Food Aid

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With the level of technology and capabilities in the world today, one could assume that solving world hunger should be easy. Unfortunately it is not a technical issue as much as it is a political and economic issue. This section attempts to shed some light on food aid and its impact on alleviating or exacerbating world hunger.

On this page:

  1. What is food aid?
  2. The major players in the food aid game
  3. Types of food aid
  4. Problems with food aid
  5. Some changes in recent years? Positive for fighting hunger?
    1. Shift in policy and purpose
    2. Food aid remains conditional
    3. Priority countries still neglected?
    4. Increasing costs and food aid
    5. Relief organizations; double interests?
    6. Bush proposes $300 million to help local purchase of food. Positive but met with resistance
    7. European shift towards local purchases
    8. Dominance of large multinational agribusinesses
    9. Food aid still a political tool
  6. Shifting from development to relief/emergency food aid
    1. Benefits of Relief Aid
    2. Problems with Relief Aid
      1. Inefficiencies in execution
      2. Does not address root causes or prevent them
      3. Limited accountability and may undermine democracy and sovereignty
  7. Vast Subsidies for the Rich; Free Trade for the Poor
    1. South-South trade may be important
  8. Challenges for developing countries
    1. A success for Malawi: by ignoring the experts
  9. Perceptions of food aid

What is food aid?

Food aid is hard to summarize succinctly due to many related issues, but in general it is about providing food and related assistance to tackle hunger, either in emergency situations, or to help with deeper, longer term hunger alleviation and achieve food security (where people do not have to live in hunger or in fear of starvation).

Chris Barrett of Cornell University and Dan Maxwell of CARE, in a presentation titled, Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role (April 15, 2004), and authors of a book by the same name, provided the following definitions and distinctions:

Food Assistance Programs
(Also food-related transfers): any intervention to address hunger and undernutrition (e.g., food stamps, WIC, food subsidies, food price stabilization, etc.).
Food Aid
International concessional flows in the form of food or of cash to purchase food in support of food assistance programs.

The key distinction they make is: international sourcing of concessional resources tied to the provision of food, whether by a donor or to a recipient.

The tying of food aid with conditions that benefit the donor has been one of the reasons food aid has not been effective, and criticized for benefiting multinational food companies and donor nations more than recipients.

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The major players in the food aid game

Food aid constituted over 20% of global aid flows in the 1960s, but is now less than 5%. Yet, it is still important because of the prevalence of world hunger and the increase in food emergencies in the past decade. The decline of food aid, as well as the way in which it is delivered and used, are therefore of importance.

As Barrett and Maxwell also summarized, food aid started off in the 1950s with the US and together with Canada accounted for over 90% of global food aid until the 1970s when the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) became a major player.

International food aid is largely driven by donors and international institutions (typically influenced by the interests of the donors).

In 1967, the Food Aid Convention (FAC) provided a set of policies for the donor countries, and is monitored by the Consultative Sub-Committee on Surplus Disposal (CSSD).

The CSSD’s primary purpose is to ensure that food aid does not affect commercial imports and local production in recipient countries.

In effect, the CSSD ensures that food aid does not displace trade. And so it is criticized for serving the interests of donors, because when accepting food aid, recipients commit to pay for imports of commercial food along with food aid as Frederic Mousseau notes in a report titled Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time (from the Oakland Institute, a think-tank specializing on these issues.)

The CSSD is based in Washington D.C. rather than at the FAO Headquarters in Rome. Its location, its name and its focus on surplus disposal clearly reflect the concerns of competing food exporting countries around the use of food aid in an open economy rather than on hunger in recipient countries. Its main function is to avoid the displacement of commercial imports by food aid and it does not constitute an instrument favoring an adequate use of food aid to fight hunger.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

Mousseau’s criticizes the FAC quite a bit as well, noting for example, its commercial interests exemplified by it being housed in the International Grains Council, a commercial trade promotion body based in London. In addition, only the 22 food exporting donor countries are represented in the convention. Mousseau summarizes that,

Like the CCSD, the FAC lacks enforcement mechanisms, transparency in its functioning as well as monitoring and evaluation mechanisms (no comprehensive evaluation of the FAC has been conducted to date). As a result, best practice procedures as well as the functions of poverty and hunger alleviation remain largely rhetorical. The FAC’s inability to prioritize humanitarian concerns, guarantee annual disbursements of food, and generate best practices makes it clear that it is not a useful tool in the fight against hunger.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

The WFP is the largest humanitarian organization in the world and the most powerful UN organization active in most crises, Mousseau notes. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s total operational budget was $386 million in 2003. By comparison, the WFP’s operational budget was 10 times more—$3.3 billion. (This increasing focus on emergencies and short-term aid, and its implications are discussed further below.)

Mousseau summarizes that the WFP is currently the largest humanitarian organization in the world. It handles 99 percent of multilateral food aid, generally in partnership with NGOs and government institutions, which are in charge of food distributions in recipient countries. In 2004, WFP food aid reached 89 million people worldwide. In- kind food aid from the US is the WFP’s main resource.

