Author and Page information
- This page: https://www.globalissues.org/article/748/food-aid.
- To print all information (e.g. expanded side notes, shows alternative links), use the print version:
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:
- What is food aid?
- The major players in the food aid game
- Types of food aid
- Problems with food aid
- Some changes in recent years? Positive for fighting hunger?
- Shift in policy and purpose
- Food aid remains conditional
- Priority countries still neglected?
- Increasing costs and food aid
- Relief organizations; double interests?
- Bush proposes $300 million to help local purchase of food. Positive but met with resistance
- European shift towards local purchases
- Dominance of large multinational agribusinesses
- Food aid still a political tool
- Shifting from development to relief/emergency food aid
- Vast Subsidies for the Rich; Free Trade for the Poor
- Challenges for developing countries
- 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
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.
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.)
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,
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.
Types of food aid
Mousseau’s detailed report also summarizes 3 types of food aid:
- Program Food Aid
- Is a form of
in-kind aidwhereby 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.
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
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
- A handful of large agribusiness, crop and food lobbies lobbies (Wheat, rice, soybean oil and milk powder producers and exporters)
- US shipping companies
- 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,
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.
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:
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:
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:
- Cheap (highly subsidized) American grain and other foods would be dumped onto the local economy
- 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)
- Small producers lose/sell their land and become jobless or laborers or move to the big cities
- As such economies are encouraged to be exporters of cash crops, and food from food
aidis so cheap, other work is on the cheap and people struggle to make a living
- Poverty, food insecurity, and hunger increases
The concerns of program food aid was raised at its inception:
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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:
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,
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:
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:
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:
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.
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 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
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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,
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 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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
Whichever way it is looked at, food aid certainly needs readdressing to make it more effective for recipients, not just donors.
Author and Page Information
Back to top