LONDON (AlertNet) - Only a fraction of the world's food aid is used to fight high-profile famines. The bulk goes to people caught up in natural disasters or conflicts, or who simply live in places where poverty is endemic.
Here are some key facts about the global food aid system and how it works.
Where does food aid come from?
The Rome-based U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) is the main channel for emergency food aid, although some governments give large amounts of food without involving WFP. Other U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) often distribute food that is shipped by WFP, especially if they are already operating in the place where it's going.
When a government asks for help, WFP issues appeals and receives donations, mostly from rich countries.
So countries give cash donations and WFP buys the food?
That's what you might think, and that's how WFP says it would like the system to work.
The bulk of donors now give WFP cash, but a few still give donations "in kind", as food from the donor country. They call this "tied aid". Some governments put additional strings on this aid, for example 75 percent of U.S. food aid has to be shipped on U.S. vessels.
WFP says it would rather receive cash because then it can buy food locally or in neighbouring countries and boost local economies. This is usually quicker and cheaper.
Who gives the most food aid?
The United States is by far the biggest donor, providing about half of all food aid. Almost all of it is tied.
The European Union and its member countries, Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia are also major donors. Russia, China and South Korea have also become significant funders.
A growing number of governments, including South Sudan, India and Kenya, contribute to WFP operations in their own countries.
How much food aid do countries give?
There is a Food Aid Convention, dating from the 1960s, that commits the world's wealthy countries to providing a minimum of about five million tonnes of food aid a year. Since 1999, donors have been able to make their contribution in cash instead of food. The total amount fluctuates, but has never dropped below the minimum.
Do countries choose where their donations go?
Aid experts say most countries prefer to choose where their aid is going instead of letting WFP decide where it's needed most. This means that countries are open to accusations that aid decisions are made to help foreign policy or to open up new export markets. It also means that low-profile crises tend to be underfunded.
Emergency food aid
Most food aid now goes towards humanitarian emergencies – after a natural disaster or during a conflict when food supplies are disrupted, or when hunger has reached emergency levels after a series of poor harvests. Emergency food aid accounted for about 65 percent of overall food aid in 2006-8 – up from 38 percent a decade earlier.
WFP has developed advanced funding mechanisms so the agency does not have to wait for donor money to come through before buying food aid in an emergency.
A growing trend is to give cash or food vouchers to people, so they can buy food in their local markets. Aid agencies say this helps local economies and farmers, and is cheaper and quicker to distribute.
Aid agencies say a key factor in averting famine in West Africa in 2010, was that they used both cash and food aid. Cash was faster to distribute but, in areas without food, it could not fill the gaps.
What other kind of food aid is there?
Food aid is also used in longer-term projects as a safety net to help the very poor and those living in areas which are prone to acute food shortages. One example is the Ethiopia Productive Safety Net Programme, launched in 2005 to give millions of people a secure and predictable, and largely cash-based, form of protection.
Food aid is sometimes distributed as school dinners or take-home food in poor countries, or to mothers and children in areas where nutrition is bad, or in schemes where hungry people work on infrastructure projects in exchange for food. Many aid workers say school feeding projects help children to concentrate, learn better and raise attendance.
Some specialists say food-for-work schemes are patronising and hard to organise, and WFP is increasingly offering cash and food vouchers instead of food.
Does all food aid go through WFP?
Many governments provide large amounts of food directly to NGOs either for emergencies or for development projects. A few governments give food to NGOs to sell on local markets to fund development projects. Some donors also give food aid directly to governments for them sell in local markets as a means of funding their budgets. Some donor countries don't even give food for free, but instead offer it as a loan or sell it at subsidised prices.
After lobbying from aid experts, most – but not all - donors have stopped the practice of giving food for re-sale, arguing that it is an inefficient way of reaching people in need and risks disrupting local markets. Most food experts, including WFP, say that food aid has limited effect unless it is targeted at the people who most need it, especially women and children.
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