Is Food Aid for Africa Working?

A Wall Street Journal reporter asks if western food aid policies are truly providing aid.

Although billions have been spent on foreign development and food aid to Africa in the decades since World War II, over half a billion people remain undernourished in Africa today according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—a number that's 53 percent higher than it was in 1992 when the government first began accumulating such figures.

While the reasons for continuing poverty are manifold, Western government programs such as food aid and agriculture and ethanol subsidies deserve their share of the blame. So argues the new book Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty (PublicAffairs), written by Wall Street Journal reporters Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, each of whom have years of experience writing page-one stories for the Journal on African matters, particularly African famine.

Unlike anti-aid analysts such as William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, Thurow and Kilman see plenty of room for more (intelligent) action on the part of Western governments. In fact, Kilman argues that genuine agricultural development aid has yet to be sufficiently and intelligently attempted.

But their reporting in the Journal and in Enough provides vivid examples of the ways both aid policy and U.S. farm policy hurts, not helps, the long-term well-being of Africans as they struggle for self-sufficiency.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty spoke with Scott Kilman in July.

Reason: Why isn't food aid an unalloyed good for an often-starving continent?

Scott Kilman: Western food aid to Africa started in the 1950s to serve two purposes, and only one was to fight hunger overseas. The second reason was that food aid had a lot of political support. The U.S. government was trying to get rid of excess crops. Politicians like Hubert Humphrey realized he could build a political coalition for fighting hunger overseas because there was something in it for us at home: to get rid of excess crops that were depressing prices. 

The question wasn't asked for decades: What's the most effective way to help the hungry overseas? And our food aid program is not the best way to do it. It has unintended effects. Now, we spend roughly $1 to 2 billion a year on food aid—shipping actual food and grain across the ocean. And commodities sent over in these food ships has to be U.S.-grown. That in itself creates problems once you look at the logistics, taking wheat grown in Kansas under U.S. government specs, getting it shipped the way the U.S. government approves, on U.S.-owned ships which tend to charge the highest rates, put in big bags because that the only way that ports in poor countries can handle it, and by the time it gets unloaded there it's half a year from when the government decided to send help. About 50 percent of the cost of food aid gets sucked up in the logistics.

We argue we should spend some of our food aid budget closer to the disaster. Africa might have famine in one country or two, but at the same time other parts of Africa have a glut. Part of the benefit [of using aid money to buy African food, not ship American surplus] is the food aid becomes economic stimulus and creates a market for poor farmers in Africa. But it flies in the face of political convention. You've had the Bush administration suggest trying this [buying some food for aid in Africa itself], and there will be some experimenting with it in the new farm bill.

Reason: Your book has an interesting set piece from Nazareth, Ethiopia, in 2003, in which U.S. food aid is driven by Ethiopian warehouses filled with the same food commodities, produced locally, rotting.

Kilman: By the time food aid arrives trundling down the road it's usually after the worst of the calamity, and it often ends up disrupting food markets in Ethiopia. So in this case there was Ethiopian grain but farmers weren't able to sell it because suddenly the U.S. government turns up as a competitor. Food aid swarmed in and depressed prices. It would have made more sense and been of more benefit if Western donors bought what was available in Ethiopia. African farmers describe it to us this way: it boils down to them scratching their heads and saying, it seems as if America needs hungry Africans to eat their surplus.

In the book we track down Sen. Dale Bumpers from Arkansas, he's retired now, and ask him why [he insisted in 1986 that no U.S. aid could go toward studying, training, or helping other countries in any way to grow a crop that competes with any U.S. crop]. His first response was, he didn't really remember it happened!

The way we award money to farmers for every bushel they produce of favored crops, like soybean and cotton, it spurs them to produce as much as they can to get more subsidies. This drives down prices in world markets, but the market signal to U.S. farmers to produce less doesn't get through because of the subsidy. I don't think until this decade that I as a reporter became aware of how subsidies have impact in the poorer parts of the world.

I was writing about spats between the U.S. and the European Union over their subsidies, and thought of it as just a trade war. I wasn't thinking about, if our subsidy programs tend to depress prices, who else does that affect? Earlier this decade I woke up to the idea that it really affects farmers who don't receive subsidies and only get what the market will bear. And oftentimes these farmers can grow crops cheaper than anyone else. The Doha round [of international trade talks] is comatose, and one of the big stumbling blocks is it could force the West to figure out how to change the way we run farm subsidy programs.

You have groups in the U.S. who have a very big interest in seeing the farm subsidy system continue the way it is, and it's their first interest. You don't have a political constituency organized around fighting hunger for hunger's sake. It's hard to find someone in the House or Senate who thinks of the hungry overseas as a constituency.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    LOL, ignorance is bliss!


  • ||

    By the looks of his chins the Kilman Food Aid Policy is an overwhelming success.

  • Anonymous||

    We argue we should spend some of our food aid budget closer to the disaster.

    Or maybe just stop spending tens of trillions of dollars on extra-domestic welfare.

    Oh, I'm sorry. That would engender envy, which is a Humanistic Sin. Unequal outcomes bring envy, and envy makes me feel bad, and feelings are all that I know are real.

  • ||

    Hey Mr. Anonymous, read the book first and find out why exactly the outcomes are unequal, and how much meddling has been done to make them so, by who, and who benefits therefrom, before you start talking about 'extra-domestic welfare.' Why for example Ethiopians aren't allowed to use the water from their own rivers to irrigate their land. You asshole.

  • Anonymous||

    lbk, fuck you if you can't argue a point.

    I have everything to do with negros' water, so obviously I have to be taxed for my crimes.

  • ||

    nice post...
    Entertainment at one stop

  • DJF||

    Of course African food aid program is working, it is accomplishing all of its goals.

    It gives lots of Western politicians and uninformed do-gooders a warm fuzzy feeling that they are helping even if they know nothing about Africa or farming

    It is employing lots of bureaucrats.

    It gives politically connected businesses and NGO's lots of money.

    It gives African politicians money they can use to stay in power.

    It destroys local African food production so the land can be bought up cheaply when the Doha round of trade talks is finally passed. International corporations can then use that land to create plantations so they can undercut farmers around the world and make big profits. All done flying the banners of "Helping the Poor" and "Free Trade".

  • ||

    Why should Africans work at growing crops when they can sit in the camps fed, watered, clothed and cared for by well meaning but naive people?
    What you have done is stolen the humanity of those you sought to save and turned them into pets to be cared for by their owners.
    It is the struggle; to grow food, to educate their own children and care for each other, which will free the people of Africa from bondage far worse than slavery.
    For a slave had value but aid has stripped the people of Africa of all self-worth.

  • portsha travaneta||

    dis is bs how dey aint got nun

  • nike shox||

    is good


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties