The Food Assistance Convention 2012: a mouse that roars or a lion that squeaks?

In a previous post in March 2011 I discussed the background to the renegotiation of the Food Aid Convention 1999 (FAC 1999). In late April 2012, after a long-running and contentious series of negotiations by the major donor countries who were signatories to the FAC 1999, the text of the eagerly awaited Food Assistance Convention 2012 (FAC 2012) was published. The new FAC 2012 will remain open for signature until 31st December 2012, and will enter into force on 1st January 2013 if at least five of the signatories to the previous FAC 1999 have ratified the new convention.

First concluded in 1967, the Food Aid Convention 1999 was the only international legal instrument covering the provision of food aid to developing countries, and signatories were restricted to a small selection of donor countries: Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Switzerland and the United States. Implementation of the Convention was overseen by a Food Aid Committee, based in the International Grains Council in London. Yet serious concerns were raised regarding the operational and governance structures of the Food Aid Convention. Critics highlighted the out-dated model of physical food transfers from donor countries to recipient countries and a lack of utilisation of new methods of ensuring food security, such as cash transfers and increased use of micro-nutrient enriched foods and special nutritional products.

So in my previous post I highlighted the need to move from a Food Aid Convention to a Food Assistance Convention. As this has now come to pass, does this signify a major shift in donor country thinking on the provision of food and nutritional support to vulnerable communities? And does the rebranding of the Food Aid Convention 1999 into the Food Assistance Convention 2012 indicate that the needs-based approach supported by the EU and Canada has trumped the resource-based approach favoured by the USA and Japan?

In March 2011 I noted there was a need to move from discussion of what food stuffs to provide people facing food scarcity and famine, to what overall package of assistance is required to meet the needs of affected populations. I highlighted a series of issues that were up for discussion in the negotiation process, including whether additional donor members should be allowed to become signatories to the Convention, the form that food aid should take, and where a Food Aid/ Assistance Convention should fit within the overall international response to food scarcity and insecurity. So how have these, and other structural and contextual issues, been resolved in the new Convention?

Forms of food assistance: the change from “food aid” to “food assistance” represents an important shift in attitude from the original trade origins of the FAC in 1967, to acknowledging best practice in delivering food and nutritional assistance to vulnerable populations through cash transfers, local and regional procurement of food stuffs, and innovative approaches to reducing food and nutritional insecurity at the household and community level. The new Convention also includes explicit recognition that food assistance should be untied from donor countries own agricultural and trade objectives, and that in-kind food transfers from donors can distort the local markets and therefore have negative impacts on the overall levels of food security in a region. However, the subordination of FAC 2012 to obligations under the WTO still places a country’s trade considerations well before humanitarian responses.

Amounts of food assistance: the FAC 1999 contained detailed provisions on the amounts of food aid that were to be provided by each signatory, recorded in tons of grain which implied the physical transfer of food stuffs from donor countries to recipients. The FAC 2012 has a discretionary, non-binding system, whereby signatories announce an annual minimum commitment of food assistance expressed either as a minimum value or a minimum quantity of food stuffs. Donor countries simply have to provide details of their annual minimum commitments by 15th December each year, and it is now up to each donor country to determine its level of commitment each year. This represents a major weakening of the binding commitments contained in FAC 1999. Furthermore, as seen during the 2007-8 food price spike and the famine in the Horn of Africa during 2011 and 2012, the availability of food aid is often dependent on global food prices – and the total amount of donor countries’ commitments can fall when global prices increase. So allowing countries to express their commitment in monetary value passes the risk of price fluctuations onto the recipient countries, when previously donor countries bore this risk. Nevertheless, as noted by a former Director of the World Food Programme for the Asia and Pacific:

 “The FAC always seemed to me an accounting device more than a guarantee for an additional volume of resources in times of crisis. All donors, but certainly the major ones always provided food when they had it and did not provide food when they did not have it.”

Signatories: While initial signatories to FAC 2012 remains limited to the original signatories of FAC 1999 (plus those States that have joined the EU since 1999), Article 13 allows for any other State to accede to the Convention once it has entered into force. This is to be welcomed if it leads to an expansion of the base of key middle income donor countries such as Brazil, China India, Russia or South Africa, who had not been included in the formal renegotiation process. Not only would this help widen the base of donor countries, it can assist in committing a broader range of countries to the principles of effectiveness and accountability promoted in the new text.

Governance and inter-agency co-ordination: the new text explicitly requires donor countries to regularly monitor, evaluate and communicate the outcomes of their food assistance programmes. This reflects the increasing emphasis placed by donors themselves on transparency and accountability in development and humanitarian programming, as set out in the OECD’s Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness 2005 and Accra Agenda for Action 2008. Such openness is to be welcomed, as are the indications that the Food Assistance Committee will act in a more inclusive and transparent manner, for example by including recipient countries and civil society organisations in their discussions and meetings. It would be hard for donor countries to press recipient countries to act in an open, transparent and accountable manner, and to promote these principles as a basis for aid effectiveness, without acting in the same manner themselves. However, it remains to be seen what level of engagement and input is actively sought by the new Food Assistance Committee from middle income donors, recipient countries and non-governmental organisations. Therefore organisations within donor countries will need to monitor the stances taken by the national authorities, for example Irish Aid and the Department of Agriculture here in Ireland, to promote compliance with the new commitments. Furthermore, as noted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, it is not clear how the FAC 2012 will interact with existing food security structures, for example the UN High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, the Committee on World Food Security and the global Food Security Cluster.

Considering that the FAC 2012 is a legal framework for the provision of humanitarian food assistance to populations facing major food insecurity, it is notable how many aspects of the FAC 1999 have been improved. Overall, the FAC 2012 has created a more supportive structure for promoting best practice in food and nutritional interventions by donor countries. While the Overseas Development Institute has questioned whether the new convention will lead to any changes in the attitude of large donors, such as the USA, this has been countered by Professor Jennifer Clapp and C. Stuart Clark, who argue that the FAC 2012 plays a fundamental role for middle sized donor countries, such as Canada, Switzerland and Norway. Perhaps of most interest is the clear acknowledgement of the right to food set out in the preamble to the new Convention. By bringing the operation and governance of the Food Assistance Convention 2012 into the public sphere and by clearly recognising the right to food, donor countries have signalled that they wish to take their humanitarian commitments seriously. It is now incumbent upon the rest of us to build on the re-commitment of donor countries to ensuring sufficient assistance is provided to those facing severe food and nutritional insecurity. This requires the signature and accession of the FAC 2012 by as wide a range of countries as possible, and for us to hold donor countries to their word.