How Humanitarian Assistance Changes Local Diets and Markets

Mandatory distribution of foodstuffs produced by the donor country is written into many of the humanitarian assistance grants supported by American and EU governments.

My first experience with mandatory food aid took place some years ago when working in the Red Sea Hills of Egypt and Sudan with Beja tribes.  The USAID grant supporting the project required  the distribution of PL480 foodstuffs – primarily enriched cornmeal and corn oil that was surplus production from US farms.  That project is described HERE:

Although many  the Beja were indeed severely mal- and undernourished, the foodstuffs that we delivered were simply not their ‘own’ food.  Consequently, a good deal of it was sold to local merchants who then sold on to other merchants in the Nile Valley.

In this way, the Beja were able to gain a little cash in order to buy food that they wanted as well as to purchase other necessities.

More recently, however, the dumping of American and EU foodstuffs in the Third World has come under increasing criticism and I join that criticism, for several reasons:

  1. Over time, and in the absence of other basic foods, we are forcefully changing local diets and this translates into the recipient population wanting to purchase or grow and process items that oftentimes may not be suitable for local ecosystems, markets, processing procedures, etc
  2. Food dumping can depress demand for production of locally suitable foods in regions undergoing an emergency –  ODI and other organizations have conducted studies on this dynamic and some of the studies are referenced below
  3. Globally, food-dumping creates an artificial demand for food products that is neither sustainable nor ‘real’.

More recent examples of food-dumping, from here in Burundi, are found in refugee camps, internally displaced persons camps, school feeding programs, maternal-child health programs, and so forth.  In all of these are found food items from North America, the European Union, and elsewhere that are not always appropriate for local diets but that often do serve the over-arching purpose of getting rid of surplus food products in the North.

In more global terms, according to one study:

Of the nearly 3 million tons of food aid provided by the United States in 1996, almost one-quarter was in the form of PL 480 Title I sales  in which food is sold to third world governments on easy credit terms for resale to local livestock industries as feed, and to local food-processing companies who make pasta, bread, cooking oil, and other products for urban consumers.While the proceeds from these sales must generally be used for “development” purposes, which are specified by USAID, Title I has long been used as a primary tool to create new markets for U.S. grain exports. In practice, it functions as corporate welfare. According to a study published by the University of Nebraska Press:…

But while  I do not support conspiracy theories on the part of big businesses as the considered goal of food aid, I do see many of the tentacles of international food aid having developed along neocolonial lines .  The trail of food aid is long and complex, and as most historical sagas did not develop in ways that were originally considered.

There are no easy answers to this dilemma.  Who would deny food to kids such as the following?

A widower with his children, all suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition.  A family with whom we worked to improve animal husbandry

A widower with his children, all suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition. A family with whom we worked to improve animal husbandry

One of the mannourished children whose mother we incorporated into a family gardens project

One of the malnourished children whose mother we incorporated into a family gardens project with widows and their children who were internally displaced.

And who would not be pleased to see results such as these, from MCH (maternal-child health) programs that use ‘food-dumped’ food aid?

Children, after several months of enriched feeding at one of our maternal child health centres

Children, after several months of enriched feeding at one of our maternal child health centres
Happy mom with healthy twins

Happy mom with healthy twins

Boys in the feeding program

Boys in the feeding program

Moms who were part of the home gardens project, their children were receiving supplemental feeding and the vegetables grown by the mothers went both to their own homes as well as for market sales to earn a little income

Moms who were part of the home gardens project, their children were receiving supplemental feeding and the vegetables grown by the mothers went both to their own homes as well as for market sales to earn a little income.

There are efforts underway to address the issue of food aid on multiple fronts – in donor countries, with regard to food aid policy, in recipient countries – also with regard to national food aid policy,  and with programs to support improved food production at local levels – such as the program for fresh foods in refugee camps, put up in FB by Mariana Kavroulaki, which inspired me to write this blog (thanks, Mariana!).

Personally, I feel comfortable working both at the policy level, to develop ‘farmer-friendly’ policies that support local food production, marketing and processing – as well as at the local level, with farming communities overcoming emergency conditions (such as in the above photos) to invigorate farming practices and sales. In this way, to incorporate developmentally oriented activities with food aid in ways that ‘wean’ local folk off the aid as soon as possible.  As the saying goes, more easily said than done!

A few references providing background on the issues:

Preliminary Analysis of food Aid – Tsunami

US food Aid, time to get it Right

Food AID or Food Sovereignty?

Who will feed the Poor?

CARE Turns Down U.S. Food Aid

About diana buja

Picture from a recent training of veterinarians and vet technicians upcountry. I discuss in French with some Kirundi and have also a Kirundi translator to help with technical aspects ... Blog entries are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general, reflecting over 30 years of work and study in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, After the War, Agriculture, Children=The Future, Food Aid, Gardens, Humanitarian Assistance, Neo-colonialism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to How Humanitarian Assistance Changes Local Diets and Markets

  1. Pingback: The Day Sadat was Assassinated « Dianabuja's Blog

  2. Annemie Bosmans says:

    Dear Madam

    I am working for a publishing house in Belgium, a publisher of school books. For one of our projects, we would like to use your phtograph of pygmee women dancing on the beach. (It is a project which learns children of 11-12 years to listen en recognise different types of music).
    Could you please tell us if we are allowed to?
    My E-mail: bosmans.a@skynet.be
    Kind regards
    Annemie Bosmans

    Like this

    • dianabuja says:

      Annemie – I will get you the information in the next few days, have been ill the last few months. Diana.

      Like this

  3. brian says:

    Thanks for details about Beja people.

    Like this

    • dianabuja says:

      You are welcome, Brian. I will be putting up more blogs about the Beja – especially their role in the trade, economy and politics over time.

      Like this

  4. Pingback: Changing Local Diets and Food Expectations with Subsidized foods « Dianabuja's Blog

  5. Pingback: How Humanitarian Assistance Changes Local Diets and Markets … | burundi today

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