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March 02, 2011

Eyes on London for global food aid

Talks are taking place this week on an obscure but important piece of the multilateral system: the Food Aid Convention (FAC). Housed at the International Grains Council in London's architectural homage to financial services, Canary Wharf, the FAC involves just a handful of countries: Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union and its member States, Japan, Norway, Switzerland and the United States. These are donors (see this nice graphic from the Globe and Mail, part of a larger story, on who contributes global food aid). The convention is meant to provide a framework for negotiations on what counts as food aid, how much food aid each country will commit to humanitarian responses that year, and how to make sure nobody cheats, for example, by promoting exports under the guise of humanitarian aid.

Why is the FAC important? As we enter an era of declining aid dollars, disappearing agriculture surpluses, volatile markets and a rising rate of natural disasters, food aid—or, more properly, food assistance—is a small but vital piece of the web that can prevent death and maldevelopment linked to inadequate nutrition, while contributing to the bigger overall objective of strengthening food security through rural development.

The FAC is the place where a multilateral conversation can take place to make sure food assistance works. But the convention is hardly a perfect forum. For one, the lack of recipient countries as members skews the forum and its debates. Second, historically, member states have used the convention to set a minimum threshold for their food aid donations: actual donations can be far greater. Amounts over and above the food aid convention commitments are not bound by the rules. Third, the convention uses an increasingly obsolete measure to assess contributions: tons of wheat equivalent. Historically, food aid was dealt with by a committee on surplus food disposal—it was about solving an unwanted stock overflow for food exporters, not about responding to the universal human right to food. Today, most countries' food aid programs are more sophisticated and better calibrated to local realities. Most, though not all. The U.S. Congress continues to hold-out against significant reform of its much criticized food aid. (See our 2005 report on U.S. Food Aid).

None of these problems means a multilateral convention is not needed—nor that the FAC cannot be reformed and improved. But it is going to take more political will than has been on display recently. The last iteration of the convention was signed in 1999. The update was scheduled for 2004. Six years later, the convention has still not been renewed. Europe is threatening to walk away. And the U.S. refuses to accept the reforms that every other food aid donor has already made: to make food aid more responsive to need, and more careful not to disrupt food production and trade in the regions to where crisis strikes.

In part, governments say they are waiting for their trade negotiating counterparts to conclude the Doha Round, where some new parameters for what should count as food aid are due to be decided. This never made much sense: Why give a trade forum dedicated to facilitating global commerce the power to set terms for humanitarian responses? In any case, the WTO has had no more success than the FAC in bringing countries to agreement on multilateral treaties. 

A group of NGOs monitoring the talks, the TransAtlantic Food Assistance Dialogue, has a background paper that sets out what is at stake and what reforms should be undertaken. Broadly, the need is for transparency, flexibility, a commitment to food volumes to protect capacity to deliver from volatile prices, a wider understanding of just what comprises food aid, and a role for recipient countries and the organizations engaged in food aid delivery in the treaty's governance. One of the pieces that IATP is watching especially closely is the proposal that countries' contributions to regional emergency reserves should count towards FAC commitments, a proposal outlined by Stuart Clark of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. IATP is convinced that physical reserves of grain are an important tool for protecting food security. 

So, all eyes are on London. In the heart of the city that, perhaps as much as Wall Street, epitomizes global finance and global wealth, let's push our governments to take some simple, effective steps to do something for the millions who depend on food aid so they can survive and build for a better day. 

Sophia Murphy

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