Chairman FAO: Western powers pressure China’s UN food boss to grip global hunger crisis

ROME, Italy — The Chinese head of a crucial U.N. food agency has come under intense scrutiny by Western powers, who accuse him of failing to grip a global hunger crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has alienated the Western powers that are the agency’s main backers with his technocratic leadership style and connections to Beijing that, in their view, have damaged its credibility and capability to mitigate the crisis.

POLITICO has interviewed more than a dozen U.N. officials and diplomats for this article. The critical picture that emerges is of a leader whose top-down management style and policy priorities are furthering China’s own agenda, while sidelining the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was met with weeks of eerie silence at the FAO, and although the messaging has since changed, Qu’s critics say FAO should be showing stronger political leadership on the food crisis, which threatens to tip millions more people into hunger.

“Nobody actually takes him seriously: It’s not him; it’s China,” said one former U.N. official. “I’m not convinced he would make a single decision without first checking it with the capital.”

In his defense, Qu and his team say a U.N. body should not be politicized and that he’s delivering on the FAO’s analytical and scientific mandate.

Chairman FAO

Qu Dongyu was elected in 2019 to run the Rome-based agency, handing China a chance to build international credibility in the U.N. system, and punishing a division between the EU and the U.S after they backed competing candidates who lost badly. The election was clouded by allegations of coercion and bribery against China.

Now, as he prepares for a likely reelection bid next year to run FAO until 2027, Qu — who describes himself as a conflict-averse “humble, small farmers’ son” — is under intensifying scrutiny over his leadership during the crisis.

After three years of largely avoiding the headlines, Qu drew criticism from countries like France and the U.S. for his sluggish and mealy-mouthed response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a massive exporter of food to developing countries.

The EU and U.S. forced an emergency meeting of the FAO’s Council in the spring in order to pressure the FAO leadership into stepping up to the plate, with Ukraine demanding he rethink his language of calling it a “conflict” and not a war. The communications division was initially ordered to keep schtum about the war and its likely impacts on food supply chains. In May, Ukrainians protested outside FAO HQ in Rome demanding Russia be kicked out of the organization.

At a meeting of the FAO Council in early December, countries like France, Germany and the U.S. successfully pushed through yet another demand for urgent action from FAO’s leadership, requesting fresh analysis of impact of Russia’s war on global hunger, and a full assessment of the damage done to Ukraine’s vast farm system.

China has not condemned Russia outright for invading Ukraine, while the EU and the U.S. use every opportunity in the international arena to slam Moscow for its war of aggression: Those geopolitical tensions are playing out across the FAO’s 194 member countries. Officials at the agency, which has $3.25 billion to spend across 2022 and 2023, are expected to act for the global good — and not in the narrow interest of their countries.

Qu is said still to be furious about the confrontation: “[He] is still upset about that, that really annoyed him,” said one ambassador to the FAO. “He sees the EU as an entity, a player within the FAO that is obstructing his vision.”

Qu featured on a TV screen inside the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Though Qu has now adapted his language and talks about the suffering being caused by Russia’s war, some Western countries still believe FAO should respond proactively to the food crisis, in particular to the agricultural fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The FAO’s regular budget and voluntary funds are largely provided by EU countries, the U.S. and allies like Japan, the U.K. and Canada. The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the regular budget, compared to China’s 12 percent.

Qu is determined to stick to the mandate of the FAO to simply provide analysis to its members — and to steer clear of geopolitics.

“I’m not [a] political figure; I’m FAO DG,” he told POLITICO in October, in an encounter in an elevator descending from FAO’s rooftop canteen in Rome.

FAO’s technocratic stance is defended by other members of Qu’s top team, such as Chief Economist Máximo Torero, who told POLITICO in May: “You are in a war. Some people think that we need to take political positions. We are not a political entity that is the Security Council — that’s not our job.”

Apparatchik

Qu can hardly be said to be apolitical, as he is a former vice-minister of agriculture and rural affairs of the Chinese Communist Party.

On top of his political background he has expertise in agriculture. He was part of a team of scientists that sequenced the potato genome while he was doing a PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In an email to POLITICO his professor, Evert Jacobsen, remembered Qu’s “enthusiasm about his country,” as well as is “strategic thinking” and “open character.”

Yet Western diplomats worry that many of the policy initiatives he has pushed through during his tenure map onto China’s foreign policy goals.

They say that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals have been eclipsed by his own initiatives, such as his mantra of the Four Betters (production, nutrition, environment, life), and Chinese-sounding plans from “One Country, One Priority Product” to his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

Some Western diplomats say these bear the hallmarks of China’s Global Development Initiative, about which Qu has tweeted favorably.

