Analysis: The future of food aid


Jaspreet Kindra

JOHANNESBURG, 26 July 2013 (IRIN) - By the end of the next decade food security could deteriorate in some of the world’s poorest countries, according to a recent global forecast by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

By 2023 the number of food-insecure people is likely to increase by nearly 23 percent to 868 million (at a slightly faster rate than projected population growth of 16 percent), said USDA’s Economic Research Service which focused on 76 low- and middle-income countries classified by the World Bank as being on food aid, experiencing food insecurity, or as having experienced it.

In countries most likely to see a significant rise in the number of food-insecure people, such as Malawi and Uganda, the production and import of food will not be able to keep pace with population growth.

Despite improvements over the years, sub-Saharan Africa is projected to remain the most food-insecure region in the world.

In the past decade global food aid, including the amount making its way to sub-Saharan Africa, has been on a downward trend. Only 2.5 million tons reached sub-Saharan Africa in 2011, whereas during the decade as a whole it ranged from just under three million tons to just over 5 million tons, according to USDA, citing World Food Programme (WFP) data.

The face of food aid has also begun to change. In the past decade, “food aid” has begun to evolve into “food assistance”, which includes help provided in the form of cash and vouchers for people in need. This can save millions of dollars in transportation and storage costs.

By 2015, WFP, the world’s largest food aid agency, expects almost a third of its assistance programmes to be delivered in the form of cash, vouchers and new kinds of “digital food” through smartcards and e-vouchers delivered by SMS. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of WFP cash and voucher projects increased from five in 2008 to 51 in 2011. In that year WFP set aside US$208 million for distributions using cash or vouchers, but still spent over one billion dollars on food.

IRIN asked some of the world’s leading experts to speculate on the future of food aid.

Crises that drive the need for food aid are either man-made (conflicts, economies in crisis) or natural events (droughts, floods, earthquakes) or a complex mix of both, which might test people’s resilience and make them chronically dependent on assistance. People need different kinds of aid in different situations. If food is not available in a flooded area, actual food supplies are the answer. In the case of chronic shortages, experts suggest cash or vouchers, integrated into a broader social protection system, might be the answer.

Threats over the coming decade

Christopher Barrett, a food aid expert who teaches at Cornell University in the USA, said: “The big threats over the coming decade are the ones we already face: conflict first and foremost, a variety of natural disasters, and major macroeconomic disruptions. The climate scientists don’t talk seriously of change over the course of a decade.”

Food aid expert Daniel Maxwell, a professor at Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center, agrees the drivers of crisis will not change substantially. “I suspect that we will continue to see the kinds of protracted crises that we have come to see over the past decade that are a combination of both `natural’ and man-made causes… but with a strong element of weak or failed governance, and these may be in countries with perfectly capable governments, but just in marginalized parts of those countries."

Eric Munoz, senior policy adviser with Oxfam America, said he would add food price volatility to the mix: A changing climate, causing disruptions in “production in major exporting countries and damaging crops in fragile agriculture markets will add to this volatility”.

More cash transfers

Escalating costs of transporting food, lower quantities of surplus production to dispense as food aid, and the complex nature of crises have forced more donors to widen their choice of response from exclusive food aid to cash transfers and vouchers.

“Non-emergency food aid as we have known it will disappear but the core functions will continue, both because growing demands for emergency response will gobble up the modest international food assistance budgets available, and because school feeding, maternal and child health and nutrition programs, smallholder development, and other programs will get absorbed within the broader development programs that donors fund," said Barrett in an email.

He also believes more countries which used to rely on food assistance will “develop their own effective safety-net programs (whether through employment guarantee schemes, conditional or unconditional cash transfers, unemployment or agricultural insurance, etc.)".

In countries with weak governance, international food assistance could end up playing the role of a social safety-net, said Maxwell, but not very well “unless integrated into national programs - and there will continue to be political tensions about whether to do that or not. In these places, future genuine humanitarian emergencies are likely to be driven by combinations of factors: The Somalia famine was blamed on a bad drought, and indeed there was a bad drought, but there was also a concomitant food price spike, ongoing conflict, and a highly politicized crisis of access. In other places, rapid onset natural disasters will probably not be major arenas for food aid (it is just too slow) and will be replaced by cash or other interventions."

WTO rules hamper food security?

Food insecure countries' reliance on "markets, and thus on local and regional suppliers, will continue to grow," said Barrett. This could happen especially if a World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement is reached in the next 10 years, he said.

The WTO Doha Development Round of negotiations (begun in 2001) on a new agreement that could help reduce the number of poor people in developing countries, has been in stop-start mode for some years.

The talks are aimed at reducing global barriers to market access, including for agricultural produce. Olivier de Schutter, the UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on the right to food, believes current WTO rules are hampering poor countries' efforts to become food secure.

Timely food aid interventions save lives, "but protracted relief interventions (such as those widely implemented by WFP in many countries) are a distorted way of maintaining food assistance in circumstances where it is no longer necessary or adequate," said José Luis Vivero Pol, an anti-hunger activist with Université Catholique de Louvain in an email. "But food aid is a good business for many companies and international institutions," and he expects that to continue. Funds, he wrote, flow "easier and faster [for] food aid than for food security for resilience".

New donors?

Will the traditional donors remain? Will the US, the world's largest food aid donor, be able to finally reform its food aid system which is designed to benefit its farmers and transport sector? President Barack Obama’s efforts to end the link between supporting US farmers and international food aid by removing food aid programmes from the US Farm Bill and placing them under “foreign assistance”, among other radical reforms, were rejected in June.

Barrett is optimistic. "Food aid reform in the US is inevitable. The only question is timing. Within a decade I think it a virtual certainty that we will see the US programs moved out from under the Farm Bill and agricultural authorization/appropriations process in the Congress. US international food assistance will get bundled within broader foreign assistance budgeting and programming, and the `buy American’ provisions will be substantially relaxed."

Maxwell agrees: "We've already seen a major rise in the procurement of food for aid in affected countries or neighbouring countries (local and regional purchase). This will no doubt continue."

Oxfam's Munoz reckons there will be "greater interest" from emerging economies in providing assistance. "The recent renegotiation of the Food Aid Convention seemed to recognize this with some creative thinking about twinning arrangements - food from one country paired with funding from other countries to cover expenses like shipping and handling." Recently a new Food Assistance Convention replaced the Food Aid Convention of 1999, which expired in 2002 but was repeatedly extended.

Activist Pol feels "food assistance is another means to exert foreign influence.” Emerging powers like Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa "will soon become food aid suppliers... The main problem is that some of them do not trust the UN institutions to do it, but they do not yet have the national infrastructure to do it by themselves…

"Pure altruism is far from being the main motivation for many countries, although it is true that there is a huge difference between the US and Europe. Europe is more altruistic, and they have influenced others regarding local purchases (a European invention) and social protection (permanent and temporary)."

He also sees more private companies and philanthropic foundations joining the “[food assistance] club, but they will use others’ logistical capabilities (such as USAID)."