A relatively small number of relief NGOs specialize in food-related emergency relief and are predominantly US-based, such as World Vision, CARE, and Catholic Relief Service (CRS). These three account for about 80% of the gross revenues (over $1.5 billion in 2001) of the top 8 such relief agencies.

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Types of food aid

Mousseau’s detailed report also summarizes 3 types of food aid:

Program Food Aid
Is a form of in-kind aid whereby food is grown in the donor country for distribution or sale abroad. This is typically a government to government transfer. Rather than being free food as such, recipient countries typically purchase the food with money borrowed at lower than market interest rates.
Relief, or Emergency Food Aid
This is typically for emergency situations, such in cases of war, natural disasters, etc, where food is distributed for free. However, as Oakland Institute notes, a number of countries facing some forms of chronic food insecurity have also become permanent recipients of this form of aid.
Project Food Aid
This is food aid delivered as part of a specific project related to promoting agricultural or economic development, nutrition and food security, such as food for work and school feeding programs.

Program Food Aid, or in-kind food aid, makes up the majority of aid for the US.

Relief aid used to be a minor form of aid until the 1990s when it shifted to being the dominant factor, signifying both the increase in emergencies, and the end of the Cold War where food aid as a political tool (to aid the donor) seemed to be less important.

As with relief aid, project food aid is typically distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP), Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and occasionally by government institutions.

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Problems with food aid

Some core problems that Mousseau identifies (drawing heavily from Barrett and Maxwell, too) with international food aid is that

  • It is a donor-driven system
  • It promotes domestic interests of donor countries
  • It is a foreign policy tool
  • International institutions are driven by exporters
  • Development is not necessarily the objective

International food aid was initiated at a time when a policy of price support for agricultural commodities generated large surpluses of cereals. The disposal of surpluses through food aid made it a crucial instrument to support North American farmers because it reduced storage costs and opened access to new overseas markets. Food aid also rapidly became an instrument of foreign policy in the Cold War era, with food being used to support friendly or strategic countries.

The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), created in 1962, is geared towards increasing agricultural productivity and food self-sufficiency. Through a combination of farm price supports and barriers to food imports, the CAP generated massive surpluses, especially wheat and animal products, which made the European Union (EU) and its member states major actors in international food trade and food aid.

EU food aid now accounts for more than half of all European food aid contributions.… Through … bilateral and multilateral channels, the EU has remained the second largest food aid donor since the 1970s.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

In the 1950s, the US was open about the fact that food aid was a good way to fight communism and for decades food aid has mostly gone to countries with strategic interests in mind.

The domestic interests have somewhat shifted in recent decades from supporting the whole American agriculture sector to the interests of primarily the following groups

  1. A handful of large agribusiness, crop and food lobbies lobbies (Wheat, rice, soybean oil and milk powder producers and exporters)
  2. US shipping companies
  3. and NGOs and relief organizations.

The shipping companies, for example, benefit from the US 1985 Farm Bill which requires that at least 75 percent of US food aid be shipped by US vessels. In addition, just four freight forwarders handle 84 percent of the shipments of food aid from the US and that a few shippers rely extensively on US food aid for their existence.

This means that,

Preference given to in-kind food produced in the US and to the US shipping industry makes US food aid the most expensive in the world. The premiums paid to suppliers and shippers combined with the increased cost of food aid due to lengthy international transport raise the cost of food aid by over 100 percent compared to local purchases.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

Mousseau is also critical of some relief organizations, As a result of their heavy dependence on food aid as a resource, they are poorly inclined to question the current food aid system.

The concept of food aid for development is therefore quite questionable. … for most LDCs [Least Developed Countries], food aid was never part of any development policy, other than the one in support of export growth for developed countries. As early as the 1950s, FAO [The Food and Agriculture Organization] had warned of the potentially harmful effects of [PL480, the US in-kind food exports that is used as aid] food aid on local agriculture. … Driving down food prices and encouraging increased consumption of wheat and dairy, (cheap imports from developed countries, including through food aid) often undermines local agricultural production. This, in turn, adversely affects the livelihoods of rural populations and drives the non-competitive local farmers out of agriculture.

Unfortunately, [Marshall Plans are] not always successful, and for many countries, food aid is integrated into policies leading to structural food deficits and increased dependency on food imports. For the poorest countries, such dependency combined with scarce resources to finance imports has resulted in increased poverty and hunger.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

Mousseau adds that the negative correlation between food aid flows and international cereal prices shows that the main driver of food aid remains the domestic support to farmers and agribusiness interests rather than needs of the developing countries. Typically, food aid flow increases in periods of low prices and high level of food stocks in developed countries.

In-kind food aid has been criticized in particular for being expensive. In addition, while it appears to release resources for the recipient government, those resources may not necessarily be used for development; they can be used for military purchases, for example (and countries like those in the US, EU, etc are often the major arms sellers).

In addition, such aid can also be tied to harmful conditions, such as Structural Adjustment Policies. (The problems of tied aid are discussed further in this site’s Foreign Aid section.)

One of the ideas behind policies such as Structural Adjustment for poor countries is to turn their agriculture sector into cash crops for export to earn foreign exchange to import food and help pay off debts. Program Food Aid has helped with this although phrases such as development and helping the hungry are what makes media headlines. While these could have been objectives, such policies had another effect: creating new markets for rich countries to export their own products.

