The Vexing Problem of Foreign Aid

Foreign Policy magazine looks at a new study from a pair of Harvard scholars that concludes that the more food aid we send to troubled countries, the more violence in those countries increases — largely as a result of trying, successfully, to steal the food.

Looking at a sample of developing countries between 1972 and 2006, economists Nancy Qian of Yale University and Nathan Nunn of Harvard University found a direct correlation between U.S. food aid and civil conflict. For every 10 percent increase in the amount of food aid delivered, they discovered, the likelihood of violent civil conflict rises by 1.14 percentage points.

The results confirm anecdotal reports that food aid during conflicts is often stolen by armed groups, essentially making international donors part of the rebel logistics effort. According to some estimates, as much as 80 percent of the food aid shipments to Somalia in the early 1990s was looted or stolen. In her book The Crisis Caravan, journalist Linda Polman reported how Hutu rebels who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide appropriated aid given out in refugee camps in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, further fueling conflict in the region. Polman also estimated that Nigeria’s 1967-1970 Biafran war — one of the first African humanitarian crises to get global media attention — may have lasted 12 to 16 months longer than it otherwise would have because of the international aid seized by rebel groups.

More recently, during the war in Afghanistan, there have been widespread reports of everything from Pop-Tarts to staple goods being resold at local markets. Even more worryingly, up to one-third of the aid to Uruzgan province has reportedly fallen into Taliban hands.

I think this highlights a serious problem that we have in trying to help those in some of the worst conflicts in the world. Foreign aid very often just props up brutal and dictatorial regimes and helps the elites in those countries far more than it does the people who really need it. The only way to avoid that is to replace those regimes or take out the warlords, but that’s not a serious solution; we can’t afford it and shouldn’t do it even if we could. But do we just stand by and let people get slaughtered and starve? I’d love to hear a serious discussion of this problem by political leaders, but we’re certainly not likely to get one.

19 comments on this post.
  1. slc1:

    Having learning nothing from our dubious interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the neocons are now beating the war drums for intervention in Syria and are lambasting the president for dithering on the matter.

  2. StevoR:

    The world sux.

    This situation does.

    Reality does.

    Logic says there’s just too many people on this planet

    And too few resources to go round.

    Especially given we are all trying to have the best lifestyle we can.

    Who can blame us?

    Ain’t that natural?

    But. Durn!

    I fear Paul Ehrlich was right.

    Population Bomb~wise

    If only he weren’t.

    What do we do ’bout it?

    What can we?

    But we don’t fix it.

    Nature will.

    We won’t like how it does that!

    I despair.

    ***

    Foreign aid?

    Needs to be compulsory family planning?

    Maybe?

    Too cruel?

    Too necessary?

  3. Raging Bee:

    For every 10 percent increase in the amount of food aid delivered, they discovered, the likelihood of violent civil conflict rises by 1.14 percentage points.

    That’s not bloody much of an increase in probability, is it? And what was the “base” likelihood before food aid was applied to the picture?

    Also, of there’s already violent civil conflict going on, then the “likelihood” of violent civil conflict is already 100% — so how can food aid increase the likelihood of violent civil conflict? What we have here, at the very least, is a rather poor choice of words.

    I don’t think this study really says much. If we’re sending food aid to a country, one very likely reason for it is that their civil order has collapsed already; so of course there will be groups of people who try to steal the food, and no police force fully able to stop it.

    I predict that this study will be used by Republicans — especially teatards and paultards — to “prove” that foreign aid only makes things worse.

  4. Raging Bee:

    I also predict that the same Republicans will use this study, or something like it, to argue against DOMESTIC food aid as well: “What’s the point of giving food stamps to those people, when there’s criminals who might steal it from them?”

  5. Johnny Vector:

    StevoR, I don’t think this really has anything to do with population. It doesn’t even (necessarily) require limited resources for some group to try to take it all. As we’ve seen with gay marriage in the US, even when a resource is unlimited, tribes will attempt to keep it from other tribes simply as a matter of power.

