HE SAID, SHE SAID: Experts take sides on food aid

by Reuters
Tuesday, 13 December 2005 00:00 GMT

Filipino police block women group protesting in Manila against the World Trade Organisation. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

While Europe and the United States clash over farming subsidies at World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in Hong Kong, more than 25,000 people die of hunger every day, according to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP). Aid agencies have reported food crises this year in western and southern Africa, but there is no consensus on the efficiency or justice of the current food aid system ' which relies heavily on transporting surpluses of "tied" food aid donations across the world. Reuters AlertNet canvases the opinions of the players in the aid world, the U.N. and the U.S. government. Yasmin McDonnell, policy adviser on the international emergencies and conflict team, ActionAid International, says:

'The U.S. food aid industry is a profit-making industry, which currently does little to help poor and marginalised groups in developing countries. Developing countries are easy targets for U.S. dumping of surplus food commodities. Clearly the food aid system is not functioning well and the pending WTO talks are the opportunity to remedy this malfunction in an organised and formal way.

'ActionAid supports the EU proposals in the WTO talks, that all food aid be cash-based and untied from requirements to source commodities in the donor country. The US instead should move to cash donations not food in kind, so that food can be purchased in or near the country where food aid is required.

'The U.S. is brokering with the lives of the poorest and most needy. It needs to move urgently on these issues in the current WTO trade talks and stop profiting from the misfortunes of the least fortunate.'

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Daniel Maxwell, deputy regional director for East and Central Africa, CARE, says:

'We have often been interpreted as being anti-food aid and that's not true. We recognise and completely understand the extent to which food aid has saved peoples lives, their livelihoods and helped out in crisis.

'Food aid has been the only main resource to address any kind of food insecurity problem. To fix the food aid system requires more than fixing food aid itself; it requires addressing donor budgets for cash and for other kinds of interventions, addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity in addition to clarifying and improving how we use food as an 'in kind' commodity for addressing acute hunger.

'As an organisation we think that some proportion of food aid should be acquired through local and regional purchase and that means untying it from the U.S. market

'The institutions that govern food aid are badly out of date and are in disuse and disrepair at the moment. Clearly, some institutional repair work needs to take place.'

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Gregory Barrow, senior public affairs officer, WFP, says:

'In an ideal world, as an agency, the WFP would welcome the flexibility of cash donations. Cash gives much better flexibility than donations in kind, it allows us to do more in the way of purchasing locally and do more in the way of using money to find the most efficient way of delivering food aid.

The practical world is somewhat different. We have found in the past that even when there has been a division in terms of donors -- with those who give food aid in kind and those who give in cash -- food aid has been quicker to arrive than cash. For example, in Darfur in 2005, if it wasn't for in-kind donations from the United States then the WFP would have faced some very serious challenges in terms of feeding the population and internally displaced people. You cannot assume that donors who once gave food aid would give the equivalent amount of cash.

'I would like to stress the open-minded approach of the WFP. In Sri Lanka after the tsunami... we used a mixture of food donations and cash voucher schemes... To people who are hungry, it frankly doesn't matter where (food aid) comes from. What matters to them is that they get fed on a particular day. People in Malawi are not being presented with bags of maize and asking whether this is tied food aid or a cash donation. They are just happy that it's there.'

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William O'Keefe, director of government relations, Catholic Relief Services, says:

'The food aid system works to a very great extent and is responsible for saving millions of lives in emergencies and more importantly supporting a whole range of development activities like education and basic health care.

'CRS conducts local purchase and has for many years used its own funds in a variety of different situations. It allows us to meet a very targeted need in an efficient and effective way. However, in an emergency situation where you have an area or a country that is already extremely food insecure, for international organisations to come in and try to procure the small supplies that are there, it can very dramatically drive up the price and cause further insecurity for the very people who don't have enough food to eat. If (local purchase) isn't done carefully and if it's done in too large of a manner it can contribute to the problem. In many situations it is more timely and more effective to bring in food from a food surplus situation like the USA.

'We would like to see an expansion of local purchase options because our concern is expanding the response to people who need help. The truth of the matter is without the option of a large U.S. Title 2 programme (the legal framework for U.S. food aid, which is tied to its own producers) there's no way that there would be the kind of response that we need, given the increase in emergencies and the serious hunger needs around the world.'

*** Hanna Mattinen, aid worker, Action Against Hunger, says: 'There are certainly some things that you could change' In-kind food aid is definitely needed in acute emergencies where there is no food available regionally or locally. This is when you need to ship in food from wherever you can get it from the quickest. On other occasions, there may be food available locally and regionally and it's preferable to use that source

'Globally, a lot of food is given in non-emergency situations at the moment and in this situation you can normally buy food locally and regionally without having an impact on the local market in terms of inflation. We prefer untied aid so we can get the money and buy food there.

'If there is no food available in the country or locally you have to ship in the food from other areas it has to be done in good time -- for example not in the middle of the harvest period. There are often problems with food arriving quite late, even in areas with acute food needs. Sometimes projects are more supply-driven than demand-driven, meaning the food arrives and because it has arrived the food aid programme is implemented.

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Heather Layman, deputy press director, USAID, says:

'The current food aid programme we have does work well now, but it is not always as flexible as it could be. Food aid from the United States provides a substantial amount of food to people who need it, but more flexibility would allow us to be more responsive for the times when we need to get food to people in need quickly.

'The President's budget request contained a provision that would allow USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development), in dire emergencies, to purchase food locally to help save lives. It can take up to four months to get food to those who need it, and during that time people's lives are at risk. To help close that gap, the proposal was to shift $300 million in authority for purchases of U.S. commodities to a cash programme that could be used to purchase commodities in other countries. Food grown by American farmers would continue to be the cornerstone of our response to large-scale food emergencies.'

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