Mousseau illustrates this, amongst other ways, through this revealing quote:

[Supporting industrialization] would certainly be very good for US agricultural exports, because as you help develop them [underdeveloped countries] industrially, you will shift their economy to an industrial economy, so that in the end you would create more markets for your agricultural products.

Former US Assistant Secretary of State W.L. Clayton

One of the examples was South Korea from one of the largest recipients of US food aid in the 1950s and 1960s to one of the largest buyers of agricultural products today. Another is the Philippines:

US food aid may help to expand US exports in the short term and can build the foundation for future US sales. For example, the Philippines received soy meal under the PL 480 program in the early 1990s when its economy was in poor condition and it was difficult to finance the purchase of needed commodities. […] In 1999, the Philippines became the leading purchaser worldwide of US high-protein soybean meal valued at $212.2 million dollars, with a US import market share exceeding 90 percent.

USDA Report to Congress on Food Aid Monetization, 2001

The process used to achieve this is detailed further on this site’s food dumping and structural adjustment sections, but in summary went something like this:

  1. Cheap (highly subsidized) American grain and other foods would be dumped onto the local economy
  2. Small domestic producers would be unable to compete fairly (as governments of recipient countries are are often encouraged to remove such protections in their own farming sectors)
  3. Small producers lose/sell their land and become jobless or laborers or move to the big cities
  4. As such economies are encouraged to be exporters of cash crops, and food from food aid is so cheap, other work is on the cheap and people struggle to make a living
  5. Poverty, food insecurity, and hunger increases

The concerns of program food aid was raised at its inception:

For most LDCs, food aid was never part of any development policy, other than the one in support of export growth for developed countries. As early as the 1950s, FAO had warned of the potentially harmful effects of food aid on local agriculture. The organization was apprehensive that desirable, and in the long run, necessary agriculture development in the receiving countries will not take place if PL480 exports are continued and expanded.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

So this wasn’t necessarily a mistake with good intentions. Throughout history, powerful countries do what they can to maintain or extend their power, and to compete with other centers of power. This may mean political power play, influencing economic policies to their favor, and, ultimately, war.

Parallels can be seen with European colonial powers attempting to undermine Chinese, Indian and others’ markets during the European colonial/imperial age, or the British Empire trying to prevent a new America from being truly independent from Britain. Accompanying those tactics were messages and propaganda back to the home populations that they were civilizing the others, bring them modernization, development and various other benefits.

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Some changes in recent years? Positive for fighting hunger?

Shift in policy and purpose

As noted earlier, in recent years, food aid has seen some shifts. Europe, for example, has generally shifted away from in-kind food aid, preferring to purchase locally or help facilitate local purchases instead.

There has also been a shift away from long term development to short term humanitarian relief. This has increased the role of NGOs and relief organizations and led to a prioritization on nations that actually need assistance (whereas in the past food aid was often targeted towards countries that provided a strategic interest for the donor, i.e. a friendly nation).

Food aid remains conditional

One of the fundamental problems remains with food aid in that it is still donor driven, and as such seen as compensation for economic reforms as Mousseau notes. In other words, food aid is tied aid, conditional upon economic reforms, such as structural adjustments.

Priority countries still neglected?

Mousseau notes that the 1999 Food Aid Convention and the 1994 Marrakech Decision both state that priority for food aid should be given to Low Income Food Deficit Countries (LIFDCs) and LDCs. However, The increased priority given to LDCs and LIFDC does not necessarily lead to increased food deliveries in times of need.

The fluctuations in the share of food aid received by priority countries [between 1990 and 2004] reflect the fact that in periods of low international cereal prices, such as 1993 and 1999, additional food aid deliveries are oriented to other countries, and are more likely to be tied to commercial transactions in periods of depressed markets. Therefore the recent increase in the share of food aid to priority groups does not reflect a stronger focus on these countries but instead results from the overall decrease of food deliveries due to high cereal prices. Further, it is remarkable that during periods of [need due to increased cost of food imports] food deliveries to priority countries dropped.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

Increasing costs and food aid

Costs and prices have increased in a number of areas:

  • More attention to biofuel crops has contributed to increased crop value
  • Fuel costs have risen in recent years, important to both industrial agriculture and shipping
  • The value of the dollar has fallen significantly. While this can help poor countries in their debt repayments, it increases the cost of food imports (as well as value of exports)

While some can benefit from increases costs, the poor are the ones that can least afford more expensive food. Richer countries’ food aid totals reduce at such times, too.

The New York Times also adds that

The higher food prices have not only reduced the amount of American food aid for the hungry, but are also making it harder for the poorest people to buy food for themselves, economists and advocates for the hungry say.

The impact of rising food prices on food aid is part of a broader debate about the long-term impact on the world’s poorest people of using food crops to make ethanol and other biofuels, a strategy that rich countries like the United States hope will eventually reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Celia W. Dugger, As Prices Soar, U.S. Food Aid Buys Less, New York Times, September 29, 2007

Foreign Policy Fellow at the Roosevelt Institution at Stanford, Sarah Johnson notes in an op-ed piece that the delivery of food aid is also being affected. As Mousseau, Barrett and Maxwell have all noted, she describes the winners in American food aid as the American Government, farms, aid organizations and shippers. She then asks, aren’t impoverished countries winning too?

