Reposted on Chicago Council’s Site!
Failing to Address the Complexity of US International Food Aid Policy May Result in Perpetuating the Problem of World Hunger
by Hannah Laufer-Rottman
An encouraging new development from the Obama Administration intends to change the way the US distributes its international food aid by buying food from local farmers instead of shipping it from the U.S. But will it succeed? While the goal of reducing hunger in the world continues to be a key strategic goal, the effectiveness of the U.S. policy will hinge on applying a global, regional and country-by-country understanding of how complexities can work for or against the goal.
The complex issues that will have to be addressed by the policy include:
1. The hijacking of the right to food for all under an elaborate system of charity.
2. The “weapon” element of food between nations.
3. The need to distinguish between emergency and non-emergency food aid.
4. The need for a comprehensive global, regional, and country-by-country approach that will determine how to allocate U.S.-grown food, local food or some combination of the two.
5. The role of land investment in Africa as an impediment to local farming solutions.
6. The need to address the environmental and sustainable elements of food production.
Let’s take a look, one by one:
1. A key question about the current system of charity, including the right to food, is the role of the U.S., since elements of its food-aid-as-charity system perpetually delay the collective responsibility of addressing the root causes of hunger. These elements include the failure to encourage governments to take greater responsibility for their citizens’ food security, the failure to align U.S. internal food policies with prices in international markets, the overall short-term perspective about the issue of food security, and the lack of substantial, ongoing investments in agricultural development worldwide. These failures must be addressed to make progress.
2. U.S. policy must eliminate the “food-as-weapon” arm-twisting that goes on between nations, knowing that food and water are the most precious – and increasingly scarce – resources on earth. We have all witnessed the terrible wars, suffering and insecurity that arise when whole populations lack these essential life resources, or potentially lose access to them. A renewed policy can be a powerful tool for rewarding the good behavior of nations and governments that address hunger. It could also help the U.S. eliminate its own destructive practices of pitting the interests of large, U.S.-based agricultural concerns against the needs of food-insecure nations and the recipients of food aid, as well as the failure to address the effect of food aid on the price of locally grown crops.
3. We must understand the distinction between emergency versus non-emergency food aid. The former should address only one question: what is the most efficient way to prevent people from starving at a given moment? Through the years, U.S. international food policy has responded effectively to world humanitarian crises. In the developing world, and in countries that are by default food insecure and rely on food imports to feed their people in cases of emergency, there is no local food stock that can save lives. In these cases, international food aid is the only answer.
Where there is food in a country neighboring another with a food emergency, aid policy is most efficient when it provides cash – foreign emergency cash aid. Food can be bought and shipped more quickly and, most likely, at cheaper rates. But it is also quite possible that neighboring countries are equally poor and food insecure. In such a case, only rich nations, with an established and sophisticated infrastructure for food reserves, can step in and provide aid. The key problem: there are no more than a dozen such rich nations in the world with food reserves.
4. There are both risks and benefits of buying crops from farmers in poor countries instead of shipping food from the U.S. For one thing, many developing countries do not have an agricultural policy in place that guarantees farmers stable markets and prices, thereby discouraging them to invest in food production. If the U.S. is going to help poor countries by buying food from local farmers, the policy must insure stable and continuing U.S. funding. When U.S. funding fluctuates, local farmers doubt there will be a secure and stable market for their products, making it impossible for them to make decisions about how to invest and operate.
Just as important is the complexities of food distribution within developing countries. Let’s say two developing countries produce enough staple foods that can feed their own poor, but Country A doesn’t take responsibility for distributing food from a surplus area to a food-insecure area, and Country B doesn’t have the local distribution infrastructure. The U.S. should not buy food from within Country A and distribute it to the poor, because U.S. policy should require the country to redistribute the food to its own citizens. In Country B, which lacks warehouses, and especially roads for trucking, the U.S. should play a role in the shipping and distribution of food within the country. These two examples illustrate the importance of understanding the complexities on the ground before determining the most effective way to carry out U.S. food aid policy.
5. Regarding land investment in Africa, many governments enter into deals with foreign and domestic agribusinesses to produce export crops that only satisfy the needs of richer countries and large multinationals. These deals operate on farmland often occupied by small farmers engaged in subsistence agriculture, who have no legal property rights even though their families have worked the land for generations. Such arrangements at the top have the power to dislocate farmers, producing a diaspora of people who have lost their livelihoods and have had to relocate to less productive lands. Adding insult to injury, there is no evidence that the proceeds from these deals are re-invested in building local food security systems for the poor. This is the case in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Mozambique, to name a few. U.S. food aid policy should actively discourage this practice on both ethical and practical grounds. Otherwise, people from poor countries will only see American food policy as working against them.
Based on these well-established observations about buying crops from local farmers, the U.S. must develop a comprehensive agricultural development policy and program that addresses to a large degree the myriad challenges at global, regional and national levels.
6. With collective responsibility, what is the global cost of food production based on water and land resources, environmental sustainability and cost efficiency? Is it a good idea to actively encourage developing countries to engage, for example, in the local production of wheat versus importing it from a country where there is plenty of land and water, and where there is efficient agriculture with low-cost and sustainable production?
Perhaps some countries are better off importing/receiving wheat from the U.S. – or other wheat producing countries – in exchange for investing locally in high-value commercial crops that are produced in a more sustainable way. Such crops would promote the local economy, create jobs, and improve the livelihoods and incomes of farmers and workers so people can ultimately consume the food they need without having to rely on food aid. But this kind of rational decision-making is not being carried out on a global scale.
Of course what’s outlined here is not the end of the story. There are plenty of other overarching questions that must be addressed, including: What should be done about controversial agricultural subsidies that disturb equitable pricing in the global marketplace? What is each country’s best interest in terms of agricultural investment and how is such investment related to the persistence of hunger?
U.S. policy makers and the Obama Administration have their work cut out for them, if we intend to answer these questions appropriately and move the debate into a workable proposal. Such discussions would take into account the realities of international trade, fair trade among nations, and the regulation of global food markets and food prices. And all nations must take part in the key forums of the World Trade Organization, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (which advises President Obama), and others.
Ultimately, the question is this: Is the U.S. ready to partner with developing countries on equal trading terms, with the goal of working toward peace, food security and basic human rights?
The author is CEO of Palms for Life Fund, a U.S.-based NGO committed to alleviating hunger and poverty worldwide, and is a former long term employee of the UN World Food Programme.
The author is CEO of Palms for Life Fund, a US-based NGO committed to alleviating hunger and poverty worldwide, and is a former long term employee of the UN World Food Programme.