Third of global food aid ‘wasted’ due to donor countries’ requirements – UN report

24 January 2007 – One third of the global food aid budget, or some $600 million annually, is wasted due to conditions tying it to processing and shipping by national carriers of donor countries, and such in-kind aid should be replaced by cash payments that boost production in recipient States, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today.

“Cash-based transfers or food vouchers can stimulate local production, strengthen local food systems and empower recipients in ways that traditional food aid cannot,” FAO stressed in the latest edition of its flagship annual report, The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA), noting that in-kind aid may sometimes do more harm than good.

“Whenever possible, it is always ‘better to teach and help people to fish rather than to give them fish,’” FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said in introducing the report, which proposes major changes in the way food aid is managed and delivered.

“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.

But he noted that 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. “No person of conscience can deny the moral imperative to help people who are unable to feed themselves,” he said.

International food aid currently provides about 10 million tonnes of commodities a year to some 200 million needy people, at an estimated total cost of $2 billion. The report acknowledges that there is no substitute for food aid in coping with humanitarian crises and in some cases with chronic hunger.

Such 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, but it can also disrupt local markets and undermine the resilience of local food systems, especially when it arrives at the wrong time or reaches the wrong people.

The report noted that as much as 90 per cent of all food aid resources may be tied to some specific conditions, often making 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, with one third of global food-aid resources wasted by such requirements.

In-kind aid should be used only where the problem is due to a shortage of food rather than to such issues as lack of access to food. Assistance aimed at improving markets by repairing roads or improving rural infrastructure is liable to be more effective.

Using local and regional food-aid procurement where appropriate can greatly benefit agricultural development in many low-income developing countries, but such purchases are not always desirable as they can increase local prices.

The report also recommended eliminating programme, or government-to-government, food aid which, by definition, is not specifically targeted to needy groups, and stopping 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.

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 (DPRK), which receives an annual average of 1.1 million tonnes of grain equivalents – amounting to over 20 per cent 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 UN World Food Programme (WFP), which has done much to improve food aid management over the past 20 years.

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