Yes, they are. But they aren’t winning enough. In 2000, they “won” 5.3 million metric tons of food. In 2005, it was 4 million. This year, it’s 2.4 million. At this rate, our bioethanol-hungry selves will be snatching corn from the hands of the world’s hungry by the end of the decade.

With food and fuel prices steadily rising, the costs of buying food and getting it overseas have crippled the food aid program. In 2002, we provided food for 105 million people. By last year, that number had decreased to 70 million. According to the United Nations, there are still over 850 million starving people in the world today.

Sarah Johnson, Let them eat pie, The Stanford Daily, October 30, 2007

In another article for the New York Times, Celia Dugger notes that the rising costs and falling dollar value has led to relief organizations debating the best way to address food aid and adds:

New data from the Department of Agriculture show that the prices paid for food for the main United States food aid program have risen 35 percent in 2006 and 2007.… the World Food Program is projecting that what it pays for food will increase 35 percent in the next two years.

The United States’ fast eroding ability to use food aid to help tens of millions of the 850 million people worldwide who are hungry has also heightened the debate among charitable groups about reforms in a system that finances many of their projects.

These groups not only deliver food aid in emergencies, they also sell about $180 million worth of often highly subsidized American farm goods in poor countries to generate revenues for their long-term antipoverty programs. These sales are known as the monetization of food aid.

Celia W. Dugger, As U.S. Food Dollars Buy Less, International Agencies Differ Over How to Use Aid, New York Times, October 3, 2007

This monetization of food aid has also fallen under much criticism from experts such as Mousseau, Barrett, Maxwell and others.

Relief organizations; double interests?

Mousseau notes the influences of the major relief organizations and concludes that,

The key food aid actors, WFP and the major US-based NGOs, are clearly under US influence. Largely dependent on US funding and food in-kind for their resources, the main food agencies usually follow the priorities of US foreign policy with regards to areas of intervention, volume of food aid and modalities of assistance.

This increasingly prominent role of relief organizations, especially food relief agencies, in humanitarian crises is sadly not the consequence of increased awareness or compassion in western countries but rather the result of policy choices made by key donor countries.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

An important note that Mousseau also makes is that The extent of hunger in the world legitimates [international relief] NGOs’ calls for more food aid and for increased support of their efforts. However, while their actions help save lives through immediate assistance, longer term strategies are unwittingly undermined:

NGO requests for more aid overlook the political role they play as an alternative to government involvement in the poorest countries. NGOs also ignore that the fight against hunger cannot be won by their actions alone. Success will also require fundamental policy shifts.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

Bush proposes $300 million to help local purchase of food. Positive but met with resistance

The Bush Administration proposed a promising proposal a few years ago, as Sarah Johnson also noted: up to $300 million of the $1.3 billion food aid budget be available to buy food locally instead of shipping it there. Unfortunately, Congress kept killing the proposal and the final amount was a lot smaller due to entrenched interest of agribusiness and the shipping industry:

The farm bill, which is up for Congressional reauthorization every five years, was passed by the House in late July [2007]. It made plenty of additions to existing agricultural subsidies but didn’t touch food aid.

Bush’s proposal was finally resurrected as a pilot program on Thursday, when the Senate Agricultural Committee approved its version of the farm bill. While the idea is the same, the scope is microscopic: Instead of $300 million, the committee approved $25 million per year for the new program. But even this policy, which would have affected less than 2 percent of the food aid budget, was immediately and forcefully denigrated by agribusiness and shipping interests.

Sarah Johnson, Let them eat pie, The Stanford Daily, October 30, 2007

European shift towards local purchases

In recent years, the European Union has shifted towards local and triangular purchases (food aid purchases or exchanges in one developing country for use as food aid in another country) of food aid, which many argue will lead to more efficient distribution of food and better support for agriculture, trade and development in the developing nations. Mousseau is worth quoting again at length summarizing Europe’s shift:

The shift from the export of surpluses to more purchases from within southern countries has been strongly promoted by a number of NGOs and researchers over the last twenty years.… Overall, in 2004, 1.6 out of a total of 7.5 million tons of food aid was obtained through local or triangular purchases in developing countries. The EU officially adopted this policy standpoint in 1996 and adapted its food aid programs accordingly through a progressive increase in the share of cash assistance for triangular and local purchases and more attention for non-food interventions. As a result, a major share of EU food aid—90 percent in 2004—is now procured in developing countries (this figure is only approximately 1 percent for the US).

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

However, all is not rosy on the European front, either. Mousseau notes that while the EU itself has made this shift, nations such as France and Italy have maintained a parallel flow of in-kind food aid representing nearly 70 percent of their food aid.

Furthermore, Ten years after the official dissociation between food aid and surpluses, the EU food aid remains under the influence of trade interests.

