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A woman from the Dadinga tribe carries food aid distributed by World Food Program (WFP) staff in the village of Lauro in Budy county in Eastern Equatoria State, south Sudan, April 2, 2010. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
A woman from the Dadinga tribe carries food aid distributed by World Food Program (WFP) staff in the village of Lauro in Budy county in Eastern Equatoria State, south Sudan, April 2, 2010. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Time to lead

Canada 'in position to be listened to' in secretive world food-aid talks Add to ...

For the first time in more than a decade, an elite compact of the world's richest nations will begin redrawing the historic international agreement that governs food-aid commitments to hungry countries.

Canada, as chair of the talks, is uniquely poised to shape the secretive negotiations, which are held behind closed doors in London at quite a distance from the Rome-based nerve centre of global food politics.

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The treaty, called the Food Aid Convention, is so political that its signatories - including the United States, the European Union and Japan - have been unable to agree on updated terms since 1999. Their unwillingness to modernize the agreement has caused what could be one of the most important tools in the battle against global hunger to become ineffective and nearly invisible; it has also stalled several new countries from writing their food-aid commitments into the pledge.

The timing couldn't be worse: The food-aid sector is suffering from chronic fragmentation - the responsibility for feeding the world's hungry is shared by a handful of overlapping humanitarian organizations with varying degrees of effectiveness - and panic is escalating over how to feed the one-billion-plus people in need of more food; unrelenting volatility has seized commodity markets; and food security is looming ever-larger on the global agenda, including that of the G20, as its connection to climate change, development and political instability grows clearer.

"Canada is in a position to be listened to by everybody and in the position to develop good compromise," said George-Andre Simon, a food-security expert who observed years' worth of FAC meetings before retiring from his post as head of the United Nations' World Food Program food-aid tracking service.

Experts argue that an immediate overhaul of the treaty is critical. It is the only legal instrument governing international food-aid rules and commitment minimums; though not binding, the donations that signatories pledge assure the donor-reliant WFP, which distributes more than half of all global food aid, a baseline measure of annual predictability.

The treaty's outdated parameters have compromised its relevance. Key among those is the fact that donors' commitments are pledged not in dollars or number of people to be fed, but in tonnes of wheat, a holdover from the treaty's 1967 origin as part of the Wheat Trade Convention. The aim then was to foster international co-operation in the grain trade and stabilize wheat markets, and food aid developed as an outlet for surplus.

The landscape of food aid has shifted, however. No longer a trade concern, it has become an important humanitarian dimension of global politics. The FAC's lack of transparency is also a stumbling block: Recipient countries are not privy to negotiations and there is poor co-ordination between the committee and the large UN food agencies on the front lines of global hunger.

All of this has diminished the legitimacy of the treaty in the minds of higher-ups at the WFP - an opinion, however, that is rarely shared on the public record.

One of Canada's chief tasks this week, experts say, will be to figure out how to broker a compromise that brings the treaty more closely in line with this new reality.

Improving food security is no longer just about dumping mountains of free or cheap food on hungry countries. In fact, that old model is now seen as detrimental to development, and hungry countries need more than pallets of food to pull themselves out of a cyclical dependency on foreign aid.

To reflect the move toward a more sustainable approach to solving hunger, humanitarian agencies are rebranding food aid as "food assistance," an umbrella term that captures the broad range of tools now used to tackle food insecurity: sacks of shelf-stable food plus agriculture inputs, and vouchers and cash transfers to recipients for spending at local markets.

The idea behind this more flexible approach is to stimulate underdeveloped economies while at the same time feeding the bellies within them. Ideally executed, the new model could accomplish what the WFP is mandated to do according to its mission statement: Eliminate the need for food aid altogether.

FAC members are divided over how much the treaty ought to be reformed, insiders say. The mix of trade and humanitarian officials at the negotiating table will highlight tensions over what form future aid commitments ought to take.

The European Union increasingly favours providing cash or vouchers for food aid instead of raw product, said Ed Clay, a senior researcher with the Overseas Development Institute, who has been advising the EU presidency on the treaty. Canada has also shown signs of supporting such a shift. This country's food aid has been "un-tied" since 2008, meaning that the federal government does not insist on making donations in the form of surplus cereals purchased from Canadian farmers.

But the largest contributor to the FAC - the United States - approaches aid quite differently. Almost all of the food aid the United States donates is in the form of actual food grown in the country by U.S. farmers and shipped out. This model and the amount pledged is codified in the national Farm Bill, a piece of trade legislation under the purview of the Department of Agriculture. That department's foremost concern is the health of U.S. farmers, not international humanitarian assistance. Fulfilling treaty requirements with a currency other than food would amount to significantly higher costs for the United States.

Insiders believe Canada's chairmanship could help bridge the gulf between the United States and the EU. The precedent they cite is Canada's successful diplomacy during the mid-decade World Trade Organization talks, which helped to unearth some common ground.

"Canada is well-placed to play that role providing they see that's what they're doing, playing the role of honest broker and not appearing to side with one or another party," Mr. Clay said. "They've got to be very careful."

Still, some experts caution that the shift to cash commitments could inadvertently harm recipient countries. Placing a dollar-value cap on donations would, in volatile markets, download risk to receiving countries who would stand to get less in tough times.

"Pulling away those kinds of interventions at crucial moments has a huge impact globally on development well-being, not to mention the compassionate arguments," said Jennifer Clapp, a University of Waterloo food-security expert and chair of global environmental governance at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a non-partisan think-tank.

FAC members set June, 2011, as their deadline for a new treaty. If further negotiations are required, the committee will reconvene in Ottawa next May.

FAC makeup

Who is in:

Canada, United States, the European Union and its member states, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, Australia and Argentina.

Who wants in:

Russia and South Africa; China, Brazil and India have also begun international food aid contributions. Membership in the FAC would give these emerging states a certain geopolitical cache and a bit more clout. Signatories are not likely to consider allowing new members until new terms have been negotiated between existing members.

Who can watch:

Observers occasionally allowed to FAC proceedings include the United Nations' World Food Program, the largest distributor of international food aid; the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization; the World Trade Organization, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the UN Conference on Trade and Development. A coalition of the largest non-UN food-providing humanitarian organizations, including the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (the second-largest recipient of Canada's food aid after the WFP), Oxfam and Save the Children has an increasingly healthy dialogue with treaty members outside of proceedings; called the Trans-Atlantic Food Assistance Dialogue, members have aired their wish list for a new treaty to signatories. But they won't be sitting around the table to see if their suggestions won traction.

Jessica Leeder

Follow on Twitter: @jessleeder

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