Moving from a Food Aid Convention to a Food Assistance Convention

Dug Cubie

The increasing effects of climate change and natural disasters, including drought and flooding which severely affects agricultural production in affected regions, forms the backdrop to the current renegotiation of the Food Aid Convention (FAC). The eight signatories of the FAC met in London at the beginning of this month (28th February – 3rd March 2011) to commence the negotiations at a time of steeply increasing world food prices. On the table for discussion include allowing additional donor members to become signatories to the Convention, the form that food aid should take, and where the FAC fits in the overall international response to food scarcity and insecurity.

First established in 1967, the Food Aid Convention is the only international legal instrument covering the provision of food aid to developing countries. The current members of the FAC are Australia, Argentina, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Switzerland and the United States; while implementation of the Convention is overseen by the Food Aid Committee, currently chaired by Canada, which is based in the International Grains Council in London.

Unlike other international conventions, the FAC is deemed to be a temporary instrument, with the current text of the FAC last renegotiated in 1999, initially for a three year period, but subject to annual extensions of validity since 2002. This annual uncertainty over the future application of the treaty results, in part, from the deliberations on food aid in the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Agriculture. However, the collapse of the WTO Doha Development Round in 2008 prompted the signatories to the FAC to extend its validity until June 2011 to allow time for a renegotiation of the FAC itself to take place. These negotiations are expected to be intense. There are pronounced differences between key members of the FAC, most notably between the United States of America and Japan which favour a resource-based approach where agricultural produce is provided directly from donor countries, and the European Union and Canada which are promoting a needs-based approach.

While intended to provide a level of resource certainty to recipient States and UN agencies such as the World Food Programme, there is a wide-spread belief that the FAC is out-dated and does not reflect current models of emergency and humanitarian assistance. Oxfam has highlighted that in most food emergencies, it is not access to food that is the main problem but people’s ability to buy food. Therefore, a model of food aid based on shipments of surplus agricultural produce from developed countries, with the attendant high shipping and procurements costs and negative impact for the local producers, does not correspond to the needs of the affected populations. A recent paper by Nathan Nunn (Harvard University) and Nancy Qian (Yale University) researched the motivations behind the signatories to the FAC. They found that the US provides most of its food aid in the form of food surpluses from US farmers; but despite EU food aid remaining untied, it is closely linked to the colonial history of several EU Member States, with former colonies receiving disproportionately large amounts of EU food aid.

However, the debate is not simply about the modalities of providing food aid. Approaches which promote cash or vouchers still have to contend with the fact that in a time of food insecurity rapidly rising prices in local markets may negate the true value of assistance for each household. Therefore, minimum tonnage or consumption requirements still need to be ensured. This has led to suggestions that “food aid” should be reclassified as “food assistance” to highlight the broad nature of assistance required by people facing hunger and food insecurity. This may move the discussions from the realm of what food stuffs to provide, to what overall package of assistance is required to meet the needs of affected populations. Yet the FAC negotiations are being undertaken behind closed doors by the eight signatories, who are all donors of food aid, to the exclusion of the recipient countries themselves, which means that vital issues from the perspective of those in receipt of food aid may not be raised. Even countries which have recently become donor countries, such as Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa will not be directly involved in the discussions. Therefore, the future approach of either the current Food Aid Convention or an updated Food Assistance Convention remains to be seen. However, with the deadline for the conclusion of negotiations in early June 2011 fast approaching, the next steps for the food and hunger components of emergency and humanitarian assistance may be clarified in the coming months.