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Food Confusion


'Does it not make economic as well as moral sense for the United States and other exporting countries to share abun­dance - God-given abundance - with the millions who are in need of food, rather than to store it in bins or let the land lie idle?'

Senator George McGovern, US Congress, April 1979.

'One of the benefits of the economic crisis here is that more and more people are leaving the cities for the land and men are working in manioc fields because it has become a remunerative crop. A dose of food aid could destroy everything that's being achieved, putting us right back where we started.'

Internal memo from aid field worker, Africa, August 1979.

Two views of food aid - the political rhetoric and the nervous reality. For twenty-five years food has been shipped from one side of the globe to the other, propelled by high-sounding ideals and commercial logic.

It is an operation that seems to have everything and everybody going for it. Farmers are pleased to have their surplus bought in a way that keeps prices up. Western Governments have a 'moral' method of disposal that also opens up potential new markets. The huge grain and shipping companies are pleased to sell their services. Third World govern­ments like the cheap food that disguises their own shortcomings. Voluntary aid agencies appreciate the regular govern­ment handouts that keep them in business. And right at the end of the line there are hungry people to be fed. It is an almost perfect operation.

Yet the apparent perfect coincidence of interests is part of the problem: there are very few people left to argue against it. And the remarkable thing is that for an operation that is now coming up to $2 billion per year no-one really knows whether it works or not.

To look at it more closely food aid can be classified into three roughly separate parts: emergency aid, bulk sales, and project aid. The first is the easiest to cope with. No one would argue against the need to ship food to Kampuchea for example, or indeed to any disaster where there was a real food shortage.

The second kind of food aid, given or sold cheaply to Third World governments, is the largest chunk. It is sold on the open market to gain government revenue. There is little suggestion that such food is for the poor. It goes to those with influence or the money to buy it.

According to World Bank figures for Bangladesh in 1977 for example, 27 per cent of this bulk food aid went to the military, police, civil servants and employees of large enterprises. Forty per cent went to middle-class residents of the six largest cities. Those in the countryside, the bulk of the population who needed food most, got only 34 per cent.

If a government has to import the food anyway, at commercial rates, then food aid is a useful substitution - for the government if not for the poor. But if food aid was not so readily available Third World leaders might do more about their own food production.

For example, the U.S. General Accounting Office produced a report in 1975 which said food aid to India had ,restricted agricultural growth by allowing the Indian Government to:

1. Postpone essential agricul­tural reforms.
2. Fail to give agricultural invest­ment sufficient priority.
3. Maintain a pricing system which gave farmers an in­adequate incentive to increase production.'

The report continues: 'It has only been when food aid has been reduced and food availability highly uncertain, that there has been any real impetus in developing countries towards removing disincentive policies and increasing production.'

But as well as the possibility of stunting local production there is also the danger that food aid might move local tastes permanently towards new imported foods.

Wheat does not grow in Upper Volta, where the staple crop is maize, so to make their crusty bread French colonists had to import wheat from Europe. Today wheat is still imported - as food aid. This keeps the price of bread reasonable; with the likelihood that more and more people in the towns first get a taste for it, then regard it as a necessity and finally make Upper Volta permanently dependent on imports of wheat.

Supporters of food aid argue that although it can depress local production and can stimulate foreign tastes it need not do so given adequate policies by the recipient governments. The problem is that recipient governments are rarely adequate and do not necessarily have the welfare of their poorest people at heart. If they did it is likely that the need for food aid would decline sharply anyway.

Today, after twenty-five years no one is at all clear about its actual effect. A survey by Professor Hans Singer and Simon Maxwell of the UK Institute of Development Studies concludes that a lot more evidence is needed 'before the theoretical case for food aid can be fully established as being of universal practical relevance'. In the meantime since no-one can prove that theoretically it doesn't work, food aid goes on.

When we come to the third kind of food aid, earmarked for particular projects to improve nutrition or paid in lieu of wages, the picture is no clearer.

But what is obvious is that food aid, compared with financial aid, is desperately hard to handle. It is difficult to keep track of it and difficult to move it around.

A series of memos which emerged earlier this year, written by Dr. Siegfried Bethke, then head of the World Food Programme (WFP) in West Africa, argued that the WFP should reduce its programme to a more controllable size. He wanted quality rather than quantity. To support his case he quoted directly from field reports.

