Hurting or helping the hungry?

By Michelle Chen Jun 08, 2009

Let’s say you’re hungry. In your backyard, dewy tomatoes dangle from robust vines, and hormone-free Holsteins graze in the shade of lush fruit orchards. But you’re mysteriously pulled down the street into a sprawling supermarket, where your shopping cart is loaded with corn flakes and canned vegetables. At checkout, you get billed about 25 percent higher than what you’d pay at a regular deli, and the groceries are delivered to your door about a month later. To critics of U.S. food policy, that irrational scenario reflects what whole countries experience every day under a global supermarket chain called “aid.” Targeted food aid is widely seen as both a necessity and a moral obligation of the international community. But United States, a leading supplier to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), has drawn mounting criticism for relying on in-kind donations. Unlike cash-based aid, in-kind aid centers on donations of U.S. agricultural products, rather than fostering production within poorer countries. A recent Government Accountability Office audit seems to affirm concerns about aid policies impeding sustainable development in the Global South:

We found that locally and regionally procured food costs considerably less than U.S. in-kind food aid for sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, though the costs are comparable for Latin America…. the average cost of WFP’s local procurements in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia was 34 percent and 29 percent lower, respectively, than the cost of food aid shipped from the United States…. Additionally, about 95 percent of WFP local procurements in sub-Saharan Africa and 96 percent in Asia cost less than corresponding U.S. in-kind food aid.

In-kind donations are also fraught with high overhead costs and agonizing inefficiency. Compared to local and regional purchases, the delivery time for international donations averaged more than 100 days longer. Activists have challenged "free market" aid policies for exacerbating global economic and racial inequality. In a debate on Huffington Post with renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, examines the politics of international economic aid:

“We now have over 300 years of evidence of what works (and what doesn’t) in increasing growth, alleviating poverty and suffering. For example, we know that countries that finance development and create jobs through trade and encouraging foreign (and domestic) investment thrive. “We also know that there is no country — anywhere in the world — that has meaningfully reduced poverty and spurred significant and sustainable levels of economic growth by relying on aid. If anything, history has shown us that by encouraging corruption, creating dependency, fueling inflation, creating debt burdens and disenfranchising Africans (to name a few), an aid-based strategy hurts more that it helps.”

In the shadow of the global food-price crisis and a worldwide recession, the issue of "food sovereignty" has come to the fore. Groups like Bread for the World call for aid policies that “create an environment where individuals are empowered to meet development goals for themselves.” But activists also caution against opening delicate agricultural systems to economic exploitation under the guise of aid. (see the Oakland Institute’s critique of the much-hyped Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa as a profit-driven vehicle for spreading bio-engineered agriculture.) While Congress has begun looking into cash-based aid, GAO researchers point out that many hurdles remain, including weak economic infrastructures, poor funding coordination and price volatility in developing markets. Yet the biggest hurdle on the path to sustainable food aid may be the basic premise of the current system. The central program, Food for Peace, essentially serves as a funnel for pumping American crops into poor countries to buoy domestic markets. Almost by definition, foreign aid tends to maintain starving societies at the bare minimum. The political momentum for change won’t likely come from donor’s beneficience, but from an even stronger hunger among the impoverished—a craving for the dignity of independence. Image: Aid distribution in Pakistan (Jim Stipe / Bread for the World)