In conversation with IFAD’s new President, Gilbert F. Houngbo

Gilbert F. Houngbo became the sixth President of IFAD on 1 April 2017. In the days leading up to this, the new President took a moment to answer some questions about his life growing up in rural Togo, the importance of building rural economies that offer hope to young people, the social injustices that compel him to believe in the power of development and the challenges ahead for IFAD.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was life like growing up in rural Togo and how has this shaped your outlook?

Life in a rural area is not necessarily a hardship. Actually there are positive advantages to it. There is a real sense of family ties. There is a saying that to raise a child it takes a whole village, and if you live in a rural area you really experience what that means.

But unfortunately, there are also hardships that you cannot ignore. When your economic and social activities are totally dependent on conditions that you don’t necessarily control, you can become a fatalist and believe you have to accept it, that there is nothing you can do. Or you can recognize that education is one way out.

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 and progress in school.

So my understanding of the economic and social side of food production goes back to when I was in primary school. Food security and nutrition are essential, but we have to go beyond that, and really aim at the fight against poverty and look at agriculture as a decent income-generating activity. 

I also saw that my parents were ahead of the game compared to 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 not giving up when facing a difficult situation, and not giving up on your dreams.

You talk a lot about the importance of education. How easy was it for you to access schooling?

When I was growing up there was a population of about 2000 in my village but there was no secondary school. So at 11 years old, I moved 250 kilometres away from my parents to the capital to finish school. It is an adventure that I am very glad to have had - I don’t regret it - 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 coherently with other dimensions of human development – such as education, health, security, freedom and human rights.

During your campaign for the presidency of IFAD, you put a lot of emphasis on rural youth. Why are they such a priority for you?

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. If we organise young people and make sure that they have access to rural finance and proper guidance on the best ways to farm, build productivity and use modern technology, they could be happy in a rural setting instead of looking to go to the capital or to move outside their country.

You have a strong financial background. How important is this for your leadership of IFAD?

IFAD is a financial institution, so having a financial background is a plus, but it is not a must. What you need, first and foremost, as the head of an organisation like IFAD is leadership and a sense of purpose – to really understand the ultimate goal and to lead the team towards this.

One of the challenges we are facing in 2017, however, is replenishment of IFAD’s funds, so in this case having a financial background is an advantage. 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. On the flipside, 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.

What would you say is your biggest achievement?

I am not the kind of guy who asks myself what is my biggest achievement. I ask myself, what can I do better, what can I still achieve? Because all I have achieved is not big enough, honestly speaking. In this marathon, I don’t want to look at how many kilometres I have done, but how many kilometres are left. To me there is still so much to do.      

What drives you?

It is what I call social injustice. It is totally unacceptable that when I was a youngster of 8 years old, I had to walk four kilometres every morning to go and get water for the house. And I had to walk 20 kilometres every day to get to high school. And it is unacceptable today that kids have to go through the same thing 40 to 50 years later. So I will not rest – this is very clear in my mind – I will not rest when I see those situations.

People did not ask to come into this world to suffer. When I see the state of the world today, when I see the economic situation, I ask what is the one thing I can do on a daily basis to make one person’s life better? I consider that a duty that I must carry out to the best of my ability.

What will be your biggest challenge as head of IFAD?

My biggest challenge will be a set of things. On the one hand I will really have to galvanise the staff and the expertise we have at IFAD. The fact that IFAD is small and agile is a strength. We need to maximise 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 on the one hand, delivering more and on the other hand increasing our resource base - and through all that, making sure that we deliver in a way that is impactful.

What do you do for fun?

I don’t really have time for fun between work and travelling. Outside the work environment, I try to keep in good shape by doing exercise. I like to listen to jazz and classical music in small cafes. I read a lot about history and politics. I read things on subjects outside my current job to try and relax my brain.

When I am back home on vacation I like to engage with young people. I try to see how I can help them in what they decide to do with their lives. I don’t see it as a job – it is a hobby!