CHRIS BARRETT: So we've discussed the changing geography of food aid, the change between program, project, and emergency food aid over time. Let me just fill in a few of the blanks with a very quick history of modern food aid.
As I said before, food aid really began as we know it today in 1954, when President Eisenhower signed into law Public Law 480. That ushered in a new era in which grain stored by governments, largely North America, was shipped overseas.
In the early 1970s the simultaneous drought in much of Africa, war in parts of Africa, high food prices in much of the world, and an oil crisis that caused transport costs to go high, created what was often known as the World Food Crisis. And there was a World Food Summit held at that time, in 1974 in Rome, that really ushered in a new era, in which countries would work together to try to address crises associated with prospective famines.
The World Food Programme really rose to prominence then, in the 1970s. It was created in the early 1960s by the United Nations, as part of the United Nations agencies based in Rome, in Italy. But the WFP became a very prominent multilateral player in the 1970s.
Food aid was a very big part of the overseas development assistance landscape in the 1960s. It peaked at something like 22% of global aid flows in the mid '60s. Today it's much smaller. It's less than 2% of global aid flows, so it has not kept pace with the increase in cash flows for development assistance over time.
It has been repeatedly revised since then, expanding its commodity coverage, changing the minimum commitments of food aid deliveries by donors, and allowing the substitution of cash for food to a limited extent by donors. The FAC provides the legal underpinnings for food aid today, although it doesn't really have any particular enforcement mechanism. As a result, the international agreements that underpin food aid today have no particular teeth and are a subject of dispute, and therefore have become a part of the process for negotiating the World Trade Organization's current Doha Round, or the development round.
So we have an environment in which multilateral players, the WFP in particular, have become more prominent over the last quarter century, while the international agreements that underpin food aid, that keep everybody playing by the same rules of the game, have become relatively easy to avoid, because there aren't particularly strong enforcement mechanisms.
At the same time, we have this dramatic shift from program to emergency food aid, a shift in geographic focus from Asia to Africa, while the United States has remained the dominant player on the donor side. All of this has changed the landscape for food aid quite a bit. And yet, there are very important things that continue to be the same as they always were. That's what we'll be focusing on for most of the rest of this study room.
But before going forward, the key question to keep in mind is, if food aid is such a small share of overseas development assistance today, and it's such a small thing compared to commercial food flows-- trade-- in each case, food aid is less than 2%, why should we care? What difference does food aid made?
Food aid makes a big difference for really two big reasons. First, it is critically important in emergencies. People lacking food are going to die. And if we don't provide food on a timely basis, in appropriate form, we have humanitarian crises. We have famine.
Secondly, food is an important metaphor for lots of the other complex, intersecting interests and issues that describe much of contemporary development policy. We have the intersection of human rights. There's a basic human right to food, recognized in international conventions. We have the issue of high visibility events, like HIV/AIDS in the context of drought in southern Africa, drought in Ethiopia, the recent tsunami that affected south and southeast Asia. These high visibility events attract lots of attention, lots of dollars, but in terms of the actual number of lives involved, are dwarfed by the broader chronic problems pervading much of the low income world.
At the same time, we have lots of commercial interests coming into play, farm groups, shipping groups, agribusiness groups. We have a foreign relations issue, for instance, the use of food aid in negotiations with North Korea. The role of food aid in recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has been central to trying to win the hearts and minds of local populations. So food aid plays a role through lots of subtle mechanisms that make it a very important metaphor for much of what takes place in developing countries and in the context of international development problems.
The real issue here then becomes what some of us term a wolf in sheep's clothing problem. To what extent is food aid-- as a very defensible, important humanitarian instrument-- co-opted by or even hijacked by interests that can turn it into something not quite so desirable, not quite so favorable? How can we ensure that an instrument like food aid, intended to keep people alive, and to help poor people to be able to make progress, how can we ensure that those instruments aren't co-opted for purposes other than those that taxpayers are willing to support? Those are the issues on the table in current discussions of food aid.
So those are the basics of food aid, what it is, who gives it, who receives it, why, the basic trends over recent decades, and why it remains such a hot-button issue in spite of the relatively small volumes of food and cash involved.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
The US, Canada, and other developed countries have a decades-long tradition of sending food abroad to less-fortunate people. We think of this primarily as a humanitarian practice. But it originated with and has evolved to serve other economic, political and strategic aims as well. Professor Barrett examines how food aid has evolved, to what extent it fulfills its humanitarian and economic development and other, donor-oriented objectives today, and what challenges it now faces.
This video is part 2 of 6 in the International Food Aid After 50 Years series.