Brazil's one-time food security minister, Jose Graziano da Silva, was elected Sunday director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. agency tasked with reducing world hunger at a time of near-record high food prices.
Graziano, currently FAO's regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, won on the second ballot in a 92-88 vote of the 180 member states voting.
He beat out Miguel Angel Moratinos of Spain, his main challenger, and four other candidates to replace Jacques Diouf of Senegal, whose 18-year tenure prompted a change in the agency's rules to set term limits.
Graziano takes over the agency at a time when high food prices are putting the lives of millions of already hungry and malnourished people 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 that food 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.
The Rome-based FAO is the largest U.N. agency, with an annual budget of about $1 billion. It has faced long-standing calls from top donors like the U.S. for bureaucratic reform, budget cuts and better prioritizing of projects.
In his final campaign pitch to delegates Saturday, Graziano noted that no Brazilian heads a top-level position in the U.N. system and that no Latin American had ever headed the FAO. He said he had the credentials, citing his tenure as FAO's regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean since 2006.
Prior to that, he served as food security minister under former Brazilian 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.
In his acceptance speech, Graziano said that while he was Brazil's candidate going into the election, he was now "a director-general elected by all the countries."
He drew particular applause in thanking African and other developing nations that saw in him a candidate who favored "south-south cooperation," a reference to the common issue in U.N. bodies about the north-south divide between industrialized and developing countries.
In his final campaign speech Saturday, Graziano promised to deliver on FAO's reform plans and said Africa should remain a priority for the agency, with FAO playing a central role in water and marine resources management.
But Graziano's emphasis was mostly on the need for a shared vision and bridging gaps between different positions to improve the organization's decision-making — saying the consensus surrounding his candidacy shows he's the right man to bridge those gaps.
True to this notion, he ended his pitch quoting John Lennon: "A dream you dream alone is only a dream; a dream you dream together is reality."
Aid group Oxfam welcomed Graziano's victory, saying he had the expertise and commitment to "transform our broken food system and make the shift toward a new agricultural future."
In a statement, Oxfam policy adviser Luca Chinotti urged governments to support Graziano implement his goals and cited his work in the Zero Hunger program, particularly his support of small-scale farmers and women gaining rights to land resources.
"We hope that Graziano will advocate for these successful policies to be replicated at a global level," Chinotti said.
The United States also welcomed Graziano's election, stressing the need for continued reform and a push for sustainable agricultural development, greater access to nutritional crops and more opportunities for women and small-scale farmers.