Food aid forestalls development

With kind permission from Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (or 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.

Fourth, food aid can actually forestall agricultural development that could otherwise alleviate hunger. The inflow of food aid-even in many emergency cases-has proved time and again to be detrimental to local farm economies. Cheap, subsidized, or free U.S. grains undercut the prices of locally produced food, driving local farmers out of business and into cities.

Somalia is only one case in point. When a civil war began in 1991, domestic transportation was interrupted, precipitating a food crisis in large regions of the country. The UN estimated that almost 4.5 million people-over half of the estimated total population of the country-were threatened by severe undernutrition and malnutrition-related diseases at that time.33

Yet in December of 1992, when U.S. troops landed under the UN banner to distribute food and achieve a cease-fire among hostile factions, the worst of the famine was already over. The death rate had dropped from three hundred per day to seventy, and good crops of rice, sorghum, and corn from the agricultural regions of Afgoye and the Shebell River valley had already been harvested.34 Nonetheless, food aid poured in, driving down the prices received by local farmers for their harvest by a whopping 75 percent. Sometimes they couldn’t sell their crops even at the lower prices. Mrs. Faaduma Abdi Arush, a Somali farmer, tried to sell her corn to six relief agencies. None would buy it, as the U.S. government only provided them with funds to buy American food from U.S. companies. Many Somali farmers, unable to make a living by selling their produce, were forced to abandon their farms and join the lines for handouts of imported food.35

Nonemergency Title II food aid is sometimes used to support activities such as mother and child health, nutrition, and education programs.36 The cash for the programs is raised by selling food aid in the recipient country. Or the food is used for lunch programs as an incentive for children to stay in school, or mothers at health centers receive food when they bring their babies to be treated.

While many of these activities seem at first glance to be laudable, we need to look deeper. First and foremost, this kind of food aid is still about the injection of food into the economy of recipient countries, which results in the distortion of food markets. Just as it does with other forms of food aid, this distortion weakens the local food system, drives farmers off the land, and ultimately creates long-term dependency on imported U.S. agricultural commodities.37 These effects remain whether we are talking about food-for-work, health, or school programs.38 That is not to say that all programs supported by food aid are misguided. Rather, other ways are needed to carry them out.

For example, mother and child health and nutrition programs can offer substantial benefits to recipients. The alternative to using imported food for these programs should be to purchase food from surrounding areas.39 This system would strengthen farmers, local merchants, and the economy of the country, as local expertise, knowledge, and resources are utilized to produce the food. As income is generated internally, communities become self-sufficient and sustainable.

However, food aid-based development projects continue to depend on foreign expertise, knowledge, and outside resources to generate income. These projects are not self-sufficient, nor are they sustainable when the aid ends. Not surprisingly, food aid-based development projects have historically been failures. Says former food-aid manager Michael Maren, Africa is littered with the ruins of such projects.40

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