Detractors say these are at best empty slogans, and at worst serve China’s foreign policy agenda. “If the countries that are on the receiving end don’t exercise agency you need to be aware that these are policies that first and foremost are thought to advance China, either materially or in terms of international reputation, or in terms of diplomacy,” said Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

Insiders say he’s put pressure on parts of the FAO ecosystem that promote civil society engagement or market transparency: two features that don’t go down well in Communist China. The former U.N. official said Qu had subjected the G20 market transparency dashboard AMIS, housed at FAO, to “increased pressure and control,” causing international organizations to step in to protect its independence earlier this year.

The diplomat said Qu was trying to suffocate the Committee on World Food Security, which invites civil society and indigenous people’s groups into FAO’s HQ and puts them on a near-equal footing with countries. “What has he accomplished in two-plus years? You can get Chinese noodles in the cafeteria,” they said.

Flags at the entrance to the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

But at a U.N. agency that has historically been deeply dysfunctional, Qu is popular among staff members.

“Mr. Qu Dongyu brought a new spirit on how to treat staff and established trust and peace between staff and management,” said one former FAO official.

Even his sharpest critics concede that he has done good things during his tenure. He made a point of shaking every staff member’s hand upon his election, even turning up occasionally unannounced to lunch with them in the canteen that he’s recently had refurbished. There’s also widespread appreciation among agriculture policymakers of the high quality of economic work turned out by FAO, and support for his climate change and scientific agenda.

“The quality of data FAO produces is very good and it’s producing good policy recommendations,” one Western diplomat acknowledged.

FAO play

Three years into his term, there’s a much stronger Chinese presence at FAO and Chinese officials occupy some of the key divisions, covering areas such as plants & pesticides, land & water, a research center for nuclear science and technology in agriculture, and a division on cooperation between developing countries. A vacant spot atop the forestry division is also expected to go to a Chinese candidate.

Experts say those positions are part of a strategy. “China tries to get the divisions where it can grow its footprint in terms of shaping the rules, shaping the action and engaging more broadly with the Global South,” said Ghiretti, the MERICS analyst.

The EU Commission is closely monitoring trends in staff appointments and data collection. “He’s hired a lot of young Chinese people who will fill [the] ranks later,” said an EU diplomat.

Mandarin is heard more than before in the corridors of the Rome HQ, a labyrinthine complex built in the 1930s by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to house its ministry of overseas colonies.

Western diplomats and staffers past and present describe Qu as a poor communicator, who displays little care about engaging with or being accountable to countries and who tends to leave meetings after delivering perfunctory remarks, all of which leaves space for rumor and suspicion to grow.

Even those who acknowledge that Qu has made modest achievements at the helm of FAO still see his leadership style as typical of a Chinese official being kept on a tight leash by Beijing. The EU and U.S. criticized Qu’s move to push back an internal management review that was meant to be conducted by independent U.N. inspectors, and will now likely not emerge until after the next election.

And although FAO is still receiving bucketloads of Western funding, its fundraising drive specifically for rural families and farmers in war-torn Ukraine is still $100 million short of its $180 million target, a pittance in an international context — especially amid deafening warnings of a global food supply crisis next year.

That’s partly because the U.S. and EU prefer to work bilaterally with Kyiv rather than going through FAO. “This is the time for FAO to be fully funded,” said Pierre Vauthier, a French agronomist who runs the FAO operation in Ukraine. “We need additional money.”

A plaque outside Qu’s fourth floor office at the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

There’s no love lost on Qu’s side, either. In June, he went on a unscripted rant accusing unnamed countries of being obsessed with money, apparently in light of criticism of his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

“You are looking at money, I’m looking to change the business model because I’m a farmer of small poor, family. You from the rich countries, you consider the money first, I consider wisdom first. It’s a different mentality,” Qu said, before complaining about his own salary being cut.

Asked repeatedly, Qu did not confirm to POLITICO whether he would stand for a second four-year term, but traditionally FAO chiefs serve at least twice and he is widely expected to run. Nominations officially opened December 1. The question is whether the U.S., EU or a developing nation will bother trying to run against him, when his victory looks all but inevitable.

There’s competition for resources between the World Food Programme (WFP), a bastion of U.S. development power, and FAO. A Spaniard, Alvaro Lario, was recently appointed to run the third Rome-based U.N. food agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, while WFP’s chief David Beasley is expected to be replaced by another American next year.

