February 25, 2013

International treaty ushers in new era of food assistance

On February 5, CIDA announced its ratification of the new Food Assistance Convention (FAC). The FAC is a treaty that helps ensure that a minimum amount of quality food assistance is made available each year. In these times of foreign assistance cut-backs and increased climate and conflict related threats to food security, ratification of the FAC is a major achievement.

Along with Canada, other major donors of food assistance have now signed on including the E.U., Japan and the U.S. The new FAC came into force on January 1 2013 and the Food Assistance Committee (the governing body) convened for the first time under the new Convention on February 15.
The FAC itself isn’t new. Formerly known as the Food Aid Convention, its origins date back to 1967 and it has been re-negotiated six times in the interim.

What is fresh about this version is the FAC’s new emphasis on innovative and flexible responses to food crises. Cash and voucher-based programs now stand on equal footing with in-kind food transfers, caps on products to improve nutrition of women and children have disappeared, and the provision of agricultural tools and animal re-stocking are now permitted during emergencies and early recovery situations to help preserve assets and livelihoods. Importantly, linkages between short-term relief and long-term food security are underscored.
The new FAC enshrines updated principles for what constitutes effective and efficient food assistance. Local and regional procurement of commodities are encouraged and monetization is discouraged.

Another positive development is language around improved transparency. Historically, recipient governments, emerging donor countries and civil society have not played a significant role in the deliberations of the committee that governs the FAC. The new text stipulates that the committee “should facilitate information sharing with and dissemination to other stakeholders, and should consult with and receive information from them to support its discussions.”

It’s a good start and we’ll be curious to see the extent to which this happens. Notably, Brazil was an observer at the February meeting and it will be interesting to see if they sign on to the treaty.
While there is much good news to report, as always, there is a down-side to the new FAC.  Parties no longer make their commitments as part of the treaty itself. Rather they are required to announce a “minimum annual commitment” within six months (by June 2013) and they can change this commitment each year.

This does not bode well in terms of predictable levels of food assistance. Tracking first commitments and their stability year to year as well as donor performance against pledges will be critical in the coming years.
Canada has played an important role in the new FAC. Canada chaired the negotiations and came out of the starting blocks quickly by making its minimum annual commitment public several months before the deadline. Their commitment of $250 million is similar to both previous commitments and civil society “asks”. It’s important to keep in mind though that the commitment is a floor and as has been the case since 2004/2005, we would expect Canada to not only meet its minimum commitment but exceed it.

Clearly, there is much to keep us busy over the coming years as the new FAC is rolled out. We’ll be keeping a close eye on commitment levels and performance, scale-up and effectiveness of the new food assistance tools, and transparency in the FAC’s deliberations and reporting. We’ll also be encouraging strengthened relationships between the London-based FAC and the Rome-based food agencies. You can find out more about the new FAC at   www.foodassistanceconvention.org and on our website.

Barbara Macdonald is Senior Policy Advisor at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

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