For over two decades prior to my retirement, I worked as an independent consultant to five different agencies of the United Nations: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the World Bank (WB). It was a unique experience. I did some 100 consultancies in 35 countries during this period and over half of them were for FAO. My consultancy work was mainly in water resources, irrigation and rural development, although I was drafted for project identification, investigation, preparation and completion missions also. These consultancies lasted from one week to three months. The longest consultancy (3 months) was in the South Pacific Island of Fiji – also known as the ‘Paradise of the South Pacific’ – where my main brief was to assess the erosion rate of this relatively (geologically) young island with an annual rainfall of over 2000mm.

I was recruited for my first consultancy from an international British consulting firm where I was working for nearly a decade. I continued working as a consultant for FAO for the next two or three assignments through the same consulting firm until I resigned and became an independent consultant. This was a risky step which I was prepared to take to enhance my income. I was extremely lucky because the consultancy work kept coming. My next three consultancies for FAO were in South Yemen which included hydrological investigations of the biggest wadi (transitory river) in South Yemen and installation of hydrological network. Then I moved to the Investment Centre of the FAO which was an important division of the FAO which worked in close unison with the World Bank (WB) and some 80 per cent of its annual budget comes from WB. In collaboration with WB, it mounts identification, investigation, preparation and other missions mainly to water resources and irrigation projects in Africa, Asia and South America.

I did several such missions to Africa (Zimbabwe, Morocco) and Asia (India, China, Sri Lanka). In India I participated in a major and unique WB-FAO project which aimed at collecting, validating and computerising all hydrological data (rainfall, climate, river flow, water quality and groundwater), and establishing State, Regional and Central Water Data Centres in fifteen peninsular and other States in two phases over a 10-year period. No other country in the world has such water data availability or accessibility.

In 1989 I was invited by the FAO to join an UNHCR Inter-Agency mission to Afghanistan to assess the immediate needs of the country following the Russian withdrawal. The other members of the mission came from UNHCR, UNESCO, WHO and UNDP. The mission leader, Stephen di Mistura, a multi-linguist from UNHCR, also represented UNHCR on the mission (He now happens to be the UN’s Chief Coordinator in Syria). The mission spent a fortnight visiting most of the affected areas of the country and its final report made for sombre reading. A British daily summed up the main conclusions of the mission with this headline: ‘Conditions in Afghanistan at Russian Withdrawal Worse Than in Vietnam at American Withdrawal’.

After FAO, I did several missions for World Food Programme (WFP) in India, China, Egypt, Gambia and Yemen. It is a much smaller agency and its approach to development work is different from that of other agencies. It operates on ‘Food for Work’ principle and it pays its beneficiaries in kind (food) and not in cash. The food items (grains, oil, sugar, etc) are donated to it by major donors like the USA, Canada and countries in Western Europe. Because of its smaller size, it depends largely on independent consultants to carry out its development work.

My first mission was to the Hebei Province of China where the residents of a water-deficient region had carried out construction of underground tanks to store the rain water in their houses to utilize it later in the dry season (water harvesting). My next mission was to India to a major dam project in Karnataka where some 18,000 labourers were working daily. The money that WFP made by selling rice etc to the families of labourers at subsidized prices it wanted to spend on labour welfare schemes. The mission recommended construction of toilets, baths, play grounds and meeting places for labourers although the project authorities preferred construction/ upgrading of roads.

My consultancy work for IFAD and UNDP was extremely limited and the consultancies I did could be counted on fingers. However, I am puzzled by the fact why there are three different UN agencies – FAO, WFP, IFAD – for agriculture and food and why all three are based in Rome. Whenever UN reform – about which we hear so much – is taken up by the USA and other countries that matter, I think WFP and IFAD should be merged with FAO and the size and functions of FAO itself should be reviewed radically.

The FAO has done a magnificent job in the Third World since it was established in Rome over 70 years ago, but some of these countries do not need its technical assistance any more, eg. China, India, Brazil. At present, it seems to run an empire from a building in central Rome which housed the Ministry of the Empire under Mussolini. Two of its former DGs – one from Lebanon and the other from Senegal – stayed beyond their two mandatory terms of four years each.

Whenever I came to India for consultancy work, my Indian colleagues asked me politely how to get UN/WB consultancy work. I told them that the experience of the UN agencies in recruiting Indian experts – and there are many in India – is extremely bad. The UN agencies do not get replies to their requests for experts in time. By the time they receive a reply the agency would recruit the expert from another country. At present, the Agency or its staff members recruit Indian experts they already know by approaching them directly. I urge my Indian colleagues to take up this issue with the government.

The future of the UN and its various political and development agencies is being actively discussed by its members and the public at large. For example, the possible composition of the Security Council to reflect the changed geo-political situation in the world is a topic of many discussions in the media. On the other hand, politicians like President Trump regard the UN as dispensable and think that people go to the UN ‘to have a good time’. Having been an independent outside observer of the UN, I tend to agree with what that great writer/politician, Winston Churchill said: “The UN may not have taken us to the heaven but it has saved us from hell”.

(The writer is an independent consultant who has worked with several international organizations)