In any case, the countries that Qu will likely count on to be re-elected are not so interested in the political machinations of the West or its condemnation of the Russia’s war in Ukraine, which it seeks to impress upon FAO’s top leadership.

“Our relations with the FAO are on a technical basis and not concerned by the political positions of the FAO. What interests us is that the FAO supports us to modernize our agriculture,” said Cameroon’s Agriculture Minister Gabriel Mbairobe.

Other African countries defend FAO’s recent track record: “They’ve been very, very active, let’s be honest,” said Yaya A.O. Olaniran, Nigeria’s ambassador to the FAO. “It’s easy to criticize.”

This story has been updated.



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Two companies have luxury trains called the ‘Orient Express.’ Here are the differences


The “Orient Express” has been called the “king of trains” and the “train of kings.”

Royalty, writers, actors and spies have ridden the original route between Paris and Istanbul, which started in the late 19th century.

Author Agatha Christie described the Orient Express as “the train of my dreams.” She set a bestselling murder mystery novel on its carriages, and fictional spy James Bond rode it in the movie “From Russia With Love.”

Travelers might think of the Orient Express as a single luxurious train, but there have in fact been quite a few over the years, with many routes and owners.

Soon, people will be able to choose to take a ride on several trains using the Orient Express moniker, by two competing companies, the LVMH-owned luxury travel company Belmond and the French hospitality multinational Accor.

Both have original carriages which date to the late 1800s. But they differ in how they’re designed, where they travel and how long they’ve been in operation — one for decades and the other set to launch in 2024.

made its first journey out of the Gare de Strasbourg in Paris (now the Gare de l’Est) to Vienna.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express will launch eight new suites in June 2023.

Belmond

A few years later, the train was renamed the Orient Express and began traveling to Istanbul, then known as Constantinople. Travelers flocked to the train’s modern technology and luxurious silver cutlery and silk sheets.

Soon, Nagelmackers’ firm started to build more upscale trains for other European routes, including one that ran through the then-new Simplon Tunnel, which connects Switzerland to Italy, as well as the “Arlberg-Orient-Express,” operating between Calais, France, and Budapest, Hungary.

By the 1970s, the original Orient Express trains had made their last journeys, and the carriages fell into disrepair.

But in the 1980s, two businessmen undertook separate endeavors to revive them.

James Sherwood, an American, spent a reported $31 million acquiring and restoring enough carriages to form the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express,” now owned by Belmond. (To add to the confusion, Sherwood also added hotels to his travel group, calling them Orient-Express Hotels. He renamed the company to Belmond in 2014.)

Swiss tour operator Albert Glatt began a service between Zurich and Istanbul, known as the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express,” which is now owned by Accor.

The ‘Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’

The “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” has been operating since 1982. The train is made of original restored carriages that Gary Franklin, vice president of Belmond’s trains and cruises, called “works of art.”

“This train comes imbued with so much history,” he said. “The carriages are beautiful.”

As for Accor’s plans to launch a train also called the Orient Express,” Franklin said, “We’re the ones that have been doing it for 40 years, and I think we take it as a huge compliment that people are … seeing how well we’re doing with that.”

A one-night trip on the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” starts from £2,920 ($3,292) per person.

Belmond

Belmond has a one-off licensing deal to use the Orient Express name on its Venice Simplon train, Franklin confirmed, while Accor has the rights to the brand as a whole.

The “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” will operate winter journeys for the first time this December, visiting Paris, Venice, Vienna and Florence, encouraging guests to visit the Christmas markets in those cities.

And next June, new suites are opening on the train, which come with private bathrooms, a steward, kimonos and slippers.

A one-night journey will cost from £5,500 ($6,135) per person in the new suites, which are one step below the train’s most luxurious category — the Grand Suites — which come with private dining, heated floors and “free-flowing” champagne, according to the website.

A suite on the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.”

Belmond

Tickets for around half of the new suites have already been bought, and Grand Suites (about $9,600 per night) are almost sold out, Franklin said.

La Dolce Vita” trains that will run through 14 regions in Italy as well as neighboring countries, with aims to have 10 Orient Express hotels by 2030.

A rendering of the “Orient Express La Dolce Vita,” which will connect Rome to cities like Paris, Istanbul and Split.

Dimorestudio | Accor

These trains will pay tribute to an era different from the Venice Simplon or the Nostalgie-Istanbul trains.

“La Dolce Vita” — which translates as “the sweet life” — refers to Federico Fellini’s 1960 movie, as well as to a sense of Italian glamour and pleasure. The trains are designed to embody “the Italian art of living and all its beautiful traditions,” according to an online post by interiors company Dimorestudio, which is working on the project.

