.

ATLANTICO — You also said: “We have to demonstrate that every dollar invested will have the highest value for money”. What are, in fact, the challenges for that to really occur? How can you ensure a positive return?

GILBERTHOUNGBO — On the one hand I will really have to galvanize the staff and the expertise we have at IFAD. The fact that IFAD is small and agile is a strength. We need to maximize how we use that strength. Secondly, we need to make our case to our major resource providers that we can do more — not by saying it, but by doing it. So we need to deliver more and at the same time increase our resource base — and all the while making sure that we deliver in a way that is impactful.

ATLANTICO — What potential would you suggest in IFAD, considering its very specific characteristics as an agency?

GILBERT HOUNGBO — IFAD works in some of the most remote areas of the world,and in difficult environments and fragile situations. We go where other development agencies don’t. But we need to be sure that we are working as effectively and efficiently as possible. IFAD is continuing to upgrade its service delivery platform to support the evolving business model, and we are decentralizing to get closer to the clients we serve. We are heightening our focus on results, development effectiveness and innovation. In the end, governments and taxpayers want to see results, and that’s a positive pressure on what we do.

*All pictures are courtesy from IFAD