As a kid growing up on the farm, each season came with its unique set of memories. It may have been only once that we were all conscripted Thanksgiving Monday into digging the remaining rows of potatoes out of the cold, snow-speckled mud, but it was a memory maker.
Other events however, were routine, such as Dad disappearing for a few days in early November to attend the Pool annual meeting, and pestering him when he returned to see if the pond ice was thick enough for skating.
And sometime in October/November was when the grain truck was loaded for a special delivery to one of the elevators in the area — the family’s annual contribution to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
Back in the 1980s, farmers delivered grain donations for the newly formed Canadian Foodgrains Bank to local elevators on specially designated days. That same grain was passed through the system and placed onto ships for delivery to hungry people in poor countries, forging a physical connection and maybe even some kinship between a Prairie farmer and food aid recipients.
It didn’t take long in those early years for co-ordinators to realize that direct transfers of grain were a pretty clunky way to help the hungry. Changes were made that allowed that grain to be replaced in kind at the export terminals for the sake of logistical efficiency.
It took longer for Canadian aid agencies to succeed in the next step, convincing the federal government that international food assistance should be decoupled from the purchase of Canadian-produced commodities.
Now grain donations from individual farmers or the 200 community growing projects are sold and the cash used to purchase at least some of the food in the destination countries. This progression not only allowed food aid to get to the people who need it sooner, but with less disruption to local diets and regional economies.
This is just one way in which humanitarian food aid has evolved over the years. Another is the recognition that it’s far better to intervene before a pending food crisis than deal with the aftermath. And it’s even better still to support efforts aimed at food security so that the number of people at risk of hunger continues to decline.
But that progression leads those in the food aid business into a labryinth of political and logistical complexities. As University of Waterloo professor and author Jennifer Clapp chronicles in her book, Hunger in the Balance: The New Politics of International Food Aid, the seemingly simple challenge of meeting the basic needs of the world’s hungry is too easily mired down by foreign policy trade and economic priorities.
While much progress has been made in how donor countries manage their humanitarian files, Clapp says the global food situation remains precarious — especially for those on the front lines of climate change or those whose ability to buy food rises and falls with volatile commodity prices.
While the move to allocate food aid in dollars rather than tonnage was widely recognized as an important step forward, it also transfers the risk of price volatility away from the donor country onto the plates of recipients. A tonne is a tonne, but a dollar only stretches so far.
So a lot has changed in the food aid business over the past 30 years, just as it has in farming. But some things haven’t.
Despite recent cuts to CIDA, Canada is still recognized as a global leader in its support for food security development. In recent years, it took the lead in renegotiating the Food Aid Convention into the more comprehensive Food Assistance Convention. A recent OECD report said Canada’s 12 per cent allocation of its bilateral assistance to food security is the highest of any OECD country. Canada also contributes the most to agricultural extension among OECD countries.
It is due in part to gentle nudging from NGOs such as the CFGB. That grassroots involvement from the spiritual and farming communities across Canada is what made the now 15-member CFGB unique among non-government humanitarian organizations and why it is acknowledged as a key strategic partner with the Canadian International Development Agency.
“They have been doing a fantastic job,” Julian Fantino, minister of international co-operation, said after a recent visit to the CFGB’s Winnipeg head office. CIDA recently inked a $25-million yearly commitment to supporting the efforts of CFGB members over the next five years.
The needs have never been greater. Thankfully, the tradition of farmers and rural communities sharing their generosity with others remains as strong as ever.