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:
- 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
- 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
- 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?
And who would not be pleased to see results such as these, from MCH (maternal-child health) programs that use ‘food-dumped’ food aid?
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:
- International Food Aid Now Sourcing More Local Ingredients (treehugger.com)
- USAID Supports New Fund to Advance Food Safety (damontucker.com)