Against the Grain

The world needs a new food assistance pact to cope with the tragedy in the Horn of Africa.


The drought that has been unfolding across the Horn of Africa over the last two years is now showing us its worst face. Due to a perfect storm of poverty, drought, and civil war, more than 10 million people are threatened by malnutrition and starvation, according to the United Nations. Without adequate food assistance, thousands of lives will be lost.

What is the rest of the world doing about this? The G-20 agriculture ministers met in Paris in June and promised to invest in agricultural development and curb commodity speculation and rising food prices. But this effort — no doubt important — does not help the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who are right now fleeing dried-up patches of land and seeking shelter in packed refugee camps. Moreover, the ministers’ promises will not have any impact anytime soon. Many proposals will be further debated, developed, analyzed — and likely never implemented.

Meanwhile, Somalis will starve.

The world is in need of a global agreement to ensure a minimum level of food assistance to the most vulnerable. Such a pact could improve our humanitarian response and ensure that sufficient aid is provided to help mitigate the worst effects of famines and droughts like the one currently unfolding on the Horn of Africa.

Believe it or not, a pact meant to serve this very purpose already exists: the Food Aid Convention. This agreement was developed during the "Kennedy Round" of negotiations in the 1960s as a way to unload donor countries’ grain surpluses. But now it’s outdated and ill-equipped to deal with today’s realities. The convention allows signatories to fulfill their commitments primarily through providing bulk commodities such as wheat and rice. Meanwhile, it provides few incentives for donors to support more innovative and effective practices like direct cash distributions or voucher programs, which can work well when local markets still exist.

The convention also favors convenient but less nutritious bulk grains over micronutrient enriched or therapeutic nutritional products like Plumpy’nut or MixMe, which provide recipients with many of the nutrients they need. This is the wrong logic. What donors supply should depend on the needs on the ground, not what’s in stock. Because these products are not yet "eligible" in large quantities to meet the signatories’ commitments, donors are in effect discouraged from providing them more often.

It should not be hard for the European Union and the United States, the convention’s major signatories, to improve its many flaws. After all, the G-20 agriculture ministers affirmed in their final Paris communiqué on June 23 that they "support initiatives to maximize efficient delivery of food assistance." But it is increasingly hard to understand why renegotiation talks already under way this spring did not yield results.

A revised convention should provide increased incentives for cash and voucher programs and the provision of more nutritious food aid. It should also acknowledge the importance of preparing the ground for long-term solutions early on in a crisis and include rehabilitation and recovery programs related to livestock and agriculture. This is an essential step to make food aid less necessary in the future.

Food assistance is important to keep starving people from dying, but it is no panacea for global hunger. It has been provided for decades, with shiploads of Western surplus production dumped at the ports of African and Asian countries, often distorting local markets and harming local farmers. This mustn’t be repeated. A new treaty could orient food assistance away from bulk contributions of aid and toward programs that allow local communities to help themselves and address the worst effects of famine.

The priorities and practices of the European Union and the United States have recently converged on this issue. Although it has not been widely reported, last year the United States began providing annual contributions of up to $250 million for cash and voucher programs and other new approaches to food assistance; this is on top of its large in-kind donations. This new "Emergency Food Security Program" alone is nearly two-thirds of the European Commission’s total regular budget for food assistance. So far, however, this new spirit of innovation has not been applied to the convention, which secures funding in times of tight budgets but forces law-abiding donors to continue with outdated practices.

If major donors want to achieve real change, both the European Union and the United States must first put their own houses in order. For the European Commission, which is leading the EU member states in the process of renegotiating the treaty, this means forging a common voice and vision for food assistance. The European Union still seems to be pulled in different directions on the relevant issues, with some EU states pushing for transparent figures on contributions, while others fear that their low figures will put them into a bad light. If the commission tries to appease all of them, it will be forced to dilute its innovative proposals to irrelevance.

For its part, the United States must not let budgetary constraints imperil food aid. It should also accept that forms of assistance other than in-kind food aid must be featured in a new convention. Enlarging the toolbox is not, as one U.S. official told me, akin to a "beauty pageant," but a necessary step to provide the right incentives to improve food assistance and ensure that commitments can be met.

European and American negotiators can accomplish a great deal when they meet over the next few months to renegotiate the convention. Let’s hope that they’ll soon have more to offer the world’s hungry.

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