Canada has won high praise from a senior official with the UN’s World Food Program for becoming one of the first countries to make its minimum nine-figure annual pledge up front as it formally adopts a new international treaty.
“Canada is one of the strongest supporters of the World Food Program,” said Pedro Medrano Rojas, acting assistant executive director, partnership and governance services of the WFP, in an interview Feb. 6.
Rojas, in Winnipeg to meet with non-government organizations, said Canada deserves credit for taking a leadership role in negotiating the new convention, which marks a significant shift in the focus and management of food assistance offered to those who face hunger due to environmental, economic or political crisis.
“In the past, food aid was a function of surplus,” Rojas said, noting countries supported the WFP as a means of reducing market-depressing stocks while helping to feed those in need. The first food aid convention evolved to regulate that distribution in order to minimize disruption to markets, he said.
“Today, I think we have moved from food aid to food assistance; food aid is one of the elements, but not the only one,” Rojas said. The WFP strives today to intervene before famine strikes and to pursue developments that treat the elimination of hunger as an investment in human capacity, rather than a cost.
Rojas said the move away from emergency funding in a crisis and so-called “tied aid,” in which countries’ support came in the form of commodities purchased from the donor countries is an important step forward. Canada moved to untie its aid in 2008 and now commits a minimum of $250 million annually in cash. This allows much greater flexibility in how food is acquired. It also allows the WFP to plan ahead.
Now, 86 per cent of WFP food purchases come from developing countries, a change that has helped reduce the lead time for distributing food in a crisis by 62 days and saved $40 million in procurement costs.
“That’s the equivalent of feeding 250,000 people for a year,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the WFP’s deputy director of procurement.
The Food Assistance Convention, ratified so far by Canada, the U.S., the European Union, Denmark, Japan and Switzerland as its founding members, came into force Jan. 1 and requires member countries to pledge a “minimum annual level of quality food assistance” to developing countries.
The treaty, according to Julian Fantino, Canada’s minister for international co-operation, will give the United Nations’ World Food Program “the knowledge and certainty they need for long-term planning and purchasing, making them more flexible and efficient in what they buy and where they buy it.”
In Canada’s case, the minimum commitment announced Feb. 5 will be $250 million per year in food assistance “promising to help make delivery of food more efficient,” the government said.
The guaranteed commitments in the treaty “can pay dividends for food suppliers, such as Canadian farmers and processors, as well,” Fantino said in a speech Feb. 5 to the Saskatchewan Global Food Security Forum meeting in Saskatoon.
“With the quality and consistency of Canadian products, Canadian farmers and processors would be able to compete and succeed as the supplier of choice for food assistance buyers.”
The new and legally binding treaty’s features include “new forms of food assistance to protect and improve access to food for those most in need,” the government said in a release.
For example, it includes the use of cash and vouchers to allow people to buy what they need in local markets, as well as the provision of seeds and tools to help “restart livelihoods” following emergencies.
The treaty also endorses “nutritional interventions,” which the government said are meant to help “particularly vulnerable groups, such as children and mothers, get the right food they need at the right time.”
“We are pleased that the government has taken this important step, and for making a significant minimum commitment to provide food assistance for those who don’t have enough to eat,” Canadian Foodgrains Bank executive director Jim Cornelius said in a separate release.
The food grains bank, he added, is “hopeful that Canada will continue to provide more than the minimum — as they have done in the past.”
The treaty’s supports are based on current estimates that about 900 million children, women and men “do not have enough nutritious food to eat due to extreme poverty, natural disasters and conflicts, resulting in 50 million children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition,” the government said.
The food grains bank, a partnership of Canadian church-based agencies, said the treaty will allow it to use funds from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to “address food-insecure situations in new ways” and to use government funds for nutritional interventions.
The first session of the Food Assistance Committee, which includes representatives from all parties to the treaty, is to be held later this month, the government said.