Is Food Aid Really a “Gift from the American People”?

Originally published on the Pursue blog.

U.S. foreign food aid dates back to U.S. reconstruction efforts in Europe following World War II.  Over the last 60 years, it has morphed into a $2.2 billion business with vested interests ranging from international development organizations to farmers, processors and shipping companies. Our foreign food aid has become highly politicized with policies specifically designed to support the U.S. agricultural industry. For example, until very recently when a trial program was initiated, U.S. legislation mandated all foreign food aid be sourced from within the U.S. and shipped to areas in need on U.S. vessels even though this slowed response time and significantly increased costs to the donors. Despite even the best intentions, U.S. foreign food aid, labeled “Gift from the American People” on the packages we send abroad, can often do more harm than good to the same developing countries we are trying to help.

On Tuesday evening, AJWS Global Circle’s Advocacy Committee, in conjunction with Pursue, hosted a screening of The Price of Aid, which examines the nexus of the politics of food aid and its effects on the developing world. The screening was followed by a discussion with Jihan El-Tahri, director of the film and Christina Schiavoni, director of the Global Movements Program, WhyHunger. While food aid has a time and place in acute emergencies and disaster relief, this event brought to light many of the shortcomings in the foreign food aid system. In addition, the panel discussed how structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank have reduced developing countries’ abilities to be self-sufficient and to adjust to food shortages themselves.

The film highlighted the experience of Zambia, which in the past decade requested foreign assistance following a drought that led to a localized food shortage. While the Zambian government requested assistance in moving grains to the effected drought region from other areas of the country with a surplus, the response of the global community led to a deluge of foreign grains, mostly from the U.S. into the local economy. This global response overwhelmed local needs, hurting the ability of regional farmers to sell their own product. The Zambian government struggled to stop the flow of food aid once the World Food Program sprung into action. The global media also stoked the international response by overstating the needs of the drought-affected communities. In one instance, an advertisement for international support featured recycled footage from a previous famine in Ethiopia for dramatic effect.

One key conclusion made was the need to better educate and inform the media and policy makers in the United States of the effects of their policies on developing countries. In addition, both panelists supported the need for local solutions to regional problems and for global donors to approach the developing world with greater humility.

The event concluded with an opportunity to take action by signing a hard copy of this letter thanking the US government for its recent commitment to local sourcing of food aid in Pakistan (which Pursue blogged about last week – readers, you’re invited to click, sign, and join the campaign too).  It was an appropriate finish for the inaugural event of Global Circle’s Advocacy Committee, which looks forward to involving the Global Circle and Pursue communities in AJWS’s advocacy efforts.  Over the coming year, AJWS will continue to advocate for changes to U.S. government policy in respect to foreign food aid and will offer Global Circle and Pursue members a chance to impact the policy discussions around the upcoming Farm Bill.