The trains will have 18 suites, 12 deluxe cabins and an “honour suite.” Most will leave from Rome’s Termini station, where passengers will have access to a lounge before departure, and will travel around 16,000 kilometers (about 10,000 miles) of railway lines, with stops at lesser-known Italian destinations.

A rendering of a bedroom suite on the “Orient Express La Dolce Vita,” showing the train’s 1960s-style decor.

Dimorestudio | Accor

Along with the Orient Express La Minerva Hotel in Rome, Accor will also open the Orient Express Venice Hotel in 2024 in a restored palace. In addition, Accor has plans to launch an Orient Express hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Those trains are also set to be launched in 2024, according to a company representative.

— CNBC’s Monica Pitrelli contributed to this report.



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Scotland recognized as world’s best golf destination | CNN




CNN
— 

It remains to be seen whether football will come home for England at the World Cup in Qatar next month, but for neighboring Scotland, golf has officially – and finally – returned to its motherland.

Having hosted the game for almost six centuries, “the home of golf” – as Scotland is known – was recognized as the World’s Best Golf Destination for the very first time at the ninth edition of the annual World Golf Awards in Abu Dhabi this week.

Despite the dominance of its legendary St. Andrews Old Course in the World’s Best Golf Course category – with five successive wins after the award’s inception – Scotland had never been recognized as the sport’s best destination.

Portugal had held an iron grip on the title for the award’s first five years, before a victory for Australia was sandwiched between wins for Vietnam in 2019 and 2021.

Yet after a landmark year, which saw Scottish links courses play host to two historic majors – the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews and the first ever Women’s Open at Muirfield – the country finally scooped the prize, as well as the award for Best Golf Destination in Europe.

The sole European contender for the World award, Scotland trumped rival nominees Argentina, Australia, Canada, Dubai, Jamaica, Morocco, and last year’s winner Vietnam.

Scotland’s golf industry is worth upwards of $1.3 billion (£1.1 billion), with an annual golf tourism market bringing in $339 million (£286 million) and supporting over 4,000 jobs, according to Visit Scotland.

“These awards are a fitting end to an extra special year for golf in Scotland and fantastic recognition for all the people who work so hard to grow and enhance our reputation as The Home of Golf,” said Visit Scotland Chief Executive Malcolm Roughead.

“Golf tourism is a significant boost for the economy and raises Scotland’s profile on the international stage.”

In October, the fabled Alfred Dunhill Links Championship saw professionals and celebrities alike rotate around St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns – three of Scotland’s flagship links courses which help attract almost 220,000 annual golf visitors to the country, according to Visit Scotland.

In August, Muirfield staged the Women's Open for first time after hosting 16 editions of the men's tournament.

“Scottish golf tourism is thriving, and Scotland is a bucket list destination for most golfers around the World,” added Dermot Synnott, Director of Global Partnership for the World Golf Awards.

“It offers a vast range of parkland and links options across all its regions, so the travelling golfer really is spoilt for choice.”

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island, New York, was crowned the World’s Best Golf Course, continuing a strong American run after back-to-back wins for Augusta National.

Meanwhile, JA The Resort Golf Course in Dubai won Best Nine Hole Golf Course and Costa Navarino in Greece was recognized as the World’s Best Emerging Golf Destination.



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Liz Truss’ empty ambition put her in power — and shattered her


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Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

Liz Truss resigned as prime minister on the 45th day of her tenure. As I write, the day after, the Tory Party — Britain’s “natural party of government” for two centuries — is polling at 14 percent. They may go lower, and they will not unite behind any candidate. Like alcoholics who cannot stop drinking because they are already insane, the party is beyond the point of renewal.

But why is Truss, 47, a former accountant, the crucible of apocalypse?

Many narratives meet in her. Some of it is not her fault, much of it is absolutely her fault. No child looks in the mirror and longs to be a paradigm when grown, but sometimes fate demands it. Her rise was undeserved, and so is the brutality of her fall.

I met Truss at university, long before she entered real politics, and she mirrors and watches, as if trying to learn a new language. That is why she is stilted and ethereal: that is why she cannot speak easily or from the heart.

She is at her most expressive on Instagram, a medium both vapid and vivid. There is nothing to her beyond ambition, which explains the need for mirroring, and, I think, rage: the Britain she dreams of is not a kind place.

Born in Oxford to a mathematics professor and a teacher, she was raised in Leeds in the north of England. Her parents are left-wing and do not share her politics: I sense an oedipal drama there. She went to a good state school, but with her tendency to rewrite her life for advancement, she trashed its reputation during the summer race to lead the Tory Party, though it got her to Oxford University, the nursery for Tory prime ministers. There she studied politics, philosophy and economics, which gives the young politician the appearance, rather than the actuality, of knowledge.

