Speaking up about food assistance – and being heard

Food assistance has been and continues to be controversial. On the one hand, for someone who has missed several meals in a row, the provision of food is a gift from heaven. On the other hand, the motivations that have driven food assistance have been highly mixed, often (but not always) based on disposing of donor stocks of surplus grain, pulses or cooking oil. There are good people and good arguments on both sides of the heated debate about the appropriate modalities of food assistance.

Timely advocacy by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) has led to significant changes in the Canadian government’s commitments to, and the modalities of, food assistance. Moreover, the changes in the past decade may have rendered the food assistance debate irrelevant. Indeed, current humanitarian trends, notably the growing acceptance of cash transfers, may eliminate traditional food assistance altogether.

In this article I tell the story of the dramatic change in food assistance policy by one major global food assistance donor: Canada. Canada was, in fact, the first modern food assistance donor as part of the intergovernmental Colombo Plan for economic and social development in Asia and the Pacific in the early 1950s. Except for some brief periods of reform in the 1970s, until 2005 Canadian food assistance donations were mostly tied to sending food produced in Canada to countries around the world. Most U.S. food assistance continues to be tied to U.S. production, although European donor governments largely untied their food assistance in 1996.

In the decade leading up to the untying of Canadian food aid in 2005, the Canadian government had been quietly cutting its food assistance program, with the funding redirected towards more ‘evidence-based’ programs like vitamin pills and food fortification. This trend meant that Canada was falling farther and farther behind the food aid commitments it had made as part of the multilateral Food Aid Convention in 1999.

This convention, created in the 1960s, was designed to ensure that rich agricultural exporting countries would share the burden of providing emergency food and avoid using food assistance to steal each other’s export markets. The convention has been renegotiated several times since its instigation, broadening the range of foods covered and changing the commitments of the various donors. Since 1999 Canada had been committed to providing 420,000 tonnes of food each year in emergency food aid. But actual donations had slipped as low as 250,000 tonnes/year in the first years of the twenty-first century, and Canada owed the hungry of the world several hundred thousand tonnes of food.

The Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s work focuses on providing food for those who face hunger. The funding for this work comes from private contributions, matched by the Canadian government. Operationally, the government requirement to send food from Canada meant that it often arrived many weeks after it was first needed. And, as international shipping was revolutionized by containerization, the shipping of bulk food
commodities became slower and more expensive. Getting more flexibility for increased local and regional purchase of food for food assistance had become a high priority.

The creation of the public policy program at CFGB in 2000 focused the organization’s efforts to effect policy changes. In addition to lobbying the Canadian government for the untying of Canadian food assistance, CFGB catalyzed the creation in 2005 of a consortium of European and North American NGOs to push for the reform of the 1999 Food Aid Convention. To strengthen the case for change, public policy staff linked the desirability of untying Canadian food assistance with Canada’s interest at the World Trade Organization to limit the ability of U.S. food assistance to interfere with Canadian food exports.

Although CFGB and other humanitarian actors had some success in persuading Canadian elected officials of the value of untying food assistance and meeting Canada’s commitments, it took the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami to tip the balance. In places like Sri Lanka, local food was plentiful and largely unaffected. It made no sense to send more food from Canada.

The national media, having run out of direct stories about the tsunami, picked up on this obvious fact and took aim at Canada’s food assistance policies. Policy change came swiftly, with 50% of Canadian food assistance funding becoming available to buy food wherever it made the most sense early in 2005.

Meanwhile, Canada’s failure to meet its Food Aid Convention commitments began to receive more attention, at least in part as a result of CFGB’s advocacy. The partial untying of Canada’s food assistance helped by permitting Canada to recalculate its food assistance shipments. Starting in 2005 Canada met or exceeded its 420,000 tonne commitment.

Finally, Canada’s food assistance policy reform and the 2008 global food price crisis stirred the members of the Food Aid Convention into action. During 2010 and 2011 member states agreed upon a new Food Assistance Convention. The new Convention went far beyond providing traditional food assistance to include providing food vouchers and cash transfers to allow recipients to buy their own food on the local market. It also included provisions to allow cash to purchase livestock and other short-term agricultural inputs.

These changes make sense. But as the focus of food assistance has broadened and become more closely linked to the market, other issues have arisen. Food assistance commitments are increasingly made in cash terms rather than amounts of food. If the food prices skyrocket, as they did in 2008 and again in 2010, less food will be available to those who need it most, when they need it most.

Within the humanitarian sector there is now a push to dispense entirely with a food focus in favor of simply giving cash to allow people to buy whatever they need, including food. We may be seeing the end of the modern food assistance era.

The Foodgrains Bank’s efforts to reform food assistance demonstrate the importance of building coalitions of support and being ready for the opportunity to build the momentum for change. But the momentum for change can exceed the goals of reform. Would a loss of a focus on food and a move toward cash transfers reduce the public commitment to end hunger? It is certainly possible. Or will we perhaps see a renewed commitment to a more flexible, less restrictive way to help the least of these?

Stuart Clark is special advisor to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and is based in Whitehorse, Yukon.

Learn more:

Clapp, Jennifer. Hunger in the Balance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Barret, Chris and Dan Maxwell. Food Aid after 50 Years, Recasting Its Role. London: Routledge, 2005.

Charlton, Mark W. The Making of Canadian Food Aid Policy. Montreal and London: McGill and Queens University Press, 1992.

Rieff, David. The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.