Myth: More US aid will help the hungry

With kind permission from Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (or FoodFirst.org as it is also known), chapter 10 of World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by France Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books, Oct. 1998) has been reproduced and posted here. Due to the length of the chapter, it has been split into sub pages on this site.

Myth 10: More U.S. Aid Will Help the Hungry

MYTH: In helping to end world hunger, our primary responsibility as U.S. citizens is to increase and improve our government’s foreign aid.

OUR RESPONSE: Once we learned that hunger results from antidemocratic political and economic structures that trap people in poverty, we realized that we couldn’t end hunger for other people. Genuine freedom can only be won by people for themselves.

This realization doesn’t lessen our responsibility, but it does profoundly redefine its nature. Our job isn’t to intervene in other countries and set things right. Our government is already intervening in countries where the majority of people are forced to go hungry. Our primary responsibility as U.S. citizens is to make certain our government’s policies are not making it harder for people to end hunger for themselves.

In light of the demonstrated generosity of many Americans, most of us would probably be chagrined to learn that U.S. foreign aid is only 0.15 percent of our nation’s gross national product — that’s less than half the percentage of GNP Germany provides, for example, and less than one-fifth of that provided by the Netherlands.1 Total U.S. bilateral assistance dropped greatly during the first half of the 1990s, as it has for most other wealthy nations.2 From a high of $20.2 billion in 1985, it fell to $12.3 billion by 1994 and has remained low.3

For the world’s hungry, however, the problem isn’t the stinginess of our aid. When our levels of assistance last boomed, under Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s, the emphasis was hardly on eliminating hunger. In 1985, Secretary of State George Shultz stated flatly that “our foreign assistance programs are vital to the achievement of our foreign policy goals.”4 But Shultz’s statement shouldn’t surprise us. Every country’s foreign aid is a tool of foreign policy. Whether that aid benefits the hungry is determined by the motives and goals of that policy — by how a government defines the national interest.

During the postwar decades of the Cold War, U.S. foreign assistance was largely defined by a view of the world as divided into two opposing camps. That often meant arming and propping up undemocratic and repressive governments — in Iran, the Philippines, El Salvador, Indonesia, and many other countries — only because they were loyal U.S. allies.

The U.S. government acted as if our vital interests were threatened by any experiment that didn’t mimic the U.S. economic model — the free market and unlimited private accumulation of productive assets. Any nation seeking to alter its economic ground rules — Nicaragua, for example — was immediately perceived as having “gone over to the other camp” and thus an enemy. Punishment was swift-usually including the suspension of aid and the arming of opponents of the offending government.5

In the rather negative panorama of the Cold War, U.S. foreign assistance did nevertheless have poverty alleviation as a goal, albeit not for the best of motives. Driven by the fear that “communism” would defeat capitalism in the battle for the “hearts and minds” of poor third world populations — by offering them the possibility of greater improvements in material well-being — the United States followed an on-again-off-again policy of funding “basic needs.”

In Central America, while propping up corrupt dictatorships with Economic Support Funds (ESF) — basically cash disbursements — and keeping them in power with generous military aid and training, the United States also pressed for and financed basic poverty alleviation policies. The latter included very limited land reforms, marketing boards to help small farmers sell their grain, basic infrastructure development, etc. These reforms were seen as necessary complements to military aid to mollify the populace and keep our friendly strongmen from being overthrown by the disgruntled masses.6

During the entire Cold War it often seemed as though the real goal of foreign aid was making the world safe for U.S.-based corporations. Nevertheless, this goal was often mixed up with Cold War strategic aims, making such a black-and-white analysis difficult. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the more blatant economic aims of foreign assistance have come to the forefront.

From defending freedom in the face of the “communist threat,” the goals of foreign aid have more clearly emerged as the promotion of the free market and free trade-of the sort we described in chapters 7 and 8. A 1997 newsletter of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the government agency in charge of U.S. foreign assistance, put it this way: “The principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance has always been the United States. . . . Foreign assistance programs have helped the United States by creating major markets for agricultural goods, new markets for industrial exports and hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans.”7 The same report argued forcefully that the amount of money spent on aid be upped significantly in order to maintain U.S. “leadership in the global arena.”8

Defining our national interest as opening markets for free trade lines up our nation’s might — with our tax dollars and our country’s good name — against the interests of the hungry. As we have seen, a different kind of change — profound, society-wide change in control over food-producing resources — is a sine qua non for ending hunger. It is impossible to be both against this kind of change and for the hungry.

Poverty is not the focus of Aid

Looking at our foreign aid, we want to highlight seven of the consequences of the current definition of the national interest.

[The remainder of this chapter is split into the sections listed below]

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  • Posted: Saturday, November 25, 2000

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