The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) proposed a series of major changes in the way international food aid is managed and delivered. In the latest edition of its flagship annual report, The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA), FAO recommended an end to the widespread practice of "tying" food aid -- resulting in roughly a third of the global food aid budget, or some US$600 million, being spent in donor countries and never reaching beneficiaries.
Emphasizing the critical importance of sound food aid management, the report also suggested that, wherever possible, aid be provided in the form of cash or food coupons rather than food aid shipments, which can affect producers and markets in recipient countries and distort international trade.
International food aid currently provides about 10 million tonnes of commodities a year to some 200 million needy people, with an estimated total cost of US$2 billion. While recognizing that food aid is often essential, FAO's SOFA 2006 report asks whether this huge effort may sometimes do more harm than good.
No substitute in humanitarian crises
The report acknowledges that there is no substitute for food aid in coping with humanitarian crises and in some cases with chronic hunger. Food aid has undoubtedly saved millions of lives and performs other valuable functions such as helping to keep children in school and supplementing the diets of expectant mothers.
Nonetheless, such aid can disrupt local markets and undermine the resilience of local food systems, the report said, especially when it arrives at the wrong time or reaches the wrong people. Another problem is that it can displace commercial exports - one of the most contentious issues in the currently stalled Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations.
In contrast with aid in kind , "cash-based transfers or food vouchers can stimulate local production, strengthen local food systems and empower recipients in ways that traditional food aid cannot," the report said.
SOFA noted that as much as 90 percent of all food aid resources may be "tied" to some specific conditions. These often make it difficult for implementing agencies to use the aid in the most efficient way and ensure that it effectively reaches the people who need it most.
The world's leading food donors spend as much as half of their food aid budgets on domestic processing and shipping by national carriers, according to research quoted by the report. Overall, one third of global food-aid resources were wasted by such requirements, it added.
Main recommendations of the report included:
-- Eliminate programme, or government-to-government food aid, which, by definition, is not specifically targeted to needy groups. Stop the "monetization" of aid, whereby one out of every four tonnes of food aid is sold in local markets of recipient countries to generate funds for development.
-- Deliver aid in the form of cash or food coupons where possible, and use in-kind food aid only where food insecurity is due to a shortage of food rather than to such problems as access to food. Assistance aimed at improving markets - by repairing roads or improving rural infrastructure, for example - is liable to be more effective.
-- Use local and regional food-aid procurement where appropriate, as this can be of great benefit to agricultural development in many low-income developing countries. Such purchases are not always desirable, however, as they can increase local prices.
-- Improve information systems, needs analysis and monitoring. When crises occur repeatedly and hunger is chronic, donors and recipients can get caught in a "relief trap" in which longer-term development strategies are neglected.
Essentially, food aid should be seen as one of many options within a broader range of social protection measures to assure the access of needy people to food and to help households manage risks, the report concluded.
Emergency food aid now accounts for one half to two thirds of all food aid, with 39 countries receiving it. Over the past two decades, the number of food emergencies has doubled from 15 to 30 a year, with much of the increase occurring in Africa, where they have tripled.
The biggest food aid recipient in recent years has been the Democratic Republic of Korea, which receives an annual average of 1.1 million tonnes of grain equivalents - amounting to over 20 percent of the country's total food supply. Ethiopia and Bangladesh come respectively second and third.
About half of all international food aid is channelled through the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which has done much to improve food aid management over the past 20 years.
Introducing the SOFA report, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said, "No person of conscience can deny the moral imperative to help people who are unable to feed themselves."
But, he continued, "in many cases food aid is used because it is the only available resource, not because it is the best solution to the problem at hand."
"Whenever possible, it is always 'better to teach and help people to fish rather than to give them fish'. In the long term the focus should be on preventive measures aiming at an increase in the security of production and in productivity, in particular through investment in water control and rural infrastructure but also through access to inputs and credit," he added.