Monday, February 02, 2009

Food Aid Convention [FAC] in Madrid, Spain

The rice grown along the Niger River in Mali is extraordinary in its quality and nutritional value. Anyone aware of this local produced grain can identify the rice from others as the grains are short and have a pinkish hue. Locals are aware of the high nutritional value and the rice is easily available during the cold season, November through March. The price of locally grown rice during this season is 40% lower than its imported counterparts coming from Pakistan and China and rice both local and imported are the same price during the hot-dry season of April through July. Only in July through October is the locally grown rice more expensive as the granaries empty and scarcity raises the price.

With such advantages one would expect Malian rice producers to be fairing well in income and locals eating well. This is hardly the case. The communities along the Niger River are a mixed patchwork of struggling cultivators, individuals working in the service sector and small elite involved in the import-export business with malnourishment a reality affecting a number of families both rich and poor. Despite the positive qualities of local rice production many residents prefer to spend more money during the cold season and prepare the imported rice for their families. When conducting my research I often asked families why they preferred the Chinese and Pakistani imported rice over their local rice. Two responses were common. People complained that the local rice was either too ‘heavy’ in taste or that only poor people consume the locally produced rice.

Last week the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and donor countries responsible for food aid met in Madrid, Spain from January 26th-28th to discuss the future role of food aid on a global scale. Called the Food Aid Convention or FAC, the meeting was held to approach two major concerns: the food price crisis of 2008, and for 2009 and following years to come a set of rules regarding the appropriate type of food aid and which circumstances merit food assistance. Basically FAC is trying to do more with less and with a number of agencies working at the same goals and/or competing for a shrinking resource base, the convention assembled as a means to set an agenda and parameters for participants.

This is nothing new or revolutionary for governments and aid organizations. Often the neediest and most destitute receive no aid as violence and/or difficulty in transportation retards aid workers’ efforts to distribute aid evenly. At times the political climate can affect the distribution of food aid as national governments may refuse distribution as local militias/rebels may benefit from such operations. The crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the Lord’s Resistance Army is one example of where politics stifles food assistance and other forms of aid and civilians receive no assistance. Furthermore, corruption is both a reality and obstacle as food donations are often sold off to merchants in major cities and trucked to local stores for purchase, though labeled as “Not for Resale.”

FAC since the late 1960s has acknowledged the difficulties of food aid and does not ensure that assistance will reach the neediest groups or countries. But as it tightens its fiscal belt and focuses more on areas of vulnerability and potential food insecurity instead of crisis, I implore those in attendance at FAC to implement policies that promote local food production (rice cultivation along the Niger River as one example) instead of creating markets for imports as has happened with past assistance. With groups such as the International Grains Council having influence in FAC over the past three decades, however, I will remain skeptical of food aid’s benevolent hand until I see more Malians eating their own locally cultivated rice.