She was, notoriously, a Liberal Democrat then, and she gave it her all, advocating for the abolition of the monarchy at their party conference in 1994. Whatever line Truss takes, she gives it her all, as compensation, I suspect, for uncertainty within. She smiled as she resigned. I don’t think I ever met a more isolated woman.

She became a hard right Tory — presumably to distance herself from her youthful Liberal Democracy, and because Margaret Thatcher is the obvious person to mirror in the Tory Party — worked under three prime ministers and spent eight years in the Cabinet. The niceties and collusions of a liberal democracy do not interest her. She notoriously did not defend the judiciary from a powerful tabloid’s “enemies of the people” headline when Britain was puzzling over how to leave the EU and she was lord chancellor, and she prefers to summon Britain’s fantasy of exceptionalism by insisting, for example, that we eat more British cheese. There is something intensely prosaic and unimaginative about Truss: if she were a year, she would be 1951. Nor can she unite people: when she won, she did not even shake Rishi Sunak’s hand, and she largely excluded his supporters from her cabinet.

A scandal — she had an affair with her mentor, the former Tory MP Mark Field, though both were married at the time — did not damage her reputation or, apparently, her marriage and this is interesting too: the betrayal of her most intimate relationship. (She likewise betrayed Kwasi Kwarteng, her chancellor and closest friend in politics, sacking him last Friday to try to save herself when the markets rejected her unfunded taxation, and her poll ratings collapsed.) Her husband, Hugh O’Leary, stood outside Downing Street as she resigned, but as they went in, they did not touch each other.

When Boris Johnson fell, two things put Truss in his place: the Tory Party membership, and Johnson himself. Truss was Johnson’s choice — though he did not say so explicitly, leaving his most avid lieutenants to back her — and his sin-eater. She never repudiated him personally, though she tore up his 2019 manifesto and offered tax cuts and public services cuts, the opposite of his promise to “level up” opportunity across the country. Dominic Cummings — Johnson’s chief strategist, who left politics after losing a power struggle with Johnson’s third wife — says Truss is obsessed with optics and has no idea how to be prime minister. He also says that Johnson chose her aware she would self-destruct, and he might plausibly return. That was the first trap.

Then there is the Tory Party membership, largely affluent, male, southern and white. They were offered Sunak and Truss by the parliamentary party, who preferred Sunak. The membership disliked Sunak for destroying Johnson (his resignation was blamed by Johnson acolytes for triggering the former prime minister’s downfall) and raising taxes and loved Truss because she mirrored them. She spoke to their self-absorption, and their desire for low taxes and a smaller state — being affluent, they do not think they need one. She told them mad things which thrilled them, reanimating the empire: she would ignore Scotland’s first minister; she was ready to bomb Russia if she could find it. (She once told the Russian foreign minister parts of Russia were not in Russia.) A long leadership contest enabled her to impress the party membership and, equally, enabled the wider country to despise her. You can only mirror so many people at once. That was the second trap.

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Then Queen Elizabeth II, a far more experienced and successful mirror than Truss, died. Britain was grieved and unwilling to tolerate Truss’ tinny authoritarianism, avoidable errors, and superficial arrogance: humility was required from Johnson’s successor, especially if she were to tear up his manifesto. When she has no one to guide her, she does not know how to do the simplest things. When she entered Westminster Abbey for the queen’s funeral she smirked, presumably because she had precedence over other living prime ministers. That was the third trap.

Beyond her obvious inability to do the job, Truss is largely a victim of circumstance and bad actors. I see her as a character in a gothic novel: perhaps the second Mrs. de Winter of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” a nameless girl fleeing through Manderley (the burning Tory Party), obsessed with Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, who in this conceit is either Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher, or both: more powerful ghosts overshadow her. She has no identity and is better understood as a paradigm than an autonomous figure.

She is a paradigm of the Tory Party membership’s distance from the rest of the country, which is an abyss after 12 years in power; a paradigm of the political class’ tendency toward optics above substance; a paradigm of common narcissism, which is thriving; a paradigm of the paranoia, taste for culture war and will to power that Brexit incited in its supporters — Truss was typically a late and fervent convert — when they realized they were wrong.

All these threads met in Truss in a combustible fashion that has left her — and the Tory Party — in ruins. I think I see hope for our democracy because these are all endings. Truss did not fall: it is worse than that. Rather, and obediently, she shattered.





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