Against the Grain

29 Jul 2011, 
published in
Foreign Policy

The drought that has been unfolding across the Horn of Africa over the last two years is now showing us its worst face. Due to a perfect storm of poverty, drought, and civil war, more than 10 million people are threatened by malnutrition and starvation, according to the United Nations. Without adequate food assistance, thousands of lives will be lost.

What is the rest of the world doing about this? The G‑20 agriculture ministers met in Paris in June and promised to invest in agricultural development and curb commodity speculation and rising food prices. But this effort — no doubt important — does not help the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who are right now fleeing dried-up patches of land and seeking shelter in packed refugee camps. Moreover, the ministers’ promises will not have any impact anytime soon. Many proposals will be further debated, developed, analyzed — and likely never implemented.

Meanwhile, Somalis will starve.

The world is in need of a global agreement to ensure a minimum level of food assistance to the most vulnerable. Such a pact could improve our humanitarian response and ensure that sufficient aid is provided to help mitigate the worst effects of famines and droughts like the one currently unfolding on the Horn of Africa.

Believe it or not, a pact meant to serve this very purpose already exists: the Food Aid Convention. This agreement was developed during the Kennedy Round” of negotiations in the 1960s as a way to unload donor countries’ grain surpluses. But now it’s outdated and ill-equipped to deal with today’s realities. The convention allows signatories to fulfill their commitments primarily through providing bulk commodities such as wheat and rice. Meanwhile, it provides few incentives for donors to support more innovative and effective practices like direct cash distributions or voucher programs, which can work well when local markets still exist.

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