Mousseau also notes that trade remains unequal. For example,

  • Poor countries still mostly purchase key food crops from the rich (the poor nations mainly export things like tobacco, tea, coffee, cocoa and so must spend a lot of their foreign earnings to meet needs).
  • While some nations such as South Africa and Brazil may be able to provide food for other countries, often as part of triangular purchases, most developing countries do not have the transport and other infrastructure to make it economically efficient enough, yet.
  • Other obstacles and constraints include constraints of supply chain consolidation and strict qualitative export standards.

Given such constraints, Mousseau concludes, developing countries currently do not have equal access to trade opportunities and this limits their ability to benefit from food aid purchases.

The promotion of local and triangular purchases is certainly desirable and must be encouraged. However, it is unlikely to benefit the poorest countries and their small-scale farmers if it is not part of a broader policy aimed at supporting small-scale agriculture in these countries.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

The other major reason Mousseau is cautious about the benefits of local purchases is the dominance of large multinational agribusinesses:

Dominance of large multinational agribusinesses

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization notes that

Increasingly, large [transnational trading, processing and distribution] companies dominate world agricultural commodity markets and wield direct and increasing influence on what is produced, and how.

The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2004, p.30

Such large companies often go directly to farmers, so those with sufficient capabilities and resources win out. Larger enterprises benefit in both respects, Mousseau quotes the FAO as saying.

Structural adjustments have also skewed things in favor of large scale producers, Mousseau adds:

Structural adjustments have been implemented in most developing countries over the past two decades. They have generally led to the elimination of public intervention in the agricultural sector, including state-led institutions such as marketing boards, which in the past supported small-scale farmers through credit, inputs and facilitation of market access. Structural adjustments have also encouraged the concentration of agricultural trade and production, which excludes small-scale farmers from business and growth.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

Food aid still a political tool

Mousseau makes an interesting observation about US food aid policies still being used as a political tool, but unlike during the Cold War when it was used to support friendly regimes, it is now used against rogue states in the War on Terror.

For example, shipments of food aid to Afghanistan and Iraq before the invasions skyrocketed and was part of a media propaganda effort both domestically to US audiences as well as to foster support within those countries. Shortly after the invasions were over and such media attention diverted, such aid fell again:

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and primarily food aid, has been used by the invasion forces as a public relations measure to win domestic and international public opinion and the hearts of the people living in the war zones. In October and November 2001, TVs worldwide showed the airdrop of food rations by US aircrafts on Afghanistan. A few tons of food were dropped, which was insignificant compared to the monthly national requirement of more than 50,000 tons needed by the Afghan population at that time. In March 2003, Coalition Forces extensively used the argument that Iraq required humanitarian aid to seize and secure ports. And the first food distributions were army rations handed out by coalition soldiers in front of the international media. Yet, in Iraq, the Oil for Food Program had been in place until the invasion, and the government had distributed a food ration that would provide food for several months. There was therefore no need to rush into immediate emergency food distributions.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

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Shifting from development to relief/emergency food aid

Mousseau notes the shift in food aid in recent years from program food aid to relief food aid has come about because of a few factors:

  • There has been a reduction of surpluses in developed countries, especially in Europe
  • The use of food aid as a foreign policy instrument by the US has reduced compared to the Cold War era
  • Europe generally shifted food policy from food security to more a need-oriented one in 1996

For a few years now, Europe, developing countries, and some development NGOs have been criticizing US food aid for being dumping, distorting free trade and serving its own commercial interests. The shift to relief aid is therefore more welcome by Europe and some relief organizations, but Mousseau asks if this seemingly welcome shift is actually benefiting the hungry.

Benefits of Relief Aid

Emergency, or relief aid, has become increasingly streamlined amongst relief organizations. They are better at responding to emergency situations quickly and manage to reach and save countless lives.

Relief aid results in more aid going directly to the relief organizations, rather than via governments who could divert its use. This direct delivery can help with rapid responses.

Problems with Relief Aid

Inefficiencies in execution

While relief aid goals seems worthy and has certainly saved many lives, some general problems have been identified. For example,

  • Some delivery of emergency food aid can be too late
  • Some deliveries require a mobilization of effort and media attention before anything happens
  • Often aid does not cover the need
  • Food is not always needed; sometimes cash may be better

Mousseau details some examples in Niger, Ethiopia and Malawi where such delays have caused more deaths or greatly increased the cost of providing the aid. The shorter time frame in which the aid is needed also means that many responses often go unfulfilled.

Sadly, what occurred in Niger, Malawi and Ethiopia is symptomatic of the situation in most LDCs today. According to the WFP, “the number of food emergencies has been rising over the past two decades, from an average of 15 per year during the 1980s to more than 30 per year since the turn of the millennium.” These countries face recurrent or permanent food deficits that they find increasingly difficult to meet, and have to deal with a growing population that is chronically hungry. Some countries, such as Ethiopia, receive emergency food assistance every year, but … external assistance to meet the deficits is difficult to attract and slow to come. In most cases, unless international media and NGOs showcase starvation and trigger international attention, food deficits remain unfulfilled, causing massive losses of life.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

The Niger example that Mousseau detailed highlighted another issue I wrote about the G8 Summit in July 2005 when there were world wide anti-poverty concerts: that only when celebrities and first world leaders do something does the mainstream media respond. If poor people are dying from, or suffering, the daily grind of life it often does not make the news. When first world leaders do offer some aid or assistance, they seem to be the focus of media attention, not the people in the poor countries.

