|Essays on Food, Hunger, Nutrition, Primary Health Care and Development (AVIVA, 480 p.)|
|18. Commentary - The Markets of Hunger: Questioning Food Aid (Non-Emergency/Long-Term)|
States do not have friends, only interests. - General C. de Gaulle
Largely under the pressure of the developed countries, Third World countries have placed priority on cash crops; now, the West wants to give them food aid (World Food Council, 1984). But aid given with one hand is actually being taken away with the other. Export promotion and food aid strategies are often encouraged by the same donor agencies, "making us wonder whether the left hand knows what the right hand is doing" (DeSilva, 1985).
Transnational corporations most often clearly underpay Third World agricultural commodities. These exporter countries will then tend by themselves to produce greater amounts of cash crops just to keep their balance of payment in the black. Food crops are obviously the ones that suffer. Moreover. IMF adjustment or austerity plans push countries to export even more, regardless of their internal food situation. The question, then, is: can any food aid approach be borne in the shadow of superpowers and transnational corporations actually making the decisions that affect the Third World? The systems that dominate the world are increasingly global and dependency-creating and, definitely, our degree of control over them is not encouraging (George, 1985).
As we see. then, food aid is nowadays too involved in looking at improving the system's management, ignoring the need for system reform. Donor agencies cannot afford to raise the issues of structural changes, because of the conflict of interests this inherently raises for them. Food aid is actually still coupled with a strong belief in the (discredited) trickle-down process despite the evidence that the actual value of the transfer from most supplementary feeding projects is usually less than 5% of annual total household expenditures and participation is less likely by the poorest, who are more inaccessible (Sahn, 1984).
Politics in the Donor Countries
"Food aid makes sense for the rich countries". On top of creating future markets. the sums they now spend on storing food surpluses are far greater than those they need to use food as development aid (George. 1985). It is thus pertinent to ask: what would happen 10 these surpluses if they were no longer used as food aid?
Already roughly one in four acres of farmland in the United States produces food for export to the Third World. Without these markets, there would be a 20% to 25% loss of gross farm income bringing further hardship for the distressed American farmer, the consumer, and the economy. At the very base of food aid is the undeniable fact that grain reserves in the eighties have been the largest in history whereas, unfortunately for the farmers, food prices have been low.
Looking at aid from another angle and putting food aid in perspective, US security aid (military aid and Economic Support Fund) in 1981 was about 54% of its total aid program. It was 67% in 1985 and around 72% in 1988. PL 480 funds (Public Law 480 on food aid) were about 11% in 1985 and around 9% of all aid in 1986. At this point it is also worth remembering that more than 1/3 of all U.S. bilateral economic aid has been traditionally extended on a loan or credit basis and is being repaid with interest (so. far, surprisingly quite promptly). Further, there has also been a trend away from aid to the lower-income countries. In 1985, the U.S. was giving around $.50 per person in aid to the low-income countries and $11.65 per person to the high-income countries (Sewell, 1985). The concentration of U.S. aid on only a few countries shows that its objectives are strategic rather than humanitarian. In Africa, two thirds of the aid goes to Egypt, and in the 48 sub-Saharan countries, half has been going to Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Liberia.
On another political note, donors actually agree that food aid can discourage local production, increase dependency, alter food habits, encourage corruption, and not reach the more needy. Nevertheless, they contend that none of these problems need happen under proper safeguards. They genuinely seem to believe that food aid. when used for strict developmental purposes, can be made to have none of the above drawbacks. How this is going to come about is seldom elaborated upon. (George, 1985).
Food aid has thus been used to support development projects in two main ways: as a compensation for people for their labor and in special supplementary nutrition programs. Both modalities will be explored below.
Politics in the Recipient Countries
Third World countries often accept food aid. because of the scant availability of alternative sources of policy advice in the food and nutrition area (DeSilva, 1985). They have thus increasingly relied on food imports rather than stimulating local production of food. Donated or cheap food (often subsidized) is imported from the North creating dependency and non-local food preferences among the populace (World Food Council, 1984). As is well known. if a peasant takes his surplus to the market and finds this market swamped with donated grain, he will take his products home again. Therefore, he has made no profit and will produce less next year.
