Editorial #17 – Who does food aid?

As we pat ourselves on the back for the impressive $25,000 we as a school helped raise to send to Haiti, we should be careful to check up on where it goes. Notably, if this money is to be spent on long-term food aid, we could be doing more harm than good.

Food aid is considered to be essential in the recovery effort during any disaster, such as a famine or Haiti’s earthquake. After all, what else do hungry people want? They need food, they need water, and they need medicine in order to survive the first few weeks following a disaster, and this has to come from outside in the form of foreign aid.

Once the situation has stabilized, however, is when sustained food aid can actually become detrimental. This is known as “food dumping” and it kills local agriculture. Having massive supplies of cheap food shipped to an area otherwise capable of handling its own food production is disastrous to local farmers, because it takes the bottom out of the market, sometimes permanently.

Even a temporary influx of food to an area can irreparably harm the market, as fields go fallow and farmers move to urban areas: a common sight in long-term “beneficiaries” of food aid is a marketplace crammed full of bags of US grain, while local produce is conspicuously absent.

The alternative, as usual, is somewhat less sexy than jumbo jets full of food. This alternative is based on the idea of ‘teaching a man to fish.’ That is, providing economic incentives for farmers to continue farming, stimulating local economies so that they can support their own farmers, and providing aid for only as long as the state of emergency persists.

Hungry families need food, but instead of handing out Canadian or American corn, aid agencies should be giving that cash to local communities to spend on local food to ensure a reliable supply for the future.

In a 2006 interview with the BBC regarding Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) aid in Zambia, former Zambian Agriculture Minister Guy Scott stated rather harshly that, “NGOs flatter themselves into thinking that they save lives…. [it is] arrogant of the West to think that without whites, without pop stars, Africans would all be dead.”

This is the flipside of the remark I quoted from a significantly less important and less educated observer on the CBC website a few issues back, (Don’t be Haitin’) who insisted that, “Haitians are good at reproducing, making dirt cookies, cutting down trees, and having their hands out.”

Despite the obvious and ridiculous racism in this quote, there is just a grain of (likely unintended) unfortunate truth to it: through food aid, many NGOs make entire communities in countries such as Haiti dependent on handouts. By contrast, there are many organizations such as Oxfam that focus on development of self-sustaining communities, and it is these organizations whose long-term aid is making the best impact on chronic problems and not just applying a band-aid.

If we respond to disasters by making communities dependent on food aid, then it is likely that we are not really helping. In the short term it is vital that food, water and medical supplies are available. Prolonged efforts, though, should be focused on production rather than distribution: hooking vulnerable people on handouts only makes them more vulnerable to future disasters, while also crippling their ability to support themselves.

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