As also discussed in the section on mainstream media’s response to natural disasters, coverage leaves a lot to be desired for, meaning populations in donor countries are often ill-informed, or informed too late, making responses harder to predict or guarantee. In worst cases, repeated failures, or simply repeated appeals risks donor fatigue.

As detailed further on this site’s section on food dumping, food aid and famines have been exploited as commercial opportunities, for example, by dumping genetically modified (GM) food as aid during famines and dumping other undesirable food during emergency reliefs.

The issue of whether GM food is safe or not is a separate discussion. The concern here is that it is driven by donor policies, not recipient needs or concerns. The previous link, as well as Mousseau’s report goes into this in further detail. One example Mousseau covered that is worth dwelling on here was the exaggeration of the situation in Zambia and portraying that country’s refusal of GM food as threatening lives and being irresponsible:

US government officials and institutions also tried to use international and domestic political pressure to force Zambia to accept GM food. This included holding the Zambian Government responsible for starving its own people to death: “This famine is very dangerous and it's going to kill a lot of people if decisions are not made quickly,” said Mr. Winter from USAID. At the same time A. Natsios, USAID Director, accused environmental groups of endangering the lives of millions of people in southern Africa by encouraging local governments to reject GM food aid. Natsios said, “They can play these games with Europeans, who have full stomachs, but it is revolting and despicable to see them do so when the lives of Africans are at stake.” He added, “The Bush administration is not going to sit there and let these groups kill millions of poor people in southern Africa through their ideological campaign.” FEWSNET, the USAID early warning system, also published several reports backing the US position and holding the Zambian government liable for the delays in food deliveries.

Obviously, USAID’s primary concern was not Zambian lives. Despite alarming statements by USAID officials, there was no famine in Zambia. All malnutrition surveys conducted in the country in 2002 indicated very low malnutrition levels, below the 5 percent threshold which indicates a normal, non life-threatening situation.76 But another percentage may explain the US position in this matter: 34 percent of the corn planted in the U.S is genetically modified. US insistence that African countries accept GM food aid originated from the pressure of US agribusiness interests rather than humanitarian concern. As a matter of fact, the US Grains Council and the National Corn Growers Association delivered a joint letter to President Bush in January 2003, asking him not only to begin dispute settlement action in the WTO, but also to encourage acceptance of GM corn in food aid shipments.

Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005 (Emphasis Added)

Does not address root causes or prevent them

Relief aid, by its definition reacts to emergencies, rather than prevent. It is a shorter term aid, whereas going to the roots of hunger (e.g. poverty, debt, etc) is more complicated and leads to problems such as the ones we have seen with program food aid. Emergency food relief therefore goes to fixing disasters that could have been addressed much earlier with better policies. So both natural disasters (where emergency food aid is undoubtedly an appropriate and needed response) and human-made, preventable disasters compete for relief aid.

Limited accountability and may undermine democracy and sovereignty

Where relief aid has been used at the expense of longer term food security policies, a few additional effects result:

  • Bypassing governments mean less democratic decision-making
  • Accountability of both recipient governments and donating organizations/countries can be questioned
  • Undermining local agriculture

While it is common to hear cynical views of food aid as being ineffective almost solely because of corrupt governments despite good intentions of the West, not all poor country governments are corrupt (or to an equal level), and some policies recommended by the West may well have increased corruption.

Furthermore, this shift may undermine democracy and accountability as Mousseau is once again worth quoting at length:

The withdrawal of government intervention in agricultural and food sectors, however, jeopardizes developing countries’ ability to effectively fight hunger and poverty as it conflicts with several basic principles of governance:

Sovereignty and democracy:
The loss of sovereignty over food and agriculture implies a democratic deficit as citizens are not given a voice in the determination of the policies affecting their lives and their future.
Relief and development agencies are only accountable to their donors, and not to the beneficiaries of their interventions. When governments hand over the responsibility for food and agriculture to foreign bodies, they cannot be held responsible for what the international organizations do or do not accomplish.
Effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability:
Welfare systems and agricultural services with permanent staff and resources are more efficient, flexible and able to react quickly than international organizations having to bring international staff, to recruit local personnel, call for international funding, set up offices, etc. Moreover, food interventions run by relief agencies are geared towards short-term objectives and are not integrated into comprehensive strategies aimed at reducing food insecurity in the long run.
Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger In Our Time , The Oakland Institute, October 2005

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Vast Subsidies for the Rich; Free Trade for the Poor

As mentioned throughout this site, and highlighted by many other organizations, farm subsidies by the US and Europe as well as others dwarfs international aid and undermines development in developing countries. Commercial interests in these regions have prevented meaningful lifting of subsidies while they require developing countries to cut back on similar provisions for their own agricultural sectors.

Quoting a United Nations Human Development Report, Inter Press Service summarized this issue as follows:

The world’s richest countries spent just over one billion dollars for the year 2005 on aid for agriculture in poor countries, and just under one billion dollars each day of that year for various subsidies of agricultural overproduction at home. A less appropriate ordering of priorities is difficult to imagine, concluded the U.N. report.

