Ending rural hunger: Learning from a decade of Canada’s aid efforts to support global food security

Global food insecurity is making international headlines again with the Food and Agriculture Organization reporting that the number of hungry people worldwide increased for the first time in a decade. The United Nations World Food Program has announced that it urgently needs $2.8 billion in aid donations to save 20 million people from famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. These are sober reminders of the major challenges facing the international community in their collective efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 of ending hunger by 2030

I recently published a report on Canada’s food and nutrition strategies as part of Brookings’s Ending Rural Hunger project, which seeks to provide new tools to measure policy actions and better link recipients’ needs with donors’ development aid for agriculture and food and nutrition security (FNS). We can draw many lessons from Canada’s approach to global FNS policies that are relevant to all donors seeking to align their aid policy with SDG 2.

Canada made increasing global food security a top development aid priority in 2009, initially in response to the 2008 global food crisis but then kept it as a top aid programming area for several years. Canada spent over 4 billion Canadian dollars on agriculture and food security-related development assistance between 2009 and 2014. Much of this focused on smallholder agriculture. It ranked 6th highest among 29 of donor countries in terms of spending on FNS assistance as a percentage of gross national income. More notably, Canada’s aid spending was the most gender-targeted of any donor toward countries with high needs, good policies, and limited local resources.

Yet a closer look at Canada’s FNS spending reveals certain weaknesses. While Canada was a comparatively generous donor in this realm, its spending was not consistent or predictable. As Figure 1 shows, spending peaked in 2009-2010, when food and nutrition security accounted for almost 20 percent of the country’s total aid budget. However, spending declined afterward, dropping by 22 percent between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 and a further 34 percent between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. Indeed, the Ending Rural Hunger database shows Canada to be among the worst performers when it comes to the volatility of aid. Volatile aid flows undermine the ability of aid officials to do long-term programming, as well as leading to delays and bottlenecks in implementing projects.

Figure 1: Canada annual FNS spending in CAD million and FNS spending as % of total aid, 2005-2006 to 2013-2014

global_20170926_canadian_food_aidSource: Canadian International Development Agency, Global Affairs Canada, author’s calculations

So why was Canada’s FNS assistance so volatile? This pattern has little to do with change in real world demands for assistance. Instead, the main driver was the fact that Canada restricted itself to making very short-term spending commitments (often for two or three years at the most), timed around high profile international events such as the G-8 summits. While this approach earned the Canadian government a lot of good press at home and abroad, the tap on, tap off approach made the design and delivery of aid programs far less efficient and efficacious than if the government had made longer-term budgetary commitments. This lack of longer-term aid budgets was a problem flagged in Canada’s 2012 OECD Development Assistance Committee peer review and remains a problem today in Canadian development policy.

Not only was Canada’s total FNS spending volatile but so was the way the government allocated resources across different FNS sectors. If we break down the spending by some of the common DAC sector codes—basic nutrition, agriculture, emergency food aid, food security, and rural development—we observe a lot of variation from year to year, as shown in Figure 2. Agriculture aid was the single largest basic sector from 2009 to 2012, however, by 2013-2014, emergency food aid accounted for nearly 40 percent of all FNS aid.

Figure 2: Canada’s FNS aid spending by sector, selected fiscal years in CAD millions (nominal)

global_20170926_canadian_aidbreakdownSource: Canadian International Development Agency/Global Affairs Canada Historical Projects Data Set

The pattern in Figure 2 shows what might be called “sector-shifting” in Canada’s food and nutrition spending. Simply put, because Canada lacked a long-term FNS strategy, this resulted in varying aid priorities from year to year. While some flexibility in programming can be helpful, the lack of a long-term vision and goals is counterproductive given that long-term investments and continuous work with partners on the ground are required to produce sustainable and meaningful results.

What we can we learn from Canada’s recent food and nutrition security strategies? The first lesson is that aid generosity is not sufficient. Just as essential is that aid be provided on a predictable basis over a long time horizon. It is nothing new that governments prefer short-term and quick results and such behavior is to be expected when policy is made under the shadow of election cycles. However, achieving SDG 2 requires longer term-thinking and planning and thus a shift away from business as usual. This is why I recommend that donors such as Canada consider making aid commitments that run from now until 2030. After all, if donors are as serious as they claim about their commitment to achieving the 2030 Agenda, a first step should be developing aid policies and spending commitments that run through to 2030. 

The second lesson is the importance of tools like the Ending Rural Hunger database in providing metrics to evaluate countries’ performance. Canada has done a poor job of evaluating its FNS assistance programs; it has not even undertaken an independent review of its post-Global Food Crisis aid spending, making it difficult to learn lessons of what has worked and has not. Tools like the Ending Rural Hunger database are helpful for initiating a conversation about improving the efficacy of aid, especially in situations of information scarcity about how governments have been allocating and prioritizing their resources.