Providing food aid

Improving food assistance
Distributing relief food
Providing foreign aid for food
Providing emergency food aid

Delivering food to nations which, through man-made or natural disasters, are incapable of feeding their people. Two basic forms of this programme exist – emergency aid and ongoing developmental aid. Emergency aid is directed at alleviating immediate starvation conditions and involves the purchase, transportation and delivery of foods to the population. Developmental aid is directed at a longer term effort to increase food production so that nation or region can be self-sufficient.


Having adequate food is a fundamental human right. Yet, it has been estimated that 40,000 children die each day from malnutrition and disease, while nearly 800 million people remain chronically undernourished. The sharp rise in local conflicts around the world on top of recurring natural disasters in recent years, have led to increasingly complex and large scale food aid operations. As a result, emergency food aid has grown as a proportion of total food aid.


The Food Aid Convention of 1967 established a minimum commitment of food aid, irrespective of the level of production and prices. Under the current extended Food Aid Convention of 1986, a floor of 7.5 million tonnes annually of cereal food aid (in wheat equivalent) is guaranteed, whilst the stated objective is 10 million tonnes annually. In most years the signatories have considerably exceeded their obligations.

The largest proportion of food aid is provided on a bilateral government to government basis. Most of this (60%) is programme food aid for balance of payments and budget support and for helping to meet structural food deficits. The funds generated from the sale of programme food aid are absorbed within general government budgets and have little direct impact on the well-being of the hungry poor. This has produced an expanding grey area between food aid and commercial transactions, estimated to be as much as three to four times the level of official food aid. For example, subsidized exports of wheat and flour to developing countries through guaranteed market supply or export enhancement programmes have sometimes amounted to more than half the total food aid provided by members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Food aid currently accounts for almost ten percent of Official Development Assistance (ODA). Provisional figures show that global food aid deliveries in 1993 reached a recent record level of 17 million tonnes. In the same year, one-quarter of all global food aid was provided for relief. Donors mainly provide as food aid those commodities they produce themselves. Approximately ninety percent of food aid consists of cereals such as wheat, rice and maize. In the 1993/94 period global cereal food aid shipments to low-income food-deficit countries (LIFD) totalled 7 million tonnes, though this was a third less than 1992/93. Vegetable oil and fats, dairy products and pulses accounted for about 85% of the volume of non-cereal food aid in 1993. Donors provided about 1.7 million tonnes of food aid in non-cereal commodities. Overall, the availability of non-cereals has fluctuated much more than cereal supplies.

At the regional level, sub-Saharan Africa has traditionally been the major recipient of food aid. In recent years, as much as 37% of cereal imports to the group of LIFD countries in Africa has been in the form of food aid. In 1993, however, over 40% of global food aid went to the republics of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, whilst sub-Saharan Africa received less than 30%.

The World Food Programme (WFP), founded in 1963 as the food organization of the UN, is the largest multilateral food aid organization in the world. WFP acts as the principal international food aid channel providing fast and efficient relief assistance to disaster victims, and also as a major supplier of food aid. WFP food aid is targeted at the poorest populations in (LIFD) countries, particularly vulnerable groups such as women and children. During the past three decades, WFP has committed about US$13,000 million involving over 40 million tonnes of food, to combat hunger, promote economic and social development, and deliver humanitarian relief throughout the developing world. Since 1963, WFP has assisted more than 1,600 development projects and has provided relief food through more than 1,200 emergency and protracted operations involving displaced people and refugees.

In 1993, WFP provided food to 47 million people in 90 countries. Of that number, 29 million people were disaster victims and 18 million people were beneficiaries of WFP-assisted development projects. Chronic food shortages rose as a result of man-made disasters with increased and sustained levels of conflict and civil strife, whereas there was a sharp fall of drought victims (as a result of the phasing out of the southern Africa drought emergency). During the year, a total of 3.2 million tonnes of food aid was shipped, almost one million tons more than five years previously. This represented about one quarter of all food aid moved globally. 39% went to support development projects, 21% assisted protracted and displaced person operations (usually lasting 12 or 18 months), 32% was for emergency operations, and eight percent was shipped to beneficiaries on behalf of bilateral donors. The former Yugoslavia was the year's largest operation, requiring more than half a million tonnes of food for almost 4 million people. Sub-Saharan Africa received 1.2 million tonnes of food for almost 17 million people going to, among others, victims of civil strife in Burundi and Rwanda. In the region, improvements in relief operations as a result of cessation of hostilities occurred in some areas. Food commitments or provisions for various countries in other parts of the world include the Afghanistan region including Pakistan and Iran (338,000 tonnes), Iraq (145,000 tonnes), Bangladeshi flood victims, for the repatriation of refugees to Guatemala, and the repatriation of 270,000 refugees from Thailand to Cambodia, among others.

In the same year, WFP reached nearly all of the world's refugees most in need of food (six million people), or about a third of the total refugee population, and over 80% (21 million people) of the estimated number of displaced people. Refugees received an average of 132 kgs per head of WFP food and displaced people an average of 75 kgs during the year. Two million natural disaster victims received an average of 37 kgs of WFP food rations, typically for periods of less than a year. Forty percent of WFP emergency food aid shipments in 1993 were for the former Yugoslavia and the Newly Independent States (NIS) countries. Africa continued to receive the largest share (41%) of WFP's development assistance. Total WFP commitments in 1993 for both relief ($1,200 million) and development assistance ($253 million) were more than $1,400 million, much of which towards victims of conflicts.

1994 saw WFP commit a record amount of emergency food aid to feed almost 30 million people facing acute food shortages in 36 countries.

The increased use of lower value commodities has enabled WFP to maintain the volume of food aid shipments for development assistance at an average biennial level of about 2.6 million tonnes. In 1993, ongoing WFP-assisted development project's average annual food rations consisted of 54 kgs of cereals, pulses, edible oil and other food items. An alternative initial response to new emergency situations is to buy food locally, in the region, or from the nearest commercial source. In 1991, a cash account called the Immediate Response Account (IRA), was established by WFP.

By the end of September 1992, the Mozambique Red Cross Society and Federation post-war rehabilitation and resettlement programme had distributed food to more than 75,000 people, carried out vaccinations, constructed health posts and latrines, and secured warehousing. As of January 1995, the Federation had distributed food supplies (for a maximum of four hundred days after arriving) to some 500,000 returnees in Cambodia.

In 1992, the EEC/EU put together a six-year package of assistance for Bangladesh, that includes 560,000 tons of food aid. NGOs are playing an increasing role in food aid operations both in emergencies and development setting, and are cooperating with multi-lateral organizations.


Emergency aid not only minimizes the level of starvation in a region but increases the possibility of political stability.

Counter Claim:

Food aid in most instances has been ineffective as a long-term solution to world hunger, as evidenced by the increase in the numbers of people requiring this assistance.

Type Classification:
C: Cross-sectoral strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 2: Zero HungerGOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal