By Stuart Clark
After months of negotiations, the world’s richest countries have agreed on a new Food Assistance Convention—a treaty that governs the way they provide food for people in the developing world who don’t have enough to eat.
Overall, the new treaty has many positive changes that will allow aid groups to use government funding to try new ways of alleviating global hunger. But there are concerns, too.
The new Convention replaces the 1999 Food Aid Convention (FAC), which expired in 2002 and has been limping along for a decade on year-long extensions.
First negotiated in 1967, the FAC defines global rules for food assistance by major donors. As an international treaty, it is both unique and significant, being the only international legal agreement that requires members to provide a minimum amount of food to address acute hunger.
Although the FAC has been periodically updated six times since 1967, the latest version marks the first major shift.
One important change is the name of the treaty itself—from food aid to food assistance. This change reflects an important shift in how donor countries can now count their commitments. Instead of just counting food and seeds, they can now include the use of cash, vouchers and other items linked to providing nutritious food as a short term response. These new kinds of tools have been increasingly used over the past decade with much success, and it is good to see the new treaty embrace these practices.
Another important change is how the treaty stresses that food assistance should be in grant form (not loans), that the aid should be purchased locally or regionally whenever possible and appropriate.
These shifts acknowledge the growing recognition that tied aid—food supplied from donor countries—is often slower and more expensive, less familiar to recipients and can threaten the market for locally or regionally produced crops. Buying food locally or regionally means it is available faster and cheaper and can serve to support local food production.
The new treaty also shifts away from a blanket endorsement of the monetization of food aid—the practice, mainly in the U.S., of selling food donated by rich countries to recipient governments or development agencies to generate funds for aid programs—to stressing that food aid should be monetized only where there is an identified need to do so. This change recognizes research showing that monetization undermines local markets and can displace regular international food trade.
The new treaty also incorporates wording that signals a shift toward more inclusive and transparent governance of, and participation in, the treaty. While the old treaty called on donors to endeavor to carry out evaluations of their food aid programs, the new treaty explicitly notes the importance of accountability and calls on donors to “monitor, evaluate and communicate on a regular and transparent basis” on the outcomes of their food assistance activities.
Also positive is language in the new treaty that indicates greater openness to the possibility of including other stakeholders—presumably referring to recipient countries, intergovernmental agencies and NGOs—in the deliberations of the Food Assistance Committee, the treaty’s governing body. Previously, there were no provisions for including NGOs.
While these changes are positive, there is at least one change that raises significant concern.
While the old treaty specified minimum annual commitments for each donor country in a specified amount of food, the new treaty allows donors to make their commitments in terms of monetary value, and in a specified currency. Not only does this make things unpredictable—poor countries won’t be able to know from how much food might be available each year—it could also result in less food for hungry people.
Since food assistance is most often needed when prices are high, money from donor countries will buy less, not more, food—a worrisome possibility if many countries decide to change the way they calculate their commitments.
Overall, however, the new treaty is a great improvement over the old one—the food assistance glass is finally almost full. Canada, which chaired the negotiations, is to be commended for helping to create this new Convention. It now needs to be ratified by November, this year; once ratified, it will take effect in early 2013.
Stuart Clark is Senior Policy Advisor at Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 churches and church agencies working together to end global hunger.