  6. tassilo:

    Although these observations are right on the money, they relate to only a part of the problem. For instance, when foreign aid is used for infrastructure projects in an African country, it’s frequently a foreign company who builds the project with little or no use of skilled local labor or expertise. Profits from building the project and even from maintaining it flow to a foreign corporation.

    NGOs have been operating in Africa for 50 years or more in all areas of need, with zillions of donations. Take a look at most countries in Africa and ask yourself if their conditions have improved over the last 1/2 century. In most cases the answer will be “no”.

    There is a great book I read some time ago called “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. It’s an eye opener as it relates to economic investments, often called foreign aid, in third world countries. Guess who profits?

  7. baal:

    You can ask a room of people what happens if you send food to Africa. The folks to answer something like, “you start world war 3″ did debate in high school (as did I).

    Doing food aid is the clearly right thing to do morally in nearly all cases but it’s a hard thing to do right. In many instances, the only solution is to flood in enough food that it’s relative value drops. This disincentives hording and makes it that much harder for the dictators and huntas to use selective starvation as a weapon.

    Every situation is different though and either something like a county with a long term consulate or some of the more experienced NGOs need a big hand in figuring out what will work. One off mass deliveries to say a port facility controlled by a single faction rarely come to good ends.

  8. YankeeCynic:

    Let’s be honest with ourselves: the food aid issue is only treating the symptoms of a countries issues at hand. If you want to provide solid assistance to the vulnerable populations in a conflict zone, you’ve got to end the conflict.

    Food aid should be tied to the host nation government as it is. That way it both bolsters their credibility to their population and ensures that the supplies are going into areas that have some security.

  9. Dr X:

    The matter is worth studying but, @Raging Bee

    That’s not bloody much of an increase in probability, is it? And what was the “base” likelihood before food aid was applied to the picture?

    and:

    Also, of there’s already violent civil conflict going on, then the “likelihood” of violent civil conflict is already 100% — so how can food aid increase the likelihood of violent civil conflict? What we have here, at the very least, is a rather poor choice of words.

    If you don’t understand why the significance of these observations, read them again and again until you do.

    I would add that looking at the correlation between incremental increases in aid and increases in violent conflict is attributing causation that isn’t necessarily there. How do we know that there isn’t an underlying variable, maybe severity of the crisis, that predicts both increases in food aid and increases in conflict?

  10. d cwilson:

    There is a great book I read some time ago called “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. It’s an eye opener as it relates to economic investments, often called foreign aid, in third world countries. Guess who profits?

    I’d also recommend Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”. A lot of foreign aid, particularly that coming from the World Bank, comes with strings that virtually guarantee that the country’s natural resources will be handed over to foreign companies and unions will be suppressed.

  11. wscott:

    According to some estimates, as much as 80 percent of the food aid shipments to Somalia in the early 1990s was looted or stolen.

    I was in Somalia in 1994-5 with the US Army. While I don’t know I’d go as high as 80%, certainly a lot of the food aid was stolen and resold. The NGO folks I talked with knew this going in and acknowledged it as the price of doing business – food available at a high markup on the black market is still preferable to no food at all.

    From the linked article:

    “If you randomly assign aid to countries without considering what’s going on, that’s going to increase conflict,”

    This jives with my (limited, anecdotal) experience. After the first month or so, every time we met with village elders and so forth they would tell us not to send more grain – what they really needed was medicine, seed to plant new crops and parts to fix their tractors so they could get back to growing their own food. But it was hard for the UN folks to shift gears – they were set up for grain, so they continued to ship grain long after it was really needed. I’m not blaming the UN relief workers, who were all well-meaning; but their own bureaucracy hampered their ability to adapt to the situation.

    @ YankeeCynic:

    If you want to provide solid assistance to the vulnerable populations in a conflict zone, you’ve got to end the conflict.