Moreover, the recent world recession resulted in cutbacks in food imports which further revealed the serious inadequacy of local production. Servicing the foreign debt has also brought many ongoing food-producing agricultural efforts literally to a halt. Sadly, food aid has actually permitted governments to postpone further the attention they need to give to their neglected agricultural sector (Hoeffel. 1984). In addition, the same food aid causes severe budgetary and logistic problems to the recipient countries since donors often pay for only some (or none) of the costs of internal transport, storage, and handling of the food donated.
To complicate matters, the time lag between initial request and final delivery of food aid have often been excessive, an average of 377 days for cereal delivery in the early 1980's has been quoted (George, 1985). Untimely delivery may trigger some of the most harmful consequences of food aid, especially when delivery coincides with the country's own harvests. As a result, many local producers may be ruined. Therefore, in these cases, it would be better to wait even longer before delivery (George. 1985).
According to Susan George, the following postulates are generally true for most countries receiving food aid:
- A strategy that benefits the least well-off groups will not be acceptable to the dominant groups unless their own interests are also substantially served.
- A strategy that benefits only poor classes will be ignored, sabotaged, or otherwise suppressed by the powerful, insofar as possible.
- A strategy that serves the interests of elites while doing positive harm to the poor will still be put into practice and, if necessary, maintained by violence so long as no change occurs in the balance of social and political forces (George, 1985).
In the case of the most seriously affected continent, Africa, "it could be better off if the West did nothing at all to assist in its development". Only strategies supported from the bottom up, with the participation of those whose development is desired, will help Africa's plight. Much Western aid tends to divert Africa from coming up with such strategies. Aid provides little leverage for making leaders respond to internal cues from their peasants. The causes of African underdevelopment are linked to the coercion and abuse of peasant producers. Constantly coerced to act against their own interests, they have become demoralised. Had they been left to follow their own interests, allowed to attend more efficiently to their own survival as they had done for centuries, hunger on the present scale would not occur (Ake, 1985).
African governments are spending close to one quarter of all their foreign exchange earnings on food. compared with just 10% at the beginning of the 1970's (Liaison Office for North America, 1985b). Despite these figures. Africa still assigns insufficient priority to agriculture. Correcting this attitude will go far beyond food aid at its best. New priorities favoring agriculture are thus needed (Mellor, 1984).
Moreover, nothing, not even drought, may have impoverished Africa as much as the international commercial trade system. If the farmers involved in export were paid a dollar an hour instead of a couple of dollars a day. Africa would have annually deserved an extra $50 billion, three times the total flow of public and private aid, loans, and investment to Africa in 1984 alone (Matthews, 1985). Additionally, developing countries in general would earn over $8.5 billion more a year if protectionist barriers in agricultural trade were cut in half by all nations in the North (Hoeffel. 1984).
When consideration is given to food for work, which accounted for some 15% of food aid in 1984, it has to be kept in mind that people prefer to work for food only when there is simply none to buy and only as a transitory measure (World Food Council, 1984). In food for work programs, it has been calculated that the actual disposable income of participant households can be increased by around 10-11% of annual wage income. However, one has to count on some of the food in these programs being sold by recipients, thus potentially reducing the intended direct benefits. Recipients thus benefit more from mixed forms of payments (in kind and in cash), especially since food for work schemes often provide income only for a short season forcing recipients to plan ahead for the other seasons (Mellor. 1984).
Food for work projects should theoretically contribute to development. All too often, however, they have contributed far more to the capacity of Third World governments to repress the poor (Jackson. 1983). The appropriateness of food for work projects is conditioned by the extent to which they are oriented either towards relief (charitable welfare) or towards the construction of needed infrastructure and the generation of assets that benefit the participants thereafter. These projects do not improve nutritional status markedly during the short-term, when the food assistance is actually being distributed. Returns on investment do not begin to flow immediately either. Moreover, participation is often irregular and intermittent. On the other hand, these projects, by increasing local food availability, tend to depress local food prices. Eventually, this situation temporarily increases the net food consumption of the local vulnerable groups, but this increase cannot be measured with the traditional indicators of nutritional status (Sahn. 1984).
What is true for food for work schemes is also true for the benefits of most supplementary feeding programs for children and mothers; they are usually modest. The observed effect of these programs on growth is small or absent. Their administrative costs are exceptionally high. Increments in birth weights attributed to these programs typically run in the range of 40-60 grams. As is known, only a part of the food given actually reaches the targeted population. Leakages of the supplemented food occur when the food is shared by nontarget family members. In sum, supplementary feeding programs are generally able to fill only 10-25% of the apparent energy gap in the target population (Mellor, 1984).