Julio Godoy, G8-Africa: Farm Subsidies a Taboo Subject?, Inter Press Service, May 30, 2007 [Emphasis Added]

Furthermore, as Godoy also notes, the systematic undermining of African economies, mostly be the rich G8 nations, has gone on to such effect that the if sub-Saharan Africa enjoyed today the same share of world exports as it did in 1980, the foreign exchange gain would represent about eight times the aid it received in 2003.

Cries of hypocrisy have been quite loud in recent years as a result.

For more on the politics of these subsidies, see for example the following sections on this site:

South-South trade may be important

When there is criticism of unequal trade it is often about unfairness of the rich (north) countries policies and influence towards the developing (or south) countries. But South-south trade can be important too. As the FAO notes,

Much attention has understandably focused on tariffs and other trade barriers that limit developing countries’ commodity exports to the developed world. But several studies have suggested that in the long run developing countries stand to gain a great deal from reducing barriers to agricultural trade among themselves as well.

The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2004, p.28

In some of writings, J.W. Smith, of the Institute for Economic Development has been writing for well over a decade that one way for poorer countries to get out of the stranglehold that rich countries place on them is to ally together and develop a closer regional free trade system amongst nations with similar levels of development. It is not so much about pro or anti markets, but how to avoid the influence of excessive power (although there of course could be issues of one or more of the regional nations becoming more dominant over time). (The Inter Press Service also has a useful article on South-South trade.)

In terms of agriculture, the FAO acknowledges that this has had mixed success, but that it has potential:

The proliferation of regional trade agreements (RTAs) has contributed to reducing trade barriers and stimulating trade among developing countries. In many developing regions, RTAs are seen as a vehicle for promoting and diversifying trade. This is particularly true of those agreements that have reduced tariffs and other barriers to agricultural trade within their regions. A recent FAO study concluded that regional trade agreements had been the main trigger for rapid growth of agricultural trade within Latin America.

Some of the RTAs among poorer developing countries, however, have not seen significant growth in agricultural trade. Many have been hampered by major structural and policy obstacles, including inadequate transport and communication facilities and poor information about markets and investment opportunities. The lack of standardized packing, grading and quality control systems at regional levels also continues to frustrate efforts to expand trade.

In the past, many RTAs deliberately excluded significant parts of agricultural trade … as sensitive, allowing members to reduce tariffs more slowly and retain them at higher rates for these products or to exempt them altogether.

RTAs formed in the past decade are more comprehensive in their treatment of agriculture. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) have removed nearly all agricultural trade barriers.

The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2004, pp.28-29

The FAO then goes on to note the mixed success of NAFTA. For example, it has benefited large producers and exporters in the US. Large producers in Mexico have either also benefitted or been able to shift to other crops in response to the cheaper products from the northern neighbor. However, the FAO notes that, the brunt of the price deterioration has been borne relatively more by the 3 million small-scale maize farmers producing on non-irrigated hillside fields, who do not have the flexibility to shift into other crops.

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Challenges for developing countries

A 2006 FAO report summarizes the concerns developing countries have over recent pushes at trade talks to open up developing countries’ markets:

Developing countries continue to be disappointed with the results of the Uruguay Round, and concern remains that the Doha Round should make due allowance for their special circumstances and needs. The concerns of the poorer developing countries are well summarized by the Arusha Declaration on African commodities. The key concern articulated there is that if the agriculture sector of African countries is not competitive, tariff reductions that increase exposure to competition from imports may adversely affect agricultural growth, food security, incomes and employment. Against these real risks, the benefits of liberalization are seen as less tangible. For many developing countries, the Uruguay Round had little beneficial impact and, according to various model-based studies, most of the gains from any further liberalization are likely to accrue to the developed countries and the larger, wealthier developing countries.

In participating in the current round, developing countries are therefore seeking recognition of the fact that the development of their agriculture sectors requires different approaches in different situations, and that the negotiations need to reflect this concern by providing greater levels of flexibility in the implementation of trade reforms.

The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets 2006, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006, p.5

Different developing countries are at different stages of development, and so the FAO and many others argue that different policies may be appropriate, rather than a one-fit-size-all type of approach that the World Bank, IMF, and others have often promoted as part of a neoliberal ideology. This is also discussed further on this site’s section on protection and deregulation.

A success for Malawi: by ignoring the experts

Celia Dugger has another article in the New York Times noting that Malawi managed to go from being on the brink of famine to exporting abundant crops by ignoring World Bank advice of removing subsidies:

Over the past 20 years, the World Bank and some rich nations Malawi depends on for aid have periodically pressed this small, landlocked country to adhere to free market policies and cut back or eliminate fertilizer subsidies, even as the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers. But after the 2005 harvest, the worst in a decade, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s newly elected president, decided to follow what the West practiced, not what it preached.

Stung by the humiliation of pleading for charity, he led the way to reinstating and deepening fertilizer subsidies despite a skeptical reception from the United States and Britain.

