When American Aid Brings Food for Naught

By Dave Kopel

Newsday, April 7, 1986.


MOST AMERICANS, be they for or against nonmilitary foreign aid, assume that such aid benefits mainly poor people in the Third World. But the vast majority of American development aid does little for its intended beneficiaries and instead helps groups that are actively hostile to the poor.

Who but the most hard-hearted reactionary could oppose American food aid? Anyone who examines carefully where the food goes.

Bangladesh provides a case in point. The government keeps two-thirds of the food delivered under the main U.S. aid programs and sells it at market prices to provide a fifth of the government's operating budget.

Most of those who receive the government's grain are in the middle class. According to the World Bank, 27 percent of U.S. food aid goes to the police, military, civil services and employees of large corporations; 30 percent goes to predominantly middle-class holders of ration cards in six major cities, and 9 percent goes to supply mills to grind flour for urban bakeries.

Since the urban population poses a threat of revolution, the government pacifies the cities with cheap grain.

Bangladesh's rural poor do not get even the one-third of the remaining food aid, because rural ration distributors, who are political appointees, sell much of their allotment on the black market. Joseph Stepaneck, an economist with the U.S. Agency for International Development, estimates about 80 percent of the aid goes to "those with cash in towns and cities." Ten percent of the food eventually does reach the rural poor.

In the fall of 1974, when the price of rice rose, cardholders bought rice at a fifth of the market price. Meanwhile, at least 30,000 rural poor adults died because the government refused to divert a few thousand tons to the countryside.

Except in very bad years, Bangladesh raises enough food to feed its population. The problem is not underproduction, but an inequitable distribution system that favors the urban elite.

In addition, as a 1976 U.S. Embassy cable stated, ". . . The incentive for the Bangladesh government to devote attention, resources and talent to the problem of increasing domestic food-grain production is reduced by the security provided by U.S. and other donors' food assistance." Although a 1976 Senate report recommended that food aid to Bangladesh be phased out over the following five years, aid to Bangladesh continues.

Even in cases of disaster, food aid often is counterproductive.

After the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala, the United States, Catholic Relief Services and CARE rushed in $8 million worth of food. But Guatemala's farmers had just harvested a record crop.

Transportation, not more food, was what the country needed. Not only did the food shipments drastically depress the grain markets, they interfered with the rebuilding effort. Survivors spent their time lining up for food instead of engaging in reconstruction. Villages began to turn to new, often dishonest leaders whose main talent was convincing bureaucrats to send aid to a particular village. Corruption increased.

If simply handing out food to governments and people doesn't help, what about giving food to those who work on community projects?

This is the approach of the U.S. Food for Work program.

Marginal workers are hired to build roads, plant forests and the like. The problem is that improvements such as roads benefit only the land-owning elite, and widen the gap between them and the landless poor.

An AID study of the program in Bangladesh concluded that it strengthened the "exploitive semifeudal system which now controls most aspects of village life."

The costs of food aid are high. A conservative estimate of nonfood costs associated with U.S. aid to Guatemala found that the direct transportation and distribution costs totaled 89 percent of the cost of the food. More important than the costs to the donors are the costs to the recipient nations. Distribution of food aid siphons scarce local skilled personnel to projects that do nothing to promote community self-sufficiency. By driving down prices, food aid also harms the people who are key to Third World economic growth:

According to a theory advanced during the Kennedy administration, helping poor nations build their economic infrastructures - roads, utilities and the like - was deemed essential to Third World development. But it doesn't work that way.

In Indonesia, the United States has been assisting a $26-million rural electrification program. Since wealthier landowners and shopowners use electrical power to mill rice, landless laborers who depend on milling work for survival income, mostly women, are left jobless. An AID field officer admitted that the net impact of the electrification would be fewer jobs for the poor.

Rural poverty not only causes suffering, it impedes industrial development. Because of poverty, the broad market necessary to fuel industrialization does not exist. U.S. aid to nations that refuse to make a priority of curing rural poverty is at best ineffectual, and at worst counterproductive, since it strengthens feudal groups that stand in the way of economic growth.

One U.S.-backed program in Haiti provides a fine model for all American development aid. The Inter-American Foundation, a small agency that is not part of AID, provides some of the funds ($62,778) for a program run by the Catholic Church in Le Bourne parish.

Unlike most foreign aid, this program was run by peasants, not faraway bureaucrats. It focused on the training of community leaders, who in turn trained other community leaders.

The leaders worked with other peasants to carry out projects: building warehouses so that grain need not be sold at depressed harvest-time prices; buying simple farming tools to be shared on a rotating basis; teaching reading, so that tenant farmers could understand their contracts with landlords.

Because the people themselves have implemented the program, they are beginning to realize that they are not helpless, and need not forever be victimized.

Future American aid should follow the principles of the Haitian program. Aid should be targeted at the grass-roots level through indigenous community groups; it should not pass through urban governments. Project ideas should be worked out with the recipients, not imposed from above.

The Agency for International Development and the U.S.-dominated World Bank need a thorough housecleaning.

They have too many experts who move from aid agencies to agribusiness jobs. Comfortable dealing with urban elites, agency bureaucrats have too little field experience and contact with the rural poor.

Foreign food aid proceeds from the shallow premise that people are hungry because there is not enough food.

But the problem is not a food shortage, for even Bangladesh has more than enough arable land to feed its population. People are hungry because they are poor, and they are poor because narrow elites control most of the wealth in most of the Third World.

David B. Kopel, a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn, was a campus organizer for Oxfam America at Brown University.

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