The ‘Hungry’ Legal Regime for International Food Aid

The lingering global financial crisis has been accompanied by a less publicized but in many respects more sinister crisis in Africa – a food crisis. This food crisis and the regulatory lag in taking corrective action in its wake has led to regional farmers in Southern Africa taking up this cause onto their agendas, with a view to influencing the manner in which food aid destined for Africa is dealt with internationally. These global events served as a catalyst to facilitate a policy formulation process on the topic of Food Aid for Southern African farmers, who have realized the need to address the impacts that food aid has on their businesses through the forums available under international treaties and organizations – the Food Aid Convention, the FAO and the WTO. This is important because a staggering 65% of global food aid lands up in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Food Aid can be described as the transfer of commodities (mainly grain) or payments close in nature, to developing countries as a form of development assistance for the provision of food. Three broad categories of food aid can be distinguished under this description being Emergency Food Aid (humanitarian/crisis purposes); Project Food Aid (linked to development projects) Programme Food Aid (donor government to recipient government budget support). In the broader context, food aid is related to the wider concept of ‘food security’.

In Africa it is crucial to prevent food aid from weakening the agricultural sector, but rather seizing the opportunity of making food aid a tool that contributes to unlocking the agricultural potential of the region to produce enough food for its people, enhancing its commercialisation capacities as well as creating jobs for rural people.

The importance of food aid has declined over the past decade, with quantities decreasing from 15.1 million tons in 1999 to 5.9 million tons in 2007. This is a record low for food aid deliveries. Over the years it has been found that the availability of food aid is high when there have been good harvests and low prices. In contrast, availability of food aid is low when prices are high, which critically compromises the compensating role of food aid in times of food shortages. This is completely counter intuitive and indicative of the link between food aid and surplus disposal policies. In recent years the majority of food aid deliveries were provided as grants, about 97%, and the remainder on concessional terms. In 2007 the United States provided 44% of global food aid, while the European Union provided 25%. In looking at the two largest international donors it seemed that the European Union has a milder, development orientated approach, where the United States still suffers from a legacy of politics linked to food aid and surplus disposals; admittedly changes are afoot in their approach. The reality is that no engagement on food aid can be considered a worthy engagement, absent of the United States as they remain the biggest food aid donor. African agriculture will have to remain attuned to this in their strategies in the international fora.

In the international architecture of food aid, the Food Aid Convention (FAC) arguably the primary international instrument in the food aid arena. It is a legally well constructed and structurally sound as a treaty to administer international food aid. The Achilles heel – participation and transparency, under the treaty does however require attention. The objectives of the FAC are firstly to contribute to global food security and only secondly to improve the ability of the international community to respond to food emergencies. Given the area of impact of the undertakings under the FAC, African countries are glaringly sparse to absent in their participation under the International Grains Agreement (IGA), both in the FAC and in the sister Grains Trade Convention (GTC). In particular the Food Aid Convention does not allow for the membership of recipient countries to the convention.

In the FAO context the Consultative Sub-Committee on Surplus Disposal (CSSD) looks to ensure that agricultural commodities which are exported on concessionary terms result in additional consumption for the recipient country and do not displace normal commercial imports. Likewise domestic production should not be discouraged or otherwise adversely affected. Its principles are not a binding instrument. They do not represent a commitment but only intent by signatory countries. Africans are present here although seemingly inputs are low. This again is potentially an opportunity for greater ‘voice’ by African countries. In addition the question may be asked whether there is a valid role for the CSSD as the notion of ‘surplus disposal’ and food aid is out of vogue.

The most interesting activity on food aid internationally is within the realm of the WTO. In taking the issue forward from the current position to the future Doha deal, there is consensus among WTO Members that the WTO shall not stand in the way of the provision of genuine food aid. There is also consensus that what is to be eliminated is commercial displacement. The African contingent has been rather successful in having their views reflected in the negotiating texts. The African proposal distinguishes between emergency food aid and other non-emergency food aid. In emergencies they support the ‘Safe Box’ concept arguing that as it will be used for emergency food aid, it should not be subject to any disciplines at all. With regards other forms of food aid, the African aim is to ensure that food aid does not displace commercial trade or adversely affects local agricultural production. In addition, the WTO Decision on Net Food Importing Developing Countries (NFIDCs) allows for poor countries to ask for assistance to improve productivity and infrastructure. Commentators say that it is unclear that any least developed countries (LDCs) or NFIDCs have really made serious requests under the Decision. Again this might be an opportunity for better voicing of African needs.

From a regional perspective it seems that the New Partnership for African Development’s (NEPAD) Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Plan (CAADP) initiative holds much promise in regional coordination and development action for food aid, within a wider food security and agricultural development agenda. In short the top drivers that will influence food aid flows over the next decade are; the production of biofuels from food crops, the global economic crisis and climate change. These factors exist in tandem with developments in international law to reform the global institutional regime for food aid.

From a policy perspective the farmers of Southern Africa have recognized that Food Aid cannot be a replacement for the benefits that a long term food security strategy and related system will provide. In this regard African farmers have compiled a list policy responses and positions that they feel need to be taken up by Southern African governments and the requisite international organizations. They acknowledge the necessity for and benefits of Food Aid to augment their productive activities in providing human relief in times when circumstances outside of the control of farmers lead to a shortage of food in the region to the extent that some people do not have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. However, they also wish to guard against the introduction of ill-timed and poorly targeted market disrupting food aid into their home and regional markets. In this regard readers may be interested in reading the food aid policy of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU) at <>.

The policy response on Food Aid should focus on making the international legal architecture for food aid more friendly and participative for recipient countries, but also encourage a more proactive and participative role from regional agriculture. Regional farmers can also strongly support the African initiatives on food aid in the ongoing Doha negotiations. There seems to be a growing understanding that forceful words form African mouths at international forums have a direct role in filling African mouths with food in sustainable manner.