Food Aid To Africa In Decline

International food aid to Africa has declined and is unlikely to meet a goal set by the world's wealthiest countries of cutting hunger on the continent in half by 2015, congressional investigators say.

In the early 1980s, about 15 percent of all global food aid flowed to Africa, but that share declined to 4 percent by 2006, said a report by the Government Accountability Office. At the same time, the number of undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has grown from 170 million to more than 200 million. Of the 15 countries where food-related riots have occurred since 2007, seven are in that region, the agency said.

The food aid that has gone to Africa - particularly from the United States - has increasingly been sent to alleviate short-term emergencies rather than to address underlying problems that hamper long-term agricultural development, GAO found. U.S. development aid has declined over the past five years while emergency food aid has spiked, it said.

And President Bush's Initiative to End Hunger in Africa, launched in 2002, has failed to coordinate all U.S. government anti-hunger activities and "has likely led to missed opportunities" and wasteful duplication of efforts, GAO found. Meetings with U.S. agency officials "demonstrated that there was no significant effort to coordinate their food security programs," the report said.

The findings illustrate the task facing the world's donor nations as they meet next week in Rome under the auspices of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, with a goal of revitalizing and redirecting the global response to hunger. On Wednesday, the International Food Policy Research Institute called for donor nations to increase their overall anti-hunger budgets by $15-20 billion a year, and take policy steps like eliminating food export bans and changing policies that encourage use of food crops to produce biofuels.

"The scale of this problem is so large, potentially, that it requires very bold political action," Tom Arnold, CEO of the relief group Concern Worldwide, said Thursday at a forum organized by the Council on Foreign Relations. The crisis "sends a clear signal to governments that the neglect of agriculture in public policy over the last 30 years needs to change," he added.

In Africa, a major failing has been that the governments of developing countries have largely failed to meet a goal of devoting 10 percent of their national budgets to agricultural development, GAO found. Grain yields in the region are only 40 percent of those achieved by the world's other developing countries, and that gap has widened - a result of poor farming practices and lack of irrigation, high-yielding seeds and fertilizer.

In a telephone briefing with reporters Thursday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said he would urge officials from countries gathered next week at the U.N.'s food security conference to step up their aid efforts.

"The United States contributes more than one half of all the world's food aid and the world's other developed nations have an obligation to provide food efficiently, without obstructing access to it, or limiting safe technologies to produce it," he said.

Schafer said the international community must take urgent steps to help developing countries improve their crop yields. He added that those efforts should include loosening restrictions on genetically modified crops, which can be tailored to produce greater yields, while using less water and fertilizer.

The United States has long pressed the European Union to end import restrictions on bio-engineered crops. EU member nations are divided between those supporting economic arguments for wider biotech crop cultivation, and those concerned with the potential long-term effects on health and the environment.

Schafer also called for a completion of global trade talks that have stalled over calls for developed countries to reduce agricultural subsidies.