The country’s successful use of subsidies is contributing to a broader reappraisal of the crucial role of agriculture in alleviating poverty in Africa and the pivotal importance of public investments in the basics of a farm economy: fertilizer, improved seed, farmer education, credit and agricultural research.

In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the World Bank pushed Malawi to eliminate fertilizer subsidies entirely. Its theory both times was that Malawi’s farmers should shift to growing cash crops for export and use the foreign exchange earnings to import food, according to Jane Harrigan, an economist at the University of London.

In a withering evaluation of the World Bank’s record on African agriculture, the bank’s own internal watchdog concluded in October not only that the removal of subsidies had led to exorbitant fertilizer prices in African countries, but that the bank itself had often failed to recognize that improving Africa’s declining soil quality was essential to lifting food production.

Celia W. Dugger, Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts, New York Times, December 2, 2007 (Emphasis added)

The result was record-breaking corn harvests in 2006 and 2007, according to government crop estimates. Corn production leaped to 2.7 million metric tons in 2006 and 3.4 million in 2007 from 1.2 million in 2005, the government reported.

While the Malawi’s specifics may not apply to all other countries, the point that the experts are not always the only ones with the right answers may be an important enough lesson. Responsible governments with the courage to do so may be able to provide strong agriculture policies for their nation and people. Malawi and others may find that over time as their economy changes, their practices may change too.

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Perceptions of food aid

Given that there are still so many people that go hungry every day around the world, efforts to address world hunger could be considered a failure. There have been numerous reasons for this failure.

It is common to hear in the mainstream media that governments of countries that have huge populations suffering from hunger and starvation are to blame for their corruption and diversion of money, food and related resources, despite all the good intentions from donor organizations and western countries.

It seems as though if there is ever criticism of donor organizations and countries, then NGOs are easy targets for having to use some donated money to fund their operations, as are UN bodies for they seem to provide further proof that the UN is a bureaucratic beast needing reform.

There can often be some truth to these criticisms, but rarely do we hear in the mainstream of western nations that their own countries, organizations, and domestic farm/agribusiness interests may have fundamentally made the situation worse by using food aid as a foreign policy tool to further their own interests, and not necessarily help the recipient, or that modest changes amidst such criticism are still not proving effective.

When asked if US food aid is worse than others, Sophia Murphy and Kathy McAfee of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy respond that the US’s large share of global food aid makes it a significant actor but the other major donors also have problems:

Two things stand out about U.S. food aid. One, as it contributes roughly 65 percent of the global total, what the U.S. does really matters in the food aid world. Two, the U.S. has continued to spend a lot of money on expensive and sometimes damaging kinds of food aid, rather than showing leadership towards best practice. It is not that the U.S. is alone in its bad habits: Canadians have an even higher domestic procurement requirement, with a 90 percent minimum threshold for in-kind food aid. South Korea also sells food aid, rather than providing only grants. The E.U. disbursement of food aid funds is so slow that the timing of their assistance—a critical variable in assuring good results—can make it less useful than in-kind donations, even though these have to be procured and shipped from thousands of miles away. Japan uses food aid to get rid of unwanted rice imports, forced on it by the WTO Agreement on Agriculture’s minimum import requirement for countries that did not convert market access barriers into tariffs. Nonetheless, most food aid donors have made important reforms to their food aid programs in recent years: the U.S. has not.

Sophia Murphy and Kathy McAfee, US Food Aid; Time To Get It Right , Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Indeed, various authors have attempted to dispel some myths about food aid, American food aid in particular. One of the authors of World Hunger: 12 Myths gave me permission to re-post a chapter on the myth that more US Aid will help the hungry.

Barrett and Maxwell, mentioned earlier, also listed a few key myths about US food aid:

  • Myth 1: American food aid is primarily about feeding the hungry
  • Myth 2: Food aid is an effective form of support for American farmers
  • Myth 3: American food aid is no longer driven by self-interest
  • Myth 4: Food aid is wholly additional
  • Myth 5: Food aid builds long-term commercial export markets
  • Myth 6: Cargo preference laws effectively support the U.S. maritime industry
  • Myth 7: NGOs are a force for change in food aid

Sarah Johnson, mentioned earlier, offers a powerful opinion on how food aid could be perceived:

When President John F. Kennedy named the Food for Peace program in 1961, he said, Food is strength, and food is peace, and food is freedom, and food is a helping to people around the world whose good will and friendship we want. That may be true, but it would be imprudent of us to forget that food is food. The purpose of food is to feed people, not America’s ego. Whether through exposure to Keynesian economics or negotiation cliches, we’ve fallen in love with the expanding pie theory: If you grow the pie, then everyone gets a larger piece of it. From closely observing the waistlines of many Americans, I have come to a conclusion. We don’t need more pie. We don’t need to win, or win-win-win-win. Indeed, maybe the right thing to do would be to lose: Lose our money, lose the support of domestic agribusiness and shippers, and buy food abroad from farmers who could really use the money for people who could really use the food. And maybe we could remember that losing once had a kinder, nobler name: Giving.

Sarah Johnson, Let them eat pie, The Stanford Daily, October 30, 2007

Whichever way it is looked at, food aid certainly needs readdressing to make it more effective for recipients, not just donors.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
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Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.