Module 9: Food Aid Program Development

Detrimental Consequences of Foreign Food Aid

Although well-intentioned, humanitarian food aid can sometimes cause more harm than good. Nunn and Qian (2001) identify three specific detrimental conditions caused by food aid in recipient countries: increased conflict and violence, improper distribution of food, and destruction of local economies.

Increased Conflict and Violence

First, food aid can result in increased conflict and violence.  Supplies given to recipient governments are regulated by those governments and can, as a result, cause political competition and conflict by rendering governmental control more lucrative.  Some scholars argue that Somalia’s civil wars can be attributed to conflict over control of large-scale food aid.(1)  In the early 1990s in Somalia, the food aid was not used to feed any part of the population but rather was traded by the government for arms and money.(2)  Not only was food aid not allocated to those in need but, even worse, was used to instigate greater violence and instability. Moreover, food aid in Haiti, for example, has resulted in greater gang violence.  There, gangs have been intercepting the food deliveries, seizing the supplies by force, and selling the food on the black market with impunity from government officials.(3)  In such situations of limited resources, food aid becomes a political issue rather than a humanitarian one.

Improper Distribution of Food

Secondly, and similarly, recipient governments may not distribute the food appropriately - meaning to those in most need of food - due to political and personal interests.  In the early 1990s in Rwanda, for instance, food aid was given to the elite by the government.  This politically-driven move generated great conflict as inequality between the rich and the poor grew even larger.(4)  Such rampant corruption continues to inhibit proper distribution of food aid. In March of 2010, the New York Times revealed a United Nations report that analyzed the distribution of the World Food Program’s food aid to Somalia in 2009 and 2010.  While the World Food Program’s audit found no fraud, the UN report found that “fraud is pervasive, with about 30 % of aid skimmed by local partners and local World Food Program personnel, 10 % by the ground transporters and 5 to 10 % by the armed group in control of the area. That means as much as half of the food never makes it to the people who desperately need it.”  As a result of this report and fears that American aid may have been stolen by Al Shabab, the most militant insurgent group in Somalia, the US has halted food aid shipments to the country.(5)  Again, in such conflict-ridden and resource-poor areas, food equals power and is thus siphoned from humanitarian aid groups for personal and political motives. 

Destruction of Local Economies

Third, food aid can destroy local food economies by decreasing the price of food and the income of local farmers and vendors in recipient countries. For example, in Haiti after the earthquake, rice was dumped into the country by humanitarian organizations. Due to the influx of free rice and consequential drop in demand for rice sold by local retailers, vendors have stopped carrying rice, a staple food.  Rice wholesalers to rice street vendors have been put out of business.  In this scenario, food aid has led to the dismantling of the local network that transports rice from the ports to the streets.(6) Moreover, Haitians who were not affected by the earthquake are now moving into refugee camps for the free food, further contributing to the erosion of the local food economy and to aid dependence. CBS News reported that the government of Haiti has now asked USAID and other food aid programs to halt food deliveries because of these problems.  Food deliveries are currently being stored for future disasters rather than being dispersed, causing hundreds of thousands to go hungry due to the lack of local vendors and distribution networks. CBS News reports “that sometimes the way well-intentioned aid groups respond to a disaster can so disrupt local economies that it can cause more harm than good.”(7) There is an emerging recognition of the need for calculated and measured solutions to food shortages.  Humanitarian agencies must look beyond the short-term goals to the long-term consequences.

Many critics and scholars are proposing new solutions to food shortages that avoid the aforementioned problems.  For example, reporter Adam Davidson of NPR's Planet Money argues, “It's a simple idea. If people are hungry, don't give them rice. Give them money to buy rice, or vouchers that amount to the same thing. That way, instead of destroying [local] business, you strengthen it."  However, Davidson astutely acknowledges that if too many vouchers are distributed without enough supply, inflation can occur.(8)  While this program would require much more monitoring and evaluation to be effective, it is a step in the right direction.

