The United States is the world’s largest food donor, yet the assistance provided is focused more on short-term relief rather than advancing the right to food of those most affected. As the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic highlights the need for more flexible food assistance, the US should finally adopt a human rights-based approach to its fight against global hunger and food insecurity.
In October 2020, the World Food Programme (WFP) received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work as the ultimate foot soldier in the fight against global hunger. Months prior, the organization’s Executive Director made a desperate plea to governments around the world: without immediate action, warned David Beasley, we could face “multiple famines of biblical proportions within a few short months.” Beasely was referring to the potential devastating impact of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). By the time he issued this warning to the UN Security Council in April 2020, the pandemic had already bulldozed global food systems, and pushed millions past the point of hunger and food insecurity. The WFP’s call to action served as a reminder that the international community shares a responsibility to provide urgent assistance to countries on the brink of catastrophe. The United States has long recognized this responsibility, despite the government’s attempts to slash this budget in recent years. The United States is not only WFP’s largest funder, but it is also the largest donor country of international food assistance.
The US government’s refusal to recognize access to adequate food as a fundamental right, however, has significantly undermined the potential impact of its contribution as WFP’s largest funder. Under international human rights law, the “right to food is realized when every man, woman, and child alone, and in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights first envisioned this right in 1948, as an essential component to the right to an adequate standard of living. It was subsequently codified in 1966 within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Unfortunately, the world’s largest donor remains one of the few countries that has not ratified the ICESCR. Thus, the United States does not formally recognize the rights contained therein, including the right to food.
Rather than recognize beneficiaries as rights-holders to whom a duty is owed, the US government retains an aid-based model that regards rights-holders as passive recipients of charity. This shortsighted, stopgap approach may offer temporary hunger relief, but it fails to provide a long-term, sustainable solution to hunger and food insecurity. To ensure that the assistance provided offers lasting benefits—strengthening local markets, promoting food system resilience, and advancing the human right to adequate food—the United States should adopt a human rights-based approach (HRBA). In principle, a HRBA requires mainstreaming fundamental human rights principles of participation, accountability, non-discrimination, transparency, human dignity, empowerment, and rule of law into all policies and programming. In practice, adopting a HRBA to humanitarian response would ensure that the United States is empowering rights-holders, and adhering to measurable and enforceable obligations through accountability mechanisms. It would also ensure that the United States is not pursuing alternative, punitive policies that perpetuate the need for humanitarian assistance.
For the United States to effectively adopt a HRBA to international food assistance, it should emulate the European Union and Canada, which have transitioned from direct transfer of commodity surplus to open-market solutions. This flexibility enabled the EU to successfully reach over 90,000 migrants and asylum seekers dispersed in Greece between 2017 and 2020. The United States spends approximately two billion dollars each year in emergency food assistance and development assistance for food-insecure countries—most of which is delivered as in-kind donations rather than cash and voucher assistance. The US model of in-kind donations emerged as a solution to agricultural surplus and a means to support the US shipping industry; yet, the United States is no longer accumulating large surplus, and the benefits to the shipping industry are negligible at best. Most experts agree that continued reliance on in-kind donations is ineffective and inefficient. About 75 percent of US assistance is dedicated to addingvalue to the donated food. Compared with cash assistance, in-kind donations reach half of the beneficiaries and take twice as long to reach those in need.
Providing assistance in the form of cash and vouchers will afford greater agency to beneficiaries, particularly those in transient or temporary living situations. Migrants, refugees, or internally displaced persons, for example, are among the world’s most food insecure. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has explained that food aid should “facilitate the return to food self-reliance of the beneficiaries.” This is more likely to occur if those receiving assistance are empowered to make their own food purchasing choices. The OECD has commended this approach, which received formal support at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. Given the benefits of this more flexible option, cash and voucher assistance from global donors recently reached a new high of 5.6 billion dollars, even as the United States maintained its aid-based model.
Cash and voucher assistance also promote community recovery and food system resilience, especially after a destabilizing event. For those countries in the Middle East and in Africa receiving the bulk of US food assistance, the COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest emergency in a series of conflicts, natural disasters, and economic shocks that destabilize food systems and undermine access to adequate food. Prior to the pandemic, more than 135 million people in 55 countries around the world were living in a “food crisis” or worse (IPC/CH Phase 3 or above). More than half of these people lived in thirty-six countries in Africa, with the remainder in Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Not only do the drivers of these crises vary by country, but so too does government capacity to effectively and systematically respond to these events without foreign assistance.
The European Commission and the High Level Panel on Humanitarian Cash Transfers have confirmed that cash and voucher assistance may improve agricultural-based livelihoods and improve economic opportunities for the most affected by crises. For example, cash assistance may be used to secure adequate housing, land-rights, and to purchase agricultural inputs following a disaster. This approach ensures that food is not just accessible, but also available through direct means of land cultivation and local markets, consistent with the right to food. Empowering local producers and reinvesting in food systems and rural economies further reflect the HRA principle that all rights, including rights to adequate housing, water, food, and health, are indivisible and interdependent. It is also an important and positive consequence that assistance through commodity surplus cannot guarantee.
The United States should not only adjust the vehicle through which it is delivering assistance, but it should also bolster the support provided to respond to rising hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition. Pursuant to the Charter of the United Nations, “State parties have a joint and individual responsibility…to cooperate in providing disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in times of emergency.” Neither the UN Charter nor any other international instrument defines precise aid levels to which states should commit; instead, cooperative action is resource-dependent, with each state expected to contribute according to its respective capacity. Private donors supplement this cooperative state assistance, which amounted to 31.2 billion dollars in 2018. While the United States dedicates substantial funds through a suite of federal programs, including the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, total foreign assistance accounts for less than one percent of the federal budget. As the pandemic places additional pressure on donor countries to increase funding for humanitarian response, the United States should leverage this assistance not just as immediate relief, but as a means to advance the right to food.
Adopting a HRBA to international food assistance would also improve policy coherence, which is noticeably and alarmingly absent from US policymaking, as seen in the case of Zimbabwe. Through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Food for Peace program, the United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in Zimbabwe, contributing 60.55 million dollars to the WFP to support the country during the lean season. In June 2020, the United States committed an additional 10 million dollars to support the WFP’s efforts to increase food security in urban areas during the pandemic. Yet, the United States has simultaneously refused to lift its economic sanctions on Zimbabwe. Last year, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, warned that these sanctions, first imposed by the United States in 2003, are perpetuating food insecurity in Zimbabwe and threatening to push the country past the brink of “man-made starvation.” Nevertheless, the United States subsequently extended sanctions, even after the pandemic began.
While there may not be a “one size fits all” solution to adopting an HRBA to international assistance, it is apparent that the current model is designed to promote national strategic interests at the expense of human rights. Recent proposals to “revamp” this assistance by shifting USAID’s health-focused programs to the State Department, a move that would compromise the integrity and independence of USAID, threaten to further reinforce this misguided prioritization. Such proposed revisions do, however, reveal that the US government remains open to modernizing its approach to international food assistance. As the pandemic continues, the country has a critical and urgent opportunity to not only mitigate instances of hunger, but to meaningfully improve the greater food security landscape.
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Melissa Shapiro is a Clinical Instructor with the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, where she works on food access and nutrition, and international food donation. She previously worked as a consultant to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, supporting the work of the former Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver.
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