Oxfam calls for radical shake up of food aid

Published: 28th February 2011

Need for an accelerated switch to cash and improved longer term food security

International agency Oxfam today called for a radical shake up of the Food Aid Convention, being negotiated in London this week (week commencing 28 February), to ensure the burgeoning number of hungry people in the world get the predictable, timely and appropriate aid they need. The agency wants to see the new treaty accelerate the switch to cash and other food-related assistance, in an effort to bring food aid in line with ways to improvements to small-scale farm production and plans to help deal with the effects of widely-fluctuating food prices.

The Convention, which in its current form expires this year, holds major food aid donors – the US, EU, Japan, Canada, Australia and others – to provide minimum amounts of food aid to address emergency needs. Emergency food aid levels stood at $3.6bn in 2008, just under a third of all official western humanitarian aid.

“In the vast majority of emergency food crises the problem is not a scarcity of food but people’s ability to buy the food that is available. In most cases hungry people need money to buy food and cannot afford to wait for the arrival of a ship laden with food that has travelled halfway round the world.”

“The Food Aid Convention needs be brought up to date with modern ways that aid agencies deal with food crises. It needs to shift its emphasis to addressing the needs of those caught up in crises and away from satisfying the interests of aid ministries and agri-business. That means immediate cash, support to help people earn a living during and after a crisis, and dealing with volatile food price rises,” said Shaheen Chughtai, Humanitarian Policy Advisor, Oxfam.

Far too much emergency aid to address hunger is too slow, and much is wasted on the shipping costs of food stocks, particularly from the US and Japan. The final in-country value of food aid shipped from the US is less than 50 per cent of the total, while the rest is taken up by shipping and procurement costs.

Though there has been a movement away from shipping food stocks to providing more aid in money to buy food closer to the crisis or give people money to buy food, the Convention lags behind current responses to food crises.

Oxfam is calling for negotiators to ensure the Convention improves access to food in times of crisis through the predictable, timely and appropriate provision of food aid. It also wants to see a reformed Convention broaden its approaches to include nutrient-rich items and efforts to improve people’s means of making a living during and immediately after a crisis so that they can feed their families.

The agency says the Convention should shift from being ‘resource-based’, which is driven by aid budgets and availability of food, to being ‘need-based’, which is driven by levels of humanitarian need. Instead of focusing on the amount of food given, the Convention should focus on the number of people it needs to reach.

The Convention should be integrated into the emerging global food security mechanisms such as the UN’s Committee on World Food Security, a critical forum to help improve a more coherent response between emergency and longer-term efforts to tackle global hunger.

“Negotiators should work to bring greater transparency and accountability. There is little transparency in knowing if and how members are meeting their commitments. Until recently, this information has not been publicly available. Increasing transparency would also help to determine how effective food aid programs are,” said Shaheen Chughtai.

The Food Aid Convention needs be brought up to date with modern ways that aid agencies deal with food crises.
Shaheen Chughtai
Humanitarian Policy Advisor, Oxfam

Notes to editors

Food Aid Convention, the only international instrument that commits signatories to providing at least a minimum of food aid annually to address emergency food needs, is now out of date. Created in 1967, the Convention was last renegotiated in 1999. Since then, there have been major changes in how donors and aid agencies deliver food aid. For example, many donors have switched from providing food aid in-kind (shipped from the donor country) to providing cash or vouchers to purchase food more locally. Others provide items such as seeds to revive farmers’ means of earning a living.

Recent moves to address malnutrition, especially for young children, are also changing how and what donors provide. There is a growing recognition that food aid should be integrated with other assistance to reduce food insecurity sustainably. These important trends are not fully reflected in the current Convention, which is up for renewal as it is due to expire in 2011.

Efforts to expand the Convention ‘toolbox’ to recognize other kinds of donations that help to feed hungry people are welcome – but the changes sometimes raise new questions. Cash commitments, for example, can be problematic when food prices soar because their purchasing power falls at the same time as the ranks of the hungry grow. One solution is for the Convention to convert all donations into estimates of the number of people that will be fed and for donors to aim to feed a target number of people. Negotiators should also improve transparency and accountability in the reporting system.

Most Convention members recognize the need for reform but some differences remains. The US favors a focus on immediate consumption and a more limited food aid toolbox than the EU does, believing that a larger toolbox will make negotiations more complicated and resources less easily obtainable.

The Food Aid Convention is an international instrument between eight donor members Australia, Argentina, Canada, European Union, Japan, Norway, Switzerland and the United States to provide at least a minimum amount of food aid and related resources annually to respond to emergency food needs. It was created in 1967 as part of an effort to manage and coordinate the international grain trade. The Food Aid Committee, responsible for administering and monitoring the Convention, currently sits at the International Grains Council. Most Member States have respected their Convention commitments providing a predictable resource to meet emergency food needs.

The Convention involved a pledge by its members to provide a minimum annual food aid totalling 4.5 million tons of grain to developing countries. Commitments were expressed in tonnages, guaranteeing a minimum quantity of food aid even in years of high world grain prices. Donors were free to decide how to distribute their aid, but multilateral channelling was encouraged. Thus, food aid pledges through the Convention became an important resource for World Food Program’s activities.

Currently agreed contributions amount to approximately five million tons of food each year, equivalent to food sufficient for about 30 million people for one year. Since the aid is counted in volume terms, these minimum levels are not affected by fluctuations in world food prices.

After six years of annual extensions pending negotiations at the WTO on an agreement on food aid, the Convention members agreed in December (2010) to begin formal negotiations for a new treaty to replace the current Convention. Negotiations will take place through the Food Aid Committee. The current chair of the Committee, Canada, issued a starting draft treaty based on earlier informal discussions and formal negotiations are to begin with a week of discussions in London starting on February 28. This will be followed by a second week of negotiations in May and a stocktaking at the regular FAC meeting in early June.

Oxfam is successfully delivering targeted aid to help eliminate global poverty. Last year, we helped more than 17 million people in 62 countries. Around the world, millions more people are being pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the economic crisis.

Contact information

For more information contact: Ian Bray +44 7721 461 339