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What’s the use of the 2012 Food Assistance Convention?

Written by Ed Clay


The text of the 2012 Food Assistance Convention (FAC) was posted on the United Nations Treaty website on 25 April 2012 and open to signature from 11 June. This treaty is the intended successor to the 1999 Food Aid Convention, the only international legal agreement requiring signatories to provide a minimum amount of food aid. Symbolically it implies a donor commitment to address world hunger.

After repeated renegotiation during the contentious debate on food aid in the Doha Development Round, the FAC has been drafted in conclave since December 2010 by officials responsible for food aid from the United States (US), European Union (EU), Japan, Australia, Norway, Switzerland and Argentina, and chaired by Canada. In the hope that there will now be a wider and open discussion, rather than accepting the treaty as a fait accompli, I would like to highlight four issues raised by a preliminary examination of the 2012 FAC text.

First, in place of the specific objective of ’making appropriate levels of food aid available on a predictable basis‘ in the 1999 Food Aid Convention, the new text proposes a wider, more general objective ‘addressing the food and nutritional needs of the most vulnerable population through commitments made by the Parties to provide food assistance that improves access to, and consumption of, adequate, safe and nutritious food’.’

Is this anything more than a form of words to allow governments to do what they would have done anyway? The US will continue to donate food aid largely in kind under the provisions of its Farm Bill that set a minimum 2.5 million tonnage. The EU will commit itself to funding a wider variety of food-based and non-food-based interventions, as envisaged in the Commission’s March 2010 Communication. So if signatories are going to do what they would have done anyway, what is the additional value of international treaty commitments and the provision of another forum for information exchange and consultation, besides all the other places where governments can discuss food security and humanitarian aid effectiveness? 

Second, food 'assistance' provided under the new FAC could make a difference to the lives of vulnerable people if the value of commitments increases rather than declines when global prices rise. During the 2007-08 food-price spike, food-aid donations from FAC donors collapsed to a 50- year low, causing agencies to scramble to avoid cutting emergency rations and school feeding programs. Minimum commitments under the Convention, whether in cash or kind, are to be determined and announced afterwards, and not set out in the treaty, as previously. The text fails to explain: how can donors’ withstand another price spike?

Third, there is back-tracking in the detailed wording of the treaty from the draft World Trade Organization Doha Development Round (DDR) rules to prevent food aid distorting trade or local markets. Notably whereas the DDR draft text envisages that food-aid transactions will be in fully grant form, the new FAC allows up to 20 per cent of assistance to be in the form of loans. In narrowly economic terms, what distinguishes a concessional in-kind food-aid loan from an agricultural export credit? How will it be helpful for a recipient of food assistance to become further indebted to meet short-term food needs?

Fourth, an interesting new question is, who would be the signatories? Should individual European governments sign the treaty and then make their own bilateral commitments, instead of being party to a single EU commitment, as in the past? For reasons of transparency, accountability and aid effectiveness, would individual rather than group commitments be an improvement?

Before governments and the EU ratify the treaty it is important to ask the question which Jeremy Bentham posed about any law, custom or institution: ’What is the use of it?’