One said: 'I have good reason to believe - but no proof - that about 50 per cent of WFP rice, oil and (to a lesser extent) bulgur wheat, is either supplied to non­project recipients or sold, probably in two neighbouring countries.'

Such corruption is inevitable in rich countries and poor. The best organisations do what they can to avoid it. One of the ways is not to ship aid out as food, except in cases of emergency.

When project food aid does get through, the argument continues as to whether or not it works. A major use is for feeding projects in which mothers and pre-school children have their diets supplemented. But a survey, again by Simon Maxwell, concludes that 'supple­mentary feeding has in practice proved largely ineffective in nutritional terms.'

The reasons are familiar and obvious. They include the logistical difficulties of maintaining a continuous supply of food and the problems of sanitation and health that mean children are unable to take advantage of the food they are given. Against a background of poverty it is not surprising that the feeding seemed to have little effect. It is what Maxwell calls an 'inappropriate technical response to a social and political problem.'

Even if it doesn't work well, supple­mentary feeding could be better than nothing and worth trying if the food is free. But that too is uncertain. Maria Colemont, a nutritionist in the Dominican Republic found that children's weight went up during the mango season, at avocado time and whenever food aid stopped. When the foreign 'wonder­food' failed to show up, mothers had to rely on their own resources and took more care of their children. When she discovered this, Colemont closed down her feeding centres and started a nutrition education programme based on local foods. The result was a marked increase in nutrition levels.

The other major 'project' use of food aid is 'food-for-work' - rewarding people with food for various construction programmes, like building roads or canals. This should improve the productivity of an area and make everyone, including the poorest, better off.

So much for the theory. In practice it is often the rich whose land is improved. The existing injustice is if anything made worse. As Bangladesh development worker Pamela Harrison explains in an interview with Oxfam-America: the rich farmers ,not only get the benefit of improving their land and their friends' land, but there is tremendous scope for using the power of patronage'.

Those in charge of food-for-work programmes do try to struggle against this. In Haiti one large landowner who was refused a food-for-work team for his land by the World Food Programme was so angry that he went on Radio Nationale to complain about it.

When the work is on public land there is a frequent complaint that food-for­work becomes nothing more than a disguised handout. In Haiti, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a director of the Catholic organisation CARITAS, describes the attitude of road construction gangs: 'All they can think of is getting food. They do not become aware of the problems of the community. Where there is no more food there can be no more work. They only then wish for the deterioration of the road so that they can redo it.' There is nothing about food aid in principle which says it should be this kind of handout. It just often turns out that way.

It is no wonder productivity is so low. A recent study by Christopher Stevens of the Overseas Development Institute in London showed that in Botswana food workers took fifteen days to complete what would have been a normal day's work. And in Upper Volta he concluded that despite free food, it would have been cheaper to get the same job done commercially.

It is difficult to see how any organisa­tion aiming to promote self-reliant development can see food aid as satis­factory, or justify a diversion of resources that could be better employed elsewhere.

Because even if the food is free there is the cost of shipping and storage. Then there is the cost of skilled manpower. Planners could be better employed working out more constructive projects. Health workers and teachers running feeding programmes could be educating mothers and children. Add to this the logistical nightmare of getting food from A to B without it getting lost or stolen and you have food aid's hidden cost - the 'opportunity cost'.

Food aid is like a key made of glass. If the lock were beautifully made and carefully lubricated then that key would open the door. If the lock is imperfect, as it usually is, the key will break and make matters worse.

The manufacturers of the glass have a lot of faith in its effectiveness as do the people who shape it into keys. But it could be that food aid is just not the right tool for the job.

The *New Internationalist* would appreciate receiving comments on this article, particularly from people with direct experience of food aid.

Food aid in figures

The Food Donors

June 1954 and Public Law 480 (PL 480) effectively started world food aid. Also called 'Food for Peace' it is distributed under 'Titles'. Title I is bulk sales to governments often on credit with easy terms of repay­ment. Title II is grants to agencies like Catholic Relief Services, CARE and the UN World Food Programme for them to use on particular projects. In 1976/77 there were an estimated 55 million recipients of Title II.

