Food aid: 3 funding trends you should know

Residents in Ethiopia carry food provided by USAID. Ethiopia is among the top 10 countries which received the vast majority of global food aid from 2009-2012. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC

There are fewer people going hungry today than there were 20 years ago. But across the globe, some harsh realities persist.

Faced with a regional crisis that shows no signs of abating, millions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees have exhausted their resources and are now entirely dependent on food assistance. In Ethiopia, U.N. agencies are bracing themselves for a significant surge in the number of people in need of food aid, after poor rains have once again wreaked havoc on food supplies. And as violence in Yemen enters its sixth month, the country is edging ever closer to famine.

Despite its vital role in stamping out world hunger, food aid has come under intense fire in the past decade — with critics arguing that it is overwhelmingly driven by the interests of donor countries and exporters. Since then, an increasing number of donors, aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations have chosen to diversify their food-related interventions to cover a wider spectrum of instruments — including in-kind food aid, cash assistance, production and market support.

But have these changes in practice been accompanied by evolving funding trends?

Although the lack of common understanding within the international community about what fits in the food aid toolbox makes long-term trends in food assistance difficult to assess, Devex decided to take a closer look at U.N. data sources — including the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ financial tracking service and the World Food Program’s food aid information system — to untangle a few recent funding trends. Here are three we think you should know.

1. Food aid remains at the forefront of humanitarian funding, but its importance is declining.

Despite growing denunciation of its dominance in emergency appeals, food aid continues to play a leading role in humanitarian responses worldwide. Devex analysis of the latest figures published by OCHA found that the food sector received a quarter of total humanitarian funding for U.N.-coordinated appeals between 2009 and 2014 — more than most other clusters.

However, it’s worth noting that its relative importance is declining. Accounting for close to 40 percent of annual humanitarian funding in 2009, the food cluster saw its share drop to around half in 2014, or 18.4 percent.

2. Food aid is increasingly going local.

Over the years, an increasing number of donors have made their funding more flexible to allow for local and regional procurement. The major exception is the United States, where discussions on a possible reform of its six-decade food aid program are still at a standstill.

As a result, a growing volume of food aid is purchased locally and regionally — a shift in balance that has been particularly clear over the past two decades. While direct transfers of in-kind assistance made up for almost 90 percent of all food aid in 1992, they accounted for less than 65 percent by 2012. In the meantime, cash-funded local and triangular transactions jumped from a mere 13 percent to 36 percent during the same period.

It’s also worth noting that cash donations to WFP, the leading food assistance actors in emergencies, are on the rise. This encourages the growth of U.N. procurement from developing states and economies in transition, as the organization secures most of its food in lower income countries.

3. Traditional donors — and recipients — continue to dominate food aid.

For all the talk on the relevance of emerging economies as contributors to humanitarian responses, the donor landscape of food aid remains largely unchanged. As an example, six countries consistently ranked among the top food aid providers to U.N. humanitarian appeals between 2009 and 2014: Canada, the European Union, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. And while countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do seem to boast a growing role in the field, their contributions are typically unpredictable and volatile.

Regarding recipients, a handful of countries affected by protracted crises and chronic hunger received the vast majority of global food aid. Devex analysis of food aid flows between 2009 and 2012 found that 10 countries — Ethiopia, Pakistan, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, North Korea, Haiti, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — absorbed 72 percent of all food aid deliveries over that period.

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About the author

  • Devos manola

    Manola De Vos

    Manola De Vos is an Engagement Lead for Devex’s Analytics team in Manila. She leads and designs customized research and analysis for some of the world’s most well-respected organizations, providing the solutions and data they need to grow their partner base, work more efficiently, and drive lasting results. Prior to joining Devex, Manola worked in conflict analysis and political affairs for the United Nations, International Crisis Group and the EU.