Feasting on Famines

In light of the present famine in southern Somalia, and the growing hunger in Kenya and Ethiopia, thought it might be enlightening to look at some of the politics behind food aid. While researching for my latest book, I discovered that food aid in the US today is worth between one and two billion dollars a year out of a US$900 billion domestic market. It is no longer controlled by broad-based farm groups, but rather by a small lobby group with narrow interests. The players are big agribusiness, shipping companies and I was shocked to learn, NGOs. Yes, well-intentioned relief and development agencies feed at the food aid trough. “Monetization” was a new term for me. It means that food, mostly sourced in the US, is sold in local markets by the non-governmental organizations (NGO) to fund their development projects!

Since the 1990s, there has been a greater use of relief aid, a form of aid originally designed to help people in times of extreme crisis brought on by war and natural disasters. Food was just one part of the relief package along with water, shelter, sanitation and health care.

This type of aid is crucial in times of crisis, but some countries are now permanently on the list. Relief aid is being used more and more because early warning signs are not being heeded. The World Food Program says food emergencies are on the rise – from fifteen a year in the 1980s to thirty plus in the 2000s. These recurrent or permanent food deficits and a resultant growing and chronically hungry population are a result of lack of early response and a reluctance to really address poverty and hunger.

I learned a lot about food aid from a report out of the Oakland Institute written by Frederic Mousseau (“Food Aid or Food Sovereignty, Ending World Hunger in our Time,” October 2005). Mousseau writes “unless international media and NGOs showcase starvation and trigger international attention, food deficits remain unfulfilled, causing massive losses of life.”

There are many recent examples of famines in the making. Malawi had a bad harvest in May 2001, yet despite calls for help, there was no early response. But then in the following two years, there was an overreaction that flooded the country with aid, affecting local markets and preventing the local economy from recovering.

A food shortage in Niger was announced in 2004, but the international community did not respond. So by July 2005 we saw starving, emaciated people on our TV screens. A famine could have been prevented. The UN’s humanitarian coordinator reported that in 2004, one dollar a day per child would have been enough. A year later it was up to eighty dollars a day, because expensive emergency cargoes had to be shipped in from Europe, including nutritional products to treat malnutrition.

According to Mousseau, early intervention can prevent a temporary crisis from becoming a long-term chronic condition. If the developed world were serious about tackling chronic hunger and poverty, they would hop to it at the first sign of a crisis, instead of relying increasingly on relief aid. He writes, “Donor countries dominate the food trade through their agribusiness corporations, which benefit directly from trade with developing countries. Providing too little food aid and too late, they may assign the primary responsibility of meeting food deficits to the invisible hand of the market.”

Some aid agencies have helped to perpetuate the problem. For example, in the aftermath of the tsunami in Southeast Asia in December 2004, the UN’s World Food Program quickly launched an enormous food relief operation. To feed 1.7 million, they figured they’d need 170,000 tons of food over six months, mostly in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Yet while the food was available for purchase in the region, it accepted a donation from USAID that would cover them for five months. Even though both host governments were anticipating good rice crops in the early spring and had therefore imposed bans on imports, the WFP applied for an exemption and got it. So the tsunami was used as an opportunity to put more US rice on Asian tables. For most western countries, humanitarian aid has the dual purpose of expanding markets and providing a place to dump surpluses.

More enlightened aid agencies like Oxfam, Save the Children Fund, CARE International and the Canadian International Development Agency now support local markets or buy from neighbouring countries. And instead of handing out rations, those in need are given cash or vouchers so they can buy their own food. It avoids the degrading line-ups and allows people to select what they want, with dignity. In the majority of cases, people just don’t have the money to buy the food: it’s not that the food isn’t there. This form of aid saves a lot of money (up to fifty percent cheaper!), supports the local economy, and helps the environment by sourcing closer to home.

According to Mousseau, the aid system needs to be more flexible and each situation evaluated to see which is more appropriate, given the political, economic, seasonal, and climactic context. Most importantly, to ensure that the help doesn’t come with commercial strings attached. Famines appear to generate a lot of strings.


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