The European Economic Community
EEC food aid originated with the 1967 Food Aid Conven­tion and is all given as grants. Half the aid is cereals and half dairy produce. The EEC is much more anxious than anyone else to dispose of mountains of dried milk and butter. The UK is not a surplus producer so has to pay cash to buy food it gives.

Food aid did not reach substantial proportions till the sixties. Wheat and flour the bulk of the aid, 71% by value, all of which is grants.

The World Food Programme
Founded in 1963 this UN operation uses around 20% of world food aid, most of which is tied to specific projects in developing countries. It employs 800 people and disposed of 1.2 million tons in 1978. The main donor is the US followed by Canada and EEC.

Australia's pre-occupations with her near neighbours are reflected in her food aid policy. About a quarter goes to the World Food programme but the largest bilateral recipients in the year ending June 79 included Bangladesh with 8 million tons, Indonesia with 6 million tons and Papua New Guinea with 1 % million tons.

Food for Crude

Rising oil prices have prompted some Americans to suggest playing off U.S. food exports against OPEC oil imports. JACK NELSON looks at the connection between Third World food dependency and Western food aid and asks whether the current U.S. food-for-crude campaign is feasible or justified.

Recent price hikes by the Organiz­ation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have re-stimulated interest in the United States in using food power to combat the oil cartel. Slogans like 'Cheaper Crude Or No More Food' and 'A Bushel of Grain For A Barrel Of Oil' adorn car bumpers throughout agricultural states in the midwest.

Bumper stickers are just the latest round in the debate over U.S. food power. During the world food crisis in 1974 former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz stated that 'food is a weapon. It is now one of the principle tools in our negotiating kit.

In poor nations in particular food aid has had the intended or unintended consequence of fostering food dependency and enhancing U.S. power. American leaders have realized this for some time.

A 'successful' food aid strategy was a major reason why the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) could conclude in a 1974 study:

'Twenty years ago North America exported mainly to Western Europe; most other regions were basically self-sufficient. Now, the whole world has become dependent on North America for grain.

The study went on to say that future world food shortages 'could give the U.S. a measure of power it has never had before - possibly an economic and political dominance greater than that of the immediate post-World War II years . . . In bad years Washington would acquire virtual life and death power over the fate of the multitudes of the needy.'

The present food-for-crude debate is dangerous because it focuses narrowly on the U.S. and OPEC. It obscures the fact that using food as a bargaining tool stems from a political and economic crisis which includes but is far greater than the U.S. need for oil.

In the late 1960's and throughout the 1970's U.S. political and military setbacks have been accompanied by serious economic problems. Rising oil prices aggravate U.S. economic difficulties but they don't explain them. Other industrial countries like Japan and West Germany have grown stronger during the period of rising oil prices and they rely more on foreign oil than the U.S.

If it is misleading to blame U.S. economic problems on OPEC it is equally misleading to assume that the food power debate is limited only to possible U.S. responses to OPEC. Many American leaders think the U.S. can use food, in a world where hunger and malnutrition are growing, to restore its political and economic position.

This can be illustrated by the U.S. response to the world food crisis of the early 1970's which overlapped with a worsening domestic economic crisis.

Weapons sales abroad and aid-assisted food sales to a world experiencing shortages were the basis of American policy. Revenues from agricultural exports were $5,9 billion in 1969 of which 17 per cent related to easy credit sales under the U.S. food aid program (PL 480). Five years later, when millions of people were threatened with starvation, agricultural exports reached S21.9 billion, yet the amount of food sold on easy credit dipped to three per cent.

As the United States political and econ­omic strength further deteriorates - and as poor nations become more food dependent - food power will become an increasingly important tool in the hands of desperate American policy makers.

Several OPEC nations have seen their agricultural systems decline over the past several decades. However, OPEC nations control a very valuable commodity and the U.S. is unlikely to risk confrontation. Besides, OPEC's vulnerability is further reduced because member nations generally have enough money to pay higher prices.

Indirectly, we can expect the U.S. to exploit food dependency wherever possible in response to its economic difficulties. The U.S. will hit back at OPEC by hitting whoever is vulnerable. And that, for the near future at least, will not be OPEC but the poorer, food-dependent nations.

*Jack Nelson* is the Co-ordinator of the Politics of Food Program with Clergy and Laity Concerned in New York City, author of Hunger for Justice - The Politics of Food and Faith (Orbis Books, 1979).

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