Recognizing the need for a new paradigm, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has been trying out a new approach in Karamoja, Uganda, an area which has received food aid from WFP since 1963.  In regards to the long-term involvement of WFP in this region, Peter Abraham, a Member of Parliament for the government stated, “They have destroyed the energy and commitment the people used to have to sustain their livelihood… it has created dependency… We would rather have WFP help them have food.”  So, the World Food Program has tried to do exactly that.  In the new plan, only the most vulnerable are given food while the others are encouraged to plant their own crops, start small businesses and become self-sufficient.  However, the region has experienced drought and crop failure and their food supplies have almost run out.  As a result, individuals are resorting to foraging for food and eating dried goat-skin.(9)  This situation demonstrates that a history of food aid may cripple a community’s impetus and ability to develop innovative ways to grow food despite environmental setbacks. Food aid is a complex issue that requires a multidisciplinary solution incorporating the principles of economics, sociology, humanitarianism, and political science.  It is clear that well-intentioned, unregulated food distribution by humanitarian agencies to governments is not a successful short-term solution and can, in fact, lead to an escalation of food shortages, violence, and political unrest in the long-term.  Food aid distributed by national governments can have similar detrimental effects if not properly regulated. 

Ineffective National Food Aid Schemes

Various regions of India have food shortages, and the government has tried to alleviate these shortages with agricultural subsidy schemes designed to improve the wages of farmers and the food available for poor populations.  However, as in the case of food aid to Haiti, the national subsidy scheme has weakened many local food economies across India.  Under India’s agricultural subsidy program, the government buys wheat and rice from farmers at higher than market prices in order to give them higher incomes.  Edward Luce, the author of In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, writes: “This ‘minimum price support’ system sounds reasonable in theory. But in practice, it is a maximum support price system. A small proportion of wealthy farmers in well-irrigated states of Punjab and Haryana collect almost all of the subsidy, because they produce much higher surpluses of grain than those in other states and because they operate a ruthlessly effective lobbying system in New Delhi.” As a result of this unfair and poorly designed system, the government artificially inflates the price of food.  Most importantly, the poor are most detrimentally affected by this condition since a significant portion of their income is spent on food.  Again, agricultural aid is not reaching those in the most need.

Through its government-run “Fair Price” shops (FPS), the Indian government further reduces the ability of the poorest to obtain affordable food.  In theory, at these shops, those families identified as living below the poverty line are able to receive subsidized wheat and rice that the government has purchased from the farmers in the ‘minimum price support’ system.  However, because the retailers of these shops have no fear of having their licenses removed, they sell the quality wheat on the black market and replace it with “inedible chaff.”   Furthermore, while some states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu succeed at effectively distributing this subsidized food to its poor, other states fail miserably.  In Bihar, India’s second poorest state, over 80 % of the subsidized food is stolen.  Overall, a quarter to a half of the subsidized food is stolen and sold across India by the Fair Price shop owners.(10)  As a result of the well intentioned but poorly monitored subsidy system, the poor - whom the system is supposed to benefit - are hit the hardest while the corrupt benefit the most. This system may in fact widen the disparities in India rather than providing the basic necessity of food to its poorest.  Here, food aid may be causing more harm than good.

The Importance of the Quality of Food Aid

Not only does donated and subsidized food often not reach those most in need, but it also often does not provide adequate nutrition.  Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, is challenging those who give food aid to go beyond providing food to providing essential nutrients.  As the organization points out, “Malnutrition is not merely the result of too little food. It is a pathology caused principally by a lack of essential nutrients which not only causes growth falter but also increases susceptibility to common diseases.”  MSF reports that most food aid programs deliver fortified cereal blends of corn and soy that reduce hunger but provide inadequate nutrition.  To ameliorate this situation, MSF has launched a campaign to educate and encourage food aid organizations about the “largely invisible crisis of childhood malnutrition,” which affects an estimated 195 million children worldwide.  Experts in the field of emergency humanitarian aid, MSF acknowledges that food aid, as it is currently given, is not even sufficient enough in theory to nourish those in areas of famine.(11)  Various organizations are now trying to combat these problems of ineffective food aid programs and malnutrition with interventions that have been proven as effective and sustainable. 

