The Food Aid Convention: Feeding people or balancing budgets?

Jennifer Clapp, Guest Blogger

The week of February 28 is an important one for the future of international food aid. Negotiators from member countries of the Food Aid Convention (FAC) are meeting to hammer out details of a new agreement. The FAC is an obscure international treaty that dates back to 1967 under which donors pledge a certain amount of food aid. It is the only international agreement where donors pledge to provide a minimum amount of aid.

Last renegotiated in 1999, the FAC is now more than 10 years out of date. It was supposed to have been updated in 2001, but instead has limped from extension to extension on the hopes that the Doha Round of trade talks, which include new rules on food aid, would be completed first. Finally, following a major food crisis in 2007-08 and continued food price volatility, donors have realized that the FAC must be updated to take the new situation into account, even in the absence of a Doha agreement.

Why should we care about the outcome of negotiations on a treaty that many people have never heard of before? Because the issues that are up for renegotiation are important ones for the future of food aid and for food security more broadly.

One of the central aspects of the agreement that is on the table is the level of donor food aid commitments. Currently the combined commitment of donors sits at 5.4 million metric tonnes. There are many indications that donors will press to lower this level or at best maintain it. In the wake of the food crisis, food aid donations dropped precipitously. According to the World Food Programme, in 2009 global food aid deliveries were just 5.7 million tonnes, the lowest level since 1961. Further, the recent US budget proposal, for example, includes cuts of up to 50 percent to US food aid programs. The US currently provides around half of all international food aid, and if these cuts go through, they will be felt in recipient countries around the world.

The way that donor commitments are counted under the agreement is also up for negotiation. The FAC currently counts donor pledges of food aid in tonnes of ‘ wheat equivalent’. This way of measuring food aid reflects the treaty’s origins when donors were keen to offload their grain surpluses as food aid. It was mostly wheat and counted in tonnes. Many see this measure as woefully outdated, although the benefit of it has been the provision of minimum amount of food for recipient countries, regardless of food price fluctuations.

When grain prices were low and falling, as they were for many of the 30 years prior to 2007, this metric worked well for donors. But with today’s high and volatile food prices, many donors are keen to measure their commitments in monetary terms instead. This change would allow for advance food aid budgeting. But it could have devastating impacts on recipients, because when prices rise, actual deliveries of food aid would fall. The ‘price risk’, in other words, would be shifted from the donor to the recipient. The minimum amount of food, or the ‘floor’ would vanish, putting millions of food aid recipients at risk.

The NGO coalition known as the Transatlantic Food Assistance Dialogue has instead proposed measuring FAC commitments in terms of numbers of people fed. This measure would maintain the minimum floor of assistance, and keep the price risk with the donor. Whether donors go for this proposal, however, remains to be seen.

Food aid is not the only answer to world hunger. The ultimate aim is in fact to eliminate the need for it. But since the inception of food aid programs in the 1950s, donors have done a poor job of reducing the need for that aid. The percentage of overseas development assistance going to agriculture in poor countries fell sharply, from 18% in 1979 to just 3.5% in 2004.

On top of reduced investment in agriculture, the world agricultural trading system is steeply stacked against farmers in the world’s poorest countries. Under the Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture, rich countries maintained their right to provide high levels of subsidies to their own farmers, while poor countries were forced to open their markets to the rich world’s food exports. This unbalanced situation threatens farmer livelihoods across the developing world.

Changes to these broader aspects of the global food security landscape cannot be reversed overnight, and it is not yet clear that there is even the political will to tackle them. If the FAC negotiators reduce their commitments and change the rules on how food aid is counted in the absence of significant changes to agricultural investment and trade practices, the global hunger situation will become much more precarious.

Jennifer Clapp is a Professor in the Environment and Resource Studies Department at the University of Waterloo, and author of the forthcoming book, Hunger in the Balance: The New Politics of International Food Aid (Cornell University Press, 2012).