Food aid doesn't work because the primary goal isn't aid


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My first job was for a food aid contract to the Department of State. I was very very bored, so bored that when we received a boatload of academic papers from various nutrition experts reporting on the state of nutrition in their (mostly African) countries, I read them end to end. Sadly, I was probably the only person who read these papers as our particular contract was very ineffective.

One of the big standouts to me was the paper on Mali, which talked about how after many years of food aid from the US, Mali at that time, in the early 90s, got 80% of its GNP from US Food Aid. It all started with famine relief that then became an enduring ongoing aid effort. Wow.

The other standout for me after reading so many reports was how much the food problems were caused by war, poor infrastructure, and other problems associated with terrible governments. One country was on the sea so had an abundant supply of food but most everyone was starving because the roads were torn up so people couldn’t get to the sea and soldiers would take any stored food.

No offense to the guy who wrote the paper but there is a whole field of study on this issue and I’m sure he is smart, but the people I worked with genuinely did try to help. Often help was not in the form of food aid but in the form of trying to change laws that would affect people’s food supply or general wealth.

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I agree that this guy over simplifies how to ‘solve’ the problem and seems to do so to push the idea that profiteering is rampant. I think everyone agrees that teaching people to become self sufficient and develop agriculture skills is the primary goal and that is a major part of the World Vision program, but that process generally takes a good decade or two because they work through gathering consensus in a community and education which does not happen overnight. It is one thing for people to learn the basics but they need to be able to survive bad years as well without losing all their seed grain for lack of planning or pillaging by local thugs looking to profit. In the meantime, those food shipments while expensive, do stabilize the local families and allow the children to go to school instead of working to earn money for food. In reality when you just hand out money or food vouchers very little changes because typically the price of food just increases since supply isn’t really being affected (Direct cash or vouchers are also very easy to abuse in country with rampant corruption and there really are no controls on profiteering then). As for monetization of commodities that isn’t profiteering or waste it is just good resource management. It is much easier to ship certain commodities and then trade them in the local markets for other forms of nutrition like vegetables, milk, meats etc. By getting large bulk amounts of one item the costs are reduced and the surplus can be monetized to accomplish local projects that directly change agricultural capability of the area. Plus it lets the community makes choices about what to spend the profits on and play a role in their development.

The analogy I would use is that yes you do need to feed your children for 18 years until they become self sufficient but during that time you try to help them gain the skills and discipline to survive on their own. Sometimes you get price gouged to buy them the food they need but it is worth the price because you want them to do well and you genuinely care about them. The point is that there is a place for long term aid programs that are tied to community development.

This guy seems to be saying that open bidding on a government contract is subsidizing the ‘greedy’ American farmer and shipping industries which may be true but honestly his solution is very poorly cited and proven to be ineffective already in places like welfare systems that only provides sustenance and no other forms of advancement.

Hey I’ve got an idea - we could genetically modify plant DNA to yield more, be more disease resistant, stronger in the face of inclement weather, capable of withstanding hard ground, all that kind of thing! Imagine!

But that sounds like a lot of work. We’ll need investment. Lots of money. We have to think commercially … hmmm … hmmm - aha! Let’s sterilise the seeds the plants yield, so that the farmers get locked into our program, have to come back to us year after year! Hell, we’d be so certain of sales we can securitise the entire thing and quit work forever!

Sounds good??

The scenario you describe has never actually happened. The “sterile seed” ( has never been used in a commercial product. Adds a nickel to the jar I keep for every time I have to inform someone of this


Of course, most aid is actually a subsidy to producers in the donor country. A lot of it comes with the proviso that you’ll be getting your assistance from these specific companies, or the food will be grown here. Any actual humanitarian outcomes are side effects. Wonderful, life-saving, essential side-effects, but still side effects.

The thing is, the fact that we have domestic interests benefiting from aid means one rather important thing- There is political pressure to continue that aid from the beneficiaries. The trade off might be that we have an inefficient aid system, but it’s one that gets funded, and isn’t the first on the chopping block each budget round because there is nobody defending it.

True enough. But it took the Convention on Biological Diversity to hinder its use.

Settling for monopolistic behaviour with no holds barred might be enough.

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