Effective Food Aid Programs

The One Acre Fund is a nonprofit that aims to end chronic hunger in Africa.   Since the organization believes food aid to be “at best a temporary solution,” the organization has implemented an investment package for farmers so that they can provide adequate amounts of nutritious food for their families.  This program effectively doubles the income generated by farmers by providing seeds and fertilizer, weekly classes on agriculture, and access to food markets.  A transparent and accountable organization, One Acre Fund conducts performance reports every six months. As of Fall 2010, the program expanded to serve 30,000 farmers and their families in eight districts in Kenya and Rwanda. In its eighth harvest, farmers were able to increase their income by 100% per acre, and 99% of the farmers repaid their program fees. This type of continual evaluation is imperative to ensuring the efficacy of agricultural interventions.
In this model, the One Acre Fund brings together local groups of farmers, provides education on new innovative farming practices, provides commercial seeds and fertilizers for soil that has been stripped of its nutrients, connects farmers with harvest markets, and provides crop insurance.  With this insurance, farmers do not lose all of their capital in times of drought.  Since this model provides economic and technical support and insurance, this model best benefits areas that are trying to break their dependence on food aid and that often experience crop failure and drought, as in the case of Karamoja, Uganda.(12)  Not only is One Acre Fund providing farmers with tools to improve existing farming operations but is also providing an effective alternative to food aid.  Two of the primary reasons for One Acre Fund’s success are its calculated design and evaluation methods.

One Acre Fund uses a strategy similar to that which Capital One uses on its credit card customers.  It trial tests—in a controlled manner—new services, products, and offerings for its customers and then sees which ones work best.  With this approach, they seek to gain customer intimacy and determine the farmers’ needs.  This approach is similar to Design Thinking.  Working in the private sector, One Acre Fund transfers power to the farmers.  If One Acre Fund does not deliver appropriate services or inputs in a timely manner, then the farmers do not pay the organization back.  For this reason, the organization is customer-oriented.(13)  In this view, the poor farmers are customers rather than passive recipients of aid.  They are empowered as dignified businessmen and businesswomen. This program not only promotes economically successful outcomes for individuals, but also empowers its participants to develop their local economies, making it a sustainable approach to development.  Moreover, in this model, those in the most need can secure their own food security without being dependent on foreign agencies, gangs, or politicians.  Food can be used as a grassroots tool for empowerment of the poor rather than as a political and economic commodity for the corrupt.

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(1) Knack, Stephen. “Aid Dependence and the Quality of Governance: Cross-Country Empirical Tests.” Southern Economic Journal 68(2001): 310-329.

(2) Nunn, Nathan and Nancy Qian. “The Determinants of Food Aid Provisions to Africa and the Developing World.”  Accessed on 2 March 2011.

(3)  “Haiti to Halt Some Food Aid?” CBS News, 21 April 2010.  Accessed on 4 March 2010.

(4) Nunn, Nathan and Nancy Qian. “The Determinants of Food Aid Provisions to Africa and the Developing World.”  Accessed on 2 March 2011.

(5) Gettleman, Jeffrey and Neil MacFarquhar. “Food Aid Bypasses Somalia’s Needy, U.N. Study Finds.” New York Times 9 March 2010. Accessed on 2 March 2011.

(6) “Haiti: The Aid Dilemma” Frontline, 25 June 2010. Accessed on 1 March 2011.

(7) “Haiti to Halt Some Food Aid?” CBS News, 21 April 2010.  Accessed on 4 March 2010.

(8) “Haiti: The Aid Dilemma” Frontline, 25 June 2010.  Accessed on 1 March 2011.

(9) “Food aid ‘experiment’ sparks fears in Uganda.” BBC News, 25 January 2011. Accessed on 2 March 2011.

(10) Luce, Edward. In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India.  New York City: Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, 2007.

(11) Moszynski, Peter. “Food aid programmes should target nutrient deficiency, not just hunger, says charity.” British Medical Journal 2010;340:c3335. Accessed on 4 March 2011.

(12) “One Acre Fund: Farmers First.” Accessed on 4 March 2011.

(13) Katz, Rob.  “One Acre Fund: Empowering the One Acre Farmer.” Next Billion, 5 April 2010. Accessed on 4 March 2011.