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Food aid or food sovereignty?

Frederic Mousseau

Oakland Institute

October 2005

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"We must refute the false idea of reality that accepts as inevitable what is in fact a result of present politics; in other words, of organized chaos.
Each and every one of us must support measures to save the living.
If only people are told what is happening, then the world's dark future, which now seems to threaten everyone in it, may be changed.
But only if we take action.
Now is the time to act, now is the time to create, now is the time for us to live in a way that will give life to others.”
– The Manifesto Against Hunger, 1981

In the last few months, we have seen newspaper headlines cry out, “Famine threatens over 3 million people in Niger.” This is hunger in its most acute form.

There is another form of hunger that is less visible. It is the chronic day-in and day-out hunger which affects an estimated 852 million people. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2004 Annual Hunger Report, the number of hungry people has been increasing at a rate of almost four million per year since the second half of the 1990s—wiping out two thirds of the reduction of 27 million hungry people achieved during the previous five years. While most of the world’s hungry live in Asia (over 500 million) with 221.1 million in India and 142.1 million in China, hunger is most intractable in Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa, over 230 million people are hungry. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are an estimated 64 million hungry people, and in the Middle East, over 35 million.

While chronic hunger rarely makes the evening news, it is deadly. Each year it kills as many as 30 to 50 million people, more than three times the number who died annually during World War II. Its victims include the approximately 6.5 million children who die from hunger each year—one every five seconds.

International food aid, initiated in 1954, is the most known and publicized instrument put forward to fight hunger, especially in southern countries, where millions of tons1 of food are shipped each year. However, primarily geared towards the disposal of cereal surpluses in developed countries, the international food aid system has served the foreign policy and trade interests of the donor countries over the past 50 years. The USAID website, for instance, states, “U.S. foreign assistance has always had the twofold purpose of furthering America's foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets … Spending less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, USAID works around the world to achieve these goals.”

In November 1996, heads of state from 186 countries gathered in Rome for the World Food Summit and pledged to reduce the number of chronically undernourished people (815 million then) by half by the year 2015. But as the current hunger statistics stated above make it clear, the fight against hunger and malnutrition has yet to show any gains. Halfway through this ‘goodwill’ plan seems, therefore, the right time to critically review the role of tools such as food aid in the fight against hunger.

Another event that adds to the urgency of reviewing food aid today is that the Food Aid Convention, the international convention that determines the modalities and quantities of this assistance, is up for renegotiation. This will occur after the sixth Ministerial of the World Trade Organization (WTO), scheduled for December 2005 in Hong Kong.

Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? not only provides a timely critique of food aid as it exists today, but offers analysis and recommendations to help shift the terms of debate around hunger and food aid. Recommending food sovereignty as a policy tool, the report advocates for food self-sufficiency as the means to eradicate world hunger.

Divided into four sections, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty?, details the history of the food aid system in its first section, ”50 Years of Food Aid.” The second section of the report, “The Evolution of Food Aid Programs” examines the evolution of food aid over the last decade and assesses the extent to which the recent shifts bear any hope for a more appropriate response to world hunger. The third section, “Is Relief Food Aid Effective?” examines issues raised by the increased use of relief food aid and the role of international relief agencies in the fight against hunger.

On the basis of this analysis, the last section, “Food Aid in the Fight Against Hunger,” proposes strategies for successfully reducing food aid needs in the long run. In a dramatic departure from prevailing thought about international food aid programs, the report, recommends using the framework of food sovereignty in aid programs. Examples from hunger crises around the world have proven that policies that emphasize helping affected countries develop their own agricultural sectors actually help feed more people and decrease developing countries’ dependence on aid programs in the long run. Both at the national country level and the international level, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? emphasizes the need for supporting small farmers through strong agricultural policies including land redistribution, support for the production of staple food rather than cash crops, protection of prices and markets, and the management of national food stocks.

Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? is the first publication of the Oakland Institute’s Aid Watch, a research center, information clearinghouse, and early warning system for activists, educators, journalists and the general public on international aid operations. It is part of our mandate to monitor, research and evaluate the impact of US overseas aid policies and programs with the goal of changing the current foreign aid model.

It is our hope that Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? will break through the rhetoric, debunk the myths of world hunger and ensure that it shifts the terms of the debate on hunger from a politics of despair to a politics of hope.

  1. Here as in the rest of the report, ‘tons’ refers to metric tons.

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