Another View of Food Aid in Africa

Another View of Food Aid in Africa

The many complexities of food aid to Africa have led to differing opinions on its effectiveness.
United Nations World Food Programme
About 2-billion USD worth of food aid makes its way around the globe every year.

The World Food Programme (WFP) says a recent article carried by painted a very one-sided view of food aid that drew upon selective and outdated information. The following is the WFP's response.

Food Aid and the Roots of Scarcity' by Luther Tweeten (February 2) provided critical comment on the recent Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, which has raised concerns also by the World Food Programme (WFP). We agree, for example, that cash-based transfers are more vulnerable to corruption and may distort the economy if not carefully managed, thus causing more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the FAO report does not clearly distinguish between programme food aid -- usually given to governments, and now at historically low levels (11 percent of total food aid deliveries) -- and targeted life-saving food aid provided by agencies like WFP, which gave urgent assistance to almost 90 million people last year.
What the Food and Agriculture Organization's report does not provide is empirical evidence to support some of the more damaging assertions about food aid, especially on arguments about dependency and market displacement.

What both FAO's report and Tweeten do not provide is empirical evidence to support some of the more damaging assertions about food aid, especially on arguments about dependency and market displacement. The issue is not a new one and WFP systematically and proactively addresses it before intervening with food aid, and closely monitors markets while operations are underway.

Professor Tweeten cites the famine in Kenya as a specific example of food aid distorting local markets : "this food aid in-kind destroys local markets. During the famine in northern Kenya last year, southern Kenyan farmers could not afford to drive their surplus up north, knowing it would be worthless on arrival."

Sadly, this is simplistic and a complete misrepresentation of the facts. Firstly, the emergency in Kenya wasn't what UN agencies classify as a 'famine,' precisely because food aid and other humanitarian assistance were provided in time to save millions of lives. Secondly, the surplus was in Kenya's farming centre -- the West -- and not in southern Kenya.

Thirdly, farmers did not drive their surplus up north, purely because there wasn't a big enough profit in it for them -- not because WFP was providing food aid. This aid was targeted directly to those whose livestock had died and who consequently had lost their trading and purchasing power; in short, the destitute. The commercial market for food in the north and north-east had collapsed -- a clear case where the free market could not solve the problem because there was no prospect for profit.

Farmers in western Kenya knew all this and were also well aware that in the process of moving their surpluses up north, they would have been confronted with prohibitively high transport costs, which would have priced basic food products beyond the reach of even the better-off people in urban centres.
The fallacies about food aid include the ‘dumping' of surplus food on the developing world and failing to acknowledge that food aid is bought locally wherever possible.

Instead, farmers in the West actually sold their surpluses to the Government of Kenya who donated it to WFP and the people of their country as food aid. Thus, Professor Tweeten totally ignored the role of the marketplace and the reasons why food aid -- both locally-purchased and in-kind -- was and is so essential to save lives.

There are a number of other inaccuracies in his article which serve to perpetuate the fallacies about aid, including food aid. One is the ‘dumping' of surplus food on the developing world. There is now a very different economic environment in which the cost of some cereals has risen alarmingly since 2000 -- competitive exporters hardly have any need to dispose of surpluses. In fact, using emergency food aid for surplus disposal today makes little sense as the cost of shipping, distributing and monitoring a food aid donation almost always exceeds the value of the food itself.

The article also failed to acknowledge that food aid is bought locally wherever possible. In southern Africa, for example, WFP is the largest provider of food aid, much of which was sourced regionally in support of markets. In South Africa alone, since 2002, WFP has spent nearly 1.4 billion rand to purchase more than a million tons of food, most of for southern Africa. WFP has also bought food in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

While we would not for a moment disagree that economic growth is needed to lift people out of poverty, we note that the article acknowledges that hundreds of millions of people today remain poor and hungry. For them, food aid has proven to be both effective and essential in meeting their immediate needs and in many cases, saving lives.

Contributed by Amir Abdulla, the World Food Programme Regional Director for Southern Africa.Reprinted with permission from © 2007 All rights reserved.

To read the article by Luther Tweeten that provoked this response, see Food Aid and the Roots of Scarcity.

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