September 16, 2005
Only a fraction of the world's food aid is used to fight high-profile famines such as Niger's 2005 hunger crisis, with the bulk going to feed people caught up in natural disasters or conflicts or who simply live in places where poverty is endemic. Following are key facts about the global food aid system and how it works. For a summary of the main controversies surrounding food aid, see TALKING POINT: The global food aid controversy.
Where does food aid come from?
The Rome-based U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) is the most significant channel for emergency food aid, although some governments give large amounts of food without involving the WFP. Other U.N. agencies and nongovernmental agencies often distribute food that is shipped by the WFP, especially if they are already operating in the place where it's going. The WFP issues appeals, and it receives donations, mostly from rich countries.
So countries give cash donations and WFP buys the food?
That's what you might think, and that's how the WFP says it would like the system to work. But in fact a lot of donations to the WFP come "in kind", as food from the donor country. They call this "tied aid". About 75 percent of all food aid in 2004 was directly distributed in this way, according to food expert Edward Clay. The WFP says it would rather receive cash than food. Then it could buy food locally or in neighbouring countries and boost local economies. This is usually – although not always -- a lot quicker and cheaper.
Who gives the most food aid?
The United States is by far the biggest donor, supplying more than half of global food aid. In 2004, 99 percent of it was tied, not cash. The European Union, its member countries, Australia, Canada and Japan are also major food donors. New donors like India, China and South Korea have just started donating their surplus food.
How much food aid do countries give?
There is a Food Aid Convention, dating from the 1960s, that commits the world's wealthy countries to providing a minimum of about five million tonnes of food aid a year. Since 1999, donors have been able to make their contribution in cash instead of food. The total amount fluctuates, but has never dropped below the minimum. In 2004 the total was almost 7.4 million tonnes. The previous year it was much higher -- about nine million tonnes – because of food aid to Iraq.
Do countries choose where their donations go?
Aid experts say most countries prefer to choose where their aid is going instead of letting the WFP decide where it's needed most. Some governments put strings on aid, for example saying it has to be shipped in vessels under their own flags. All this means that countries are open to accusations that aid decisions are made to help foreign policy or to open up new export markets. It also means that low-profile crises tend to be underfunded.
So food aid isn't just for emergencies?
Many players in the humanitarian world say food aid is only appropriate in dire emergencies. Others say it can occasionally be necessary for a brief period after a natural disaster or during a conflict when food supplies are disrupted, but that in these cases, cash is better than food. For example, British agency Oxfam said there was no need for the United States to ship rice to tsunami-affected countries, when it was available in areas away from the coast. If extra food was needed, it would have helped the economies of Thailand and India to buy from them.
What other kind of food aid is there?
Food aid is sometimes distributed in development projects as school dinners or take-home food in poor countries, or to mothers and children in areas where nutrition is bad, or in schemes where hungry people work on infrastructure projects in exchange for food. Many aid workers agree with school feeding projects, saying they help children to concentrate, learn better and raise attendance. But some specialists are less supportive of food-for-work schemes, which they say are patronising and hard to organise, and that cash can be better used to provide food vouchers or to help with school fees. School is not free in many of the world's poorest countries. Another argument against this kind of aid is that there are no guarantees it will continue if the food aid dries up. This has happened in several countries in Latin America.
So not all food aid goes through the WFP?
Many governments provide large amounts of food directly to NGOs either for emergencies or for development projects. Some governments -- the United States in particular – give food to NGOs to sell on local markets to fund development projects. Some donors also give food aid directly to governments for them sell in local markets as a means of funding their budgets. For example, the United States provides food to Uzbekistan in this way. Some donor countries don't even give food for free, but instead offer it as a loan or sell it at subsidised prices. After lobbying from aid experts, most donors have stopped the practice of giving food for re-sale, arguing that it's an inefficient way of reaching people in need and risks disrupting local markets. Most food experts, including the WFP, say that food aid has limited effect unless it's targeted at the people who most need it, especially women and children.
More General Analysis on Hunger
More Information on Lack of Hunger Relief and Other Food Aid Challenges
More Information on World Hunger
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