    Sure, but easier said than done. Exhibit A: Somalia. Our original mission was simply to provide security to the humanitarian relief effort and enforce a temporary truce between the warlords so the farmers could get back to farming. And we were largely successful at that – Somalia is still in chaos, but famine is much less of a problem now. Had we left after 4-6 months, Somalia might be viewed today as a huge success story. Instead we got sucked into Nation Building, which went about as well as it usually does. (ie – poorly.)

  12. matty1:

    In many instances, the only solution is to flood in enough food that it’s relative value drops. This disincentives hording and makes it that much harder for the dictators and huntas to use selective starvation as a weapon.

    That may well be necessary to solve an immediate crisis but it could have bad long term effects. If food is ‘cheap’ enough local farmers will have less incentive to grow a surplus to sell, which makes the area more vulnerable to future famines.

  13. conway:

    I recommend the works of Sam Kinison.

  14. Chris from Europe:

    Is all this “food aid” necessarily aid? Flooding local markets with your exports instead of helping them to transport surplus production of neighboring regions and countries is not about being nice and humane.

  15. Modusoperandi:

    slc1 “Having learning nothing from our dubious interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the neocons are now beating the war drums for intervention in Syria and are lambasting the president for dithering on the matter.”
    Syria and also…? Syria and also…?

    conway “I recommend the works of Sam Kinison.”
    “Move the people to where the food is. Aaah! Aaaaa-aaaah!”?

  16. jesse:

    I’d agree that part of the problem is what the aid is and what it is for — that is, when you just send truckloads of food you don’t really address why there is no food to begin with.

    One of the big issues with these conflicts is that they tend to be driven by outside influences — not spooks running around, though that’s happened, but things like the demand in the US for tantalum. Or diamonds. Diamonds would be a cheap stone without hoarding, for instance. Tantalum would be worth much less without everyone wanting an iPhone.

    Then there is the fact that every major power (and until recently this was the US, Europe and Russia) made it clear that democracy in Africa, especially, was a completely unacceptable outcome. (The only reason South Africa got away with it was that white people still got to hold on to a lot of power). Vote the wrong way and in come the bombs, or rebels that get financed from here. Let’s remember that “nation building” is really more “protectorate building.”

  17. Michael Heath:

    wscott,

    Thank-you for your service.

  18. Carch:

    I just finished living in Ethiopia for 4 years. During the most recent election in 2010 there were many stories of the government directing the massive amounts of food aid to areas that were sympathetic to them while, at the same time, withholding aid from areas where the opposition was popular, forcing people to vote for an oppressive regime or starve.
    The problem of aid is that it’s a bandaid (pardon the pun) on a gaping wound. It treats without curing the underlying issues, whatever they may be – conflict, corruption, government mismanagement, etc. Ethiopia has enough land to feed its populace but a variety of factors including government land grabs and forced relocation of certain tribes have exacerbated the problems. These are the issues that turn a drought into a famine. I should say that there are many NGO’s that do great work. But the irony in all of this is if NGO’s really were successful in what they do, they would be putting themselves out of business, which isn’t good business for anyone.

  19. harold:

    Food aid amounts to either a single nation or an international agency attempting to create a voluntary baseline international social safety net, an idea which I hypothetically find appealing.

    I’m broadly in favor of the UN trying to use coordinated aid programs to prevent starvation and epidemics of treatable disease.

    The problem, which is hard to see a fix for, is the impossibility of delivering aid fairly and efficiently without some level of local rule of at least mildly just law. A corrupt authoritarian regime, or even worse, civil war between competing would-be authoritarian regimes, makes it difficult if not impossible to deliver aid in an acceptable way.

    I’m against imperialistic, colonialist invasions to set up foreign-preferred governments, both on ethical grounds and on the grounds that, although it may enrich some people, it’s usually a pointless waste of resources.

    It boils down to a very difficult conundrum. I find it appalling to suggest that we ignore starving people, yet it is amazingly difficult and sometimes counter-productive to even attempt to give them food.

Leave a comment

You must be