Charity begins at home?

When wars and famines and floods and earthquakes strike a region and threaten large numbers of people with starvation, food is often the most urgent need of the affected people. While the amount of food aid promised is often impressive, the reality is somewhat different.

NPR had an interesting story today about the politics of food aid in the US that results in its Food for Peace program not being as helpful to the recipients as it could be.

America’s policies on food aid are singularly generous — and also unusually selfish. On the generous side, the U.S. spends roughly $1.5 billion every year to send food abroad, far more than any other country.

On the other hand, the rules for this program, known as Food for Peace, ensure that much of the money stays in American hands. Most of the food, which commonly includes wheat, corn and soy meal, and vegetable oil, has to be bought from U.S. farmers, processed here and delivered to its destination by U.S. shippers.

That eats up money and time. Andrew Natsios, who ran the U.S. Agency for International Development under President George W. Bush, says the results can be tragic. “I’ve run these operations, and I know that food aid often gets there after everyone’s dead,” he says.

The report goes on to say that attempts at even slight reforms of the system by the Bush administration, by providing more in the form of cash that would enable aid groups to purchase food quickly from nearby sources, were met with vigorous opposition from lobbyists from the agriculture sector and those aid groups whose income depends on being the middlemen in the process.

As Jonathan Zasloff adds in an article titled US Food Aid Rules: If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention:

In order to see how egregious current rules are, suppose that there is a famine in Ethiopia (I know, hard to do). The quickest and most effective thing to do would be to find some farmer or group of farmers in other parts of the country, or in neighboring countries, buy their food and get it to the stricken area. After all, one key cause of famine is the lack of money, not lack of crops. But under current law, USAID is basically forbidden from doing that. Instead, it must buy grain in the United States and ship it several thousand miles to the famine area. You can imagine the amount of time that that takes; sometimes, several weeks. It’s a logistic nightmare. In the meantime, thousands die, usually the weakest such as children and the elderly.

But it’s worse than that.

If the food needs to be shipped, then that means that the shipping must be paid for. And it sure is: according to a study done by AJWS and Oxfam, nearly 55% of the cost of American international food aid goes not to food, but to shipping costs. That’s what your tax dollars are going to.

But it’s worse than that.

As he elaborates in the rest of the essay, it’s much worse.

The Obama administration is apparently also going to try and improve the system with a new plan for food aid to be announced next week.

One possible negative consequence to creating a better system is that once you take away what is effectively a hidden subsidy to the US agriculture and transportation industries, congressional representatives, especially those from the farming regions, may be less likely to support food aid programs, a sad reflection on the self-interest that lies beneath what looks on the surface like noble actions.


  1. MNb says

    Nobel Price winner Amartya Sen has studied this subject all his life. He has concluded as early as 1978 (Poverty and Famines, Oxford 1978) that food aid very often does more harm than good. The problem with the famine of Bangladesh 1974 for instance was not a shortage of food, but people lacking money to buy it.

  2. Ulysses says

    One problem with shipping American food relief is the USAID is required to first try to ship the food in American ships. This can take a week or more before either an American ship is hired or when all American shippers have refused the contract.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *