By: Jennifer Clapp and C. Stuart Clark*
In late April 2012, the long-anticipated new Food Assistance Convention (FAC) text was finally agreed upon. The Food Assistance Convention replaces the 1999 Food Aid Convention, which expired in 2002 and has been limping along for a decade on year-long extensions.
First negotiated in 1967, the FAC defines global rules for food assistance by major donors. As an international treaty, it is both unique and significant. It is the only international legal agreement that requires members to provide a minimum amount of food assistance, demonstrating an important commitment among donor states to address world hunger.
The FAC has been periodically updated throughout the years with moves to focus less on trade and more on aid and expand the list of food commodities to be used. The 1999 iteration of the FAC had eight donor states as members. Food aid recipient countries have never been included. Since the beginning, the secretariat of the FAC has been housed at the International Grains Council (IGC), a legacy of the first FAC agreement which was negotiated as part of a broader International Grains Agreement under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
The latest version of the FAC includes some important changes over the 1999 treaty. Some of these changes are positive in that they mark significant improvement over the previous text with respect to the kinds of food assistance it promotes. Some of the changes are promising in the direction they signal toward more openness in the operation of the treaty. And some raise concerns about the future predictability of donor commitments to international food assistance.
The positive changes are those that reinforce the beneficial shifts that have taken place in food assistance practices and policies in a number of donor countries over the past decade
The most important indicator of this change is the new name of the treaty itself. The 2012 Food Assistance Convention is proposed to replace the 1999 Food Aid Convention. The name change reflects that the new treaty allows for more kinds of assistance (beyond just food and seeds) to be counted by donors as part of their commitments. These include the use of cash and vouchers and other items that not only meet food needs but also protect livelihoods in emergency and recovery situations. These new kinds of tools have been increasingly used over the past decade with much success, and it is good to see the new treaty embrace these practices.
The treaty also stresses that food assistance should be in grant form, untied (i.e. not tied to food grown in the donor country) and be purchased locally or regionally whenever possible and appropriate. These shifts indicate the growing recognition that tied aid is often slower and more expensive, can cause local market distortions and mainly serves donor country interests. Local and regionally purchased food aid is usually available faster and cheaper and can lead to direct benefits for developing country farmers. The new text also incorporates a shift from open endorsement in the 1999 text of monetization of food aid (i.e. deliberate sale of food aid to generate local funds) to stressing that food aid should be monetized only where there is an identified need to do so. This change recognizes research over the past decade that shows that monetization can result in market distortions and the displacement of commercial food sales.
The new treaty also incorporates promising changes that signal a shift toward more inclusive and transparent governance of and participation in the treaty. Whereas the old text merely called on donors to endeavor to carry out evaluations of their food aid programs, the new text explicitly notes the importance of accountability and calls on donors to “monitor, evaluate and communicate, on a regular and transparent basis” on the outcomes of their food assistance activities. This shift reflects recognition of the growing attention being paid to accountability and aid effectiveness, as outlined in the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.
Also promising is language indicating greater openness to the possibility of including other stakeholders – presumably referring to recipient countries, intergovernmental agencies and civil society – in the deliberations of the treaty governing body (the Food Assistance Committee). Previously, meetings among member governments took place behind closed doors. Intergovernmental agencies sometimes participated, but only when they were invited to do so. There were no provisions for including civil society groups or recipient governments in treaty body discussions. This too signals a potential shift toward greater transparency and openness in the operation of the treaty.
There are, however, some major changes that raise concerns regarding the predictability of levels of assistance to which donors commit and the impact of international food price volatility. The previous FAC texts specified the minimum annual commitments for each donor in a specified amount of food. These amounts are no longer specified in the Convention itself and will be announced yearly by the FAC members. This will end the previous predictability of minimum amounts of aid provided by members.
The new treaty also allows donors to express commitments in terms of quantity (tonnes of wheat or its equivalent in other foods) or in value, and, if the latter, the donor can specify which currency. This change further reduces predictability because commitments in value will be subject to international food price volatility – a risk that was born by the members in previous Conventions. Furthermore, as food assistance is often most needed when prices are high, these are the same times when commitments in value will provide less, not more, food.
The new treaty text opens for signature on June 11, 2012, and will remain open for six months. If at least five members ratify the Convention before the end of November 2012, it will come into force in early 2013.
*C. Stuart Clark is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank
 The eight signatories to the 1999 FAC are Australia, Argentina, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Switzerland and the United States.