Food for thought?

Around the world, rising food prices have forced millions of people back into poverty, spurring political unrest and complicating the global economic recovery. Now, the tragedy unfolding in the Horn of Africa has once again put a spotlight on questions related to food security. One longstanding question is how donors should address the tension between meeting urgent humanitarian needs in times of acute food insecurity versus long-term investments in agricultural productivity. Food aid and short-term safety net programs save lives, but do not solve the root causes of chronic food insecurity.

Rather than attempting to address these complicated issues head-on, in this post we take a look at the data to tease out some of the trends in development assistance. How have donors actually responded to the shifting thinking on augricultural aid in recent years? Meanwhile, what has happened in real food production? Justin Gillis, blogging for the New York Times, mentions some key points from recent thinking and debates, and also references the report from the G8 summit in Deauville, France, which indicated that bilateral aid to agriculture increased by 13% per year (on average) from 2003-08.

Here, we use the AidData database to get a sense of trends (aid categories included are Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing, and Development Aid/Food Security). The following graphs show G8 commitments from 2003-08 (except Russia, which had not reported data to the CRS or to AidData).

As the first graph below indicates, total aid for agricultural development has indeed increased, while spending on food security has remained relatively flat.

Aid for Security and Agricultural Development

Looking at the spending on food security by region, we see that Asia has received a declining share of total food security aid, while the share to Sub-Saharan Africa has increased over the period shown.

The distribution of agricultural aid (which, again, has been increasing in absolute terms) shows less of a pattern—it has shrunk dramatically in East Asia, and bounced around in other regions, with Sub-Saharan Africa generally receiving around 20-30% of total agricultural aid.

We also looked at UN Food and Agricultural Organization data on overall global food production, and from what we saw, the trends are encouraging. After accounting for population data, which we got from the World Bank, we found that per capita agricultural yield is up, including dramatic increases in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has increased food production nearly 24% since 2000.

The growth in food production could be a sign that the renaissance of agricultural aid (after the post-Integrated Rural Development-era pessimism) is enjoying some success. But despite these positive trends, the global food crisis continues, and climate change severely undermines prospects for increasing food production. According to the World Bank’s Hunger Clock, more than 900 million people are undernourished, and the number continues to tick upward.

This post was contributed by Kedar Pavgi and Reggie Gomez, William and Mary '11, both former AidData research assistants.