Food aid often does not target 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 Frances 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.

Third, food aid often does not target the hungry. When they hear about foreign aid, many people automatically think of ships loaded with food, but such aid constitutes only a fraction of total U.S. bilateral foreign aid, hovering around 9 percent during the 1990s.17 Moreover, only about 5 percent of total aid is for emergency relief.18

Of the nearly 3 million tons of food aid provided by the United States in 1996, almost one-quarter was in the form of PL 480 Title I sales,19 in which food is sold to third world governments on easy credit terms for resale to local livestock industries as feed, and to local food-processing companies who make pasta, bread, cooking oil, and other products for urban consumers.20 While the proceeds from these sales must generally be used for “development” purposes, which are specified by USAID, Title I has long been used as a primary tool to create new markets for U.S. grain exports. In practice, it functions as corporate welfare. According to a study published by the University of Nebraska Press:

The food-aid program represents a free government service designed to help grain-trading companies expand both their current and future sales. Title I sales generate the same profits for the big U.S. grain companies as does any other commercial export. The only difference is that the U.S. government immediately pays the bill. From the point of view of the grain corporations, then, Title I creates immediate markets by having the U.S. government finance purchases that otherwise might not have been made. The recipient countries, meanwhile, come to depend on these foreign food supplies. . . . By encouraging the growth of poultry farms, wheat mills, and soap and vegetable-oil factories, PL 480 helps create a structural dependence on continued imports. When the food aid stops, these industries, needing the supplies to continue their level of operations, will pressure their governments to keep importing the commodities on commercial terms.21

USAID bragged in a 1996 report on food aid that “nine out of ten countries importing U.S. agricultural products are former recipients of food assistance.”22 Far from feeding the hungry, Title I food aid first of all puts money in the pockets of giant grain corporations like Cargill, who provide and ship the products;23 second, supports factory-style poultry producers and food processors; and finally, helps shift consumer tastes in recipient countries away from locally grown crops toward wheat products like bread and pasta.24

Much aid to Africa, for example, has been in the form of wheat, even though wheat grows well in very few parts of the tropics. For many countries, such a shifting of tastes is no small concern-it makes long-term self-reliance even more difficult. South Korea became the largest third world importer of U.S. agricultural goods after years of food aid coupled with intensive marketing of wheat products by AID. This marketing campaign changed the South Korean diet drastically by creating a growing demand for wheat.25

Even the funds earned from food sales that are earmarked for “development” frequently end up working against the hungry. These often go for so-called “self-help” measures, like the promotion of further trade with the United States, and market-development activities like trade fairs and port construction.26

A second kind of food aid, Title III, works just like Title I but is for poorer countries, allowing the United States to forgive the loans for the purchased food. In 1996 it accounted for about one-eighth of total food shipped.

The Food for Progress program, another type of food aid, was created in 1985 to reward governments who undertake structural adjustment programs. According to the enabling legislation, Food for Progress was “designed to expand free enterprise elements of the economies of developing countries through changes in commodity pricing, marketing, import availability, and increased private-sector involvement.”27 In other words, food is once again being used as a lever to open markets for U.S.-based corporations. While Food for Progress was originally targeted at the third world, the emphasis soon shifted: In 1996, thirty-seven of the thirty-eight donations made under this program went to former socialist countries in Eastern Europe,28 the newest frontier in market opportunities for U.S. food exporters. Food for Progress shipments accounted for one-seventh of the food donated that year.29

The remaining category of food aid, Title II, consists of food that is donated either to support specific development projects or for emergency relief, generally in poor countries, and it accounted for slightly more than half of the food shipped in 1996.30 These, finally, are the proverbial shiploads that we imagine being sent to the poor in third world countries. Yet even this food often has less than positive impacts.

Title II development food aid is usually distributed through so-called “food-for-work” programs that hire the jobless to provide manual labor for road improvement, irrigation development, and other infrastructure projects, in exchange for food. In theory, society as a whole benefits from this sort of program-the jobless get to eat, while the rest of society gains from the public works projects. Yet a careful examination shows that food-for-work benefits the well-off disproportionally, while the poor receive no long-term gains.

An example from Haiti, where so many people are deprived of enough to eat, makes this clear. In a particular village, one family controlled the local government and community offices.31 When a U.S. relief agency came to the village with a food-for-work program, this same family was chosen to administer it. Jobless villagers built roads and tended the gardens of a well-to-do village leader, which took them away from their lands five days a week. The wealthy family gained benefits through the improvement of their lands, better access to markets for their produce, and increased patronage power. The workers gained temporary work, which provided food during the slack agricultural season, at the cost of not attending to their own plots, but they did not gain long-term, fundamental changes or a sustainable lessening of their poverty and hunger. Similar stories dot the landscape of food-for-work programs.32

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  • Posted: Saturday, November 25, 2000

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