Doing Food Aid Better (Part 1)

Food aid is contentious. It’s a field that is rife with controversy because, even though it constitutes a major cornerstone of foreign aid, designing and implementing food aid initiatives without creating negative externalities is very difficult.

For decades, organizations such as the World Food Program (WFP) have been donating millions of tons of food to populations in need.

While the value of giving food to starving people is not debatable, models of food aid procurement and distribution have been criticized.

One of the main criticisms leveled at food aid is that — other than in acute emergency situations — giving away food undermines local producers and sellers of agricultural products. This is particularly problematic when food is imported from abroad, as is currently the case in Haiti, for instance.

While organizations claim that, so far, local producers have not been impacted by the flooding of free food in Haiti — thanks to a combination of mitigating measures such as purchasing locally when possible and the providing of technical support to farmers — the risks of undermining local markets through the dumping of imported food have been well-documented.

In places where malnutrition and food scarcity are chronic problems – as is the case with several sub-saharan African countries – the international community has been responding with stop-gap measures.

For example, the current food crisis in Niger is being addressed through “cash-for-work programmes, low-price sales, cattle-feed distribution, cereal banks and targeted nutritional blanket feeding programme to prevent malnutrition.” And while these initiatives are obviously important and useful, they are also costly and achieve little in terms of preventing similar crises from occurring in the future.

Which is why when a new, critical initiative on global food security was launched last summer during the G8 summit at L’Aquila in Italy, it seemed as though efforts to tackle malnutrition and food insecurity were finally going to be improved, through the development and financing of more sustainable, relevant initiatives.

Specifically, the G8 pledged $20 billion toward food security in developing countries, with the goal of raising smallholder farmer productivity and increasing agricultural production. The six-page statement released on the occasion notes the desire of G8 countries to tackle food insecurity through systemic change, including improving physical access to markets for smallholder farmers, ensuring that protectionist policies are kept at bay, and encouraging better global governance for food security. 

The substantial pledge was welcomed as a significant step toward developing long-term solutions to global hunger.

Following the announcement last summer, the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Kanayo F. Nwanze, noted that “In the past, food security was a mere bullet point at the G8. This time, world leaders have endorsed a concrete and wide-ranging initiative. They have recognized that food security has two dimensions: food aid for critical situations and sustained investment in agriculture to break the poverty cycle.”

And, last week, the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) launched, as the first concrete initiative flowing from the L’Aquila commitments.

GAFSP is a trust fund administered by the World Bank. It is overseen by a steering committee and technical advisory committee made up of representatives from donor and recipient countries, as well as food and agriculture experts and implementing partners — such as IFAD — and regional development banks.

Initially capitalized at $880 million, this new fund is meant to replicate other successful global initiatives, such as the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

This is definitely a step in the right direction. The Food and Agriculture Organization notes that over the last few decades, the share of overall Official Development Assistance (ODA) for agriculture has been decreasing steadily, from a peak of 17 percent in 1979, to a low of 3.5 percent in 2004 (it rose again to 5.5 percent in 2007).

The infusion of predictable, long term financing options for governments of low income countries wishing to invest in developing their agricultural sector is good news.

Creating a new fund is a great first step – but it’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In my next post, I will attempt to shed light on how exactly the fund can support agricultural development in low income countries, and why it’s important investments in agriculture be considered in conjunction with broader poverty alleviation efforts.