Imagine this: Food aid reform

By Roger Thurow, ONE agriculture fellow and the author of  The Last Hunger Season. 

Farmers

As word spread earlier this week of the food aid reform section of President Obama’s 2014 budget, I wondered how Jerman Amente would greet the news.  He was a wiry 39-year-old Ethiopian farmer and grain trader when I first met him back in 2003.  The country was tipping toward a disastrous food crisis – 14 million people would be on the doorstep of starvation that year – when he invited me to see his warehouse in the crossroads town of Nazareth.  He unlocked the door and threw open its large metal panels, revealing, astonishingly, a room full of food.

It was a gobsmacking site in a country that would be receiving more than one million tons of international food aid.  Bag upon bag of Ethiopian-grown wheat, corn, beans, peas and lentils were stacked in towering columns stretching toward the ceiling.  It was the bounty from the two previous farming seasons, when Ethiopian farmers reaped bumper harvests.  Those surpluses overwhelmed the weak markets and prices plunged 80 percent in some areas, to levels below their cost of growing the food.  It was a catastrophe for the farmers; their success had led to failure.  Without a market, the food piled up in warehouses or rotted on farms.

Just a few blocks away, though, trucks laden with international food aid, most it from the United States, raced down the main highway.  This is how I described the scene in the book ENOUGH, Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, with Jerman at his warehouse:

“He could feel the trucks rumbling in from Djibouti, massive double-load wagons stacked to the top with 220-pound white woven-plastic bags bearing the characteristic red, white and blue markings of American food intended for hungry foreigners.  The trucks came in waves….The ground shook as they rolled over the potholes.

“Jerman shook with anger whenever he saw those trucks.…(He) scrambled to the summit of one of his mountains of grain and comically posed for pictures.  “I should hold a sign saying, ‘Please send food.  In Ethiopia we have no food!’ ”  He howled wickedly.  “I don’t think Americans can imagine this.”

“No, Americans imagined their food aid arriving to save the day amid blighted landscapes of misery where everything was brown, dying and grim.  Their perceptions of the situation – and of their own best intentions – were perhaps most clearly expressed on one of the trucks that rolled up to the Ethiopian government’s strategic grain storehouse in Nazareth, groaning under the weight of American wheat and corn to be unloaded there.  The truck’s passenger-side window had been converted into a stained-glass painting of Jesus.  It was perfect imagery: Jesus, in Nazareth, bringing salvation to the Ethiopians.

“Americans certainly didn’t imagine their food aid arriving in green fields, rolling past warehouses full of local food.  They didn’t imagine African countries producing grain surpluses, certainly not those countries with all those starving people.”

It was eminently clear to me, standing there with Jerman, that something was wrong with the US food aid system, which, since the 1940s, mandated that the US provide American-grown food on American-flagged ships.  No matter that it doubled the cost and the time of food delivery to the hungry.  There was no room, no flexibility, for American dollars to be spent buying up food that was grown locally, in the same country or the same region where hunger reigned.

It was hard to fathom.  Why not buy up the food here first?  It would be cheaper.  It was already here, so it didn’t need to sail on the high seas for months.  And it would be a great help to local farmers, who saw their own markets collapse from their surpluses.  Instead of solely shipping in surplus food from America, why not buy up local surpluses first?

It seemed like common sense.  But common sense had long ago left the US food aid system.  As the years went by, US business and political interests had come to wield ever more influence over food aid policy, keeping the focus on what was best for American agribusiness and for the politicians it supported rather than on what was best for the world’s hungry.  Even as American generosity grew – half of all international food aid has routinely been provided by the US – so did its self-interest.

Jerman and other farmers who had gathered with him told me that they were grateful for international assistance because the need in their country was so great.  But couldn’t some of that assistance be to also help local food systems?

Again from ENOUGH:

“Jerman reported that some farmers hauling their own grain up from the south, hoping to sell it on the markets, had pulled a U-turn in Nazareth when they met the food-aid trucks coming in from the east.  They returned to their farms and stashed the grain in flimsy storage facilities, breezy bins open to the elements, where insects and pests and the heat would ruin it in a matter of months.  What kind of incentive was this for farmers to improve their harvest?  With food aid flooding into the country, what was the use of producing a surplus?”

Back then, Jerman told me: “If we take the perspective of the American farmer, it is logical to supply food aid to the world.  This is the right policy for America.  But if the main aim of aid is not only to support American farmers but to support the poor country, then the donors must do what is best for the Ethiopian farmers and the Ethiopian people.  If this is the aim, to solve the hunger problem, then the US must change.  Don’t only send your food.”

It’s taken 10 years, but finally change may be coming, pending approval from Congress.  There have been modest moves toward what is called “local purchase” in past US budgets, but they have been tentative pilot projects.  Now the President was proposing that nearly half of America’s $1.5 billion food aid budget could be used to buy local food when that food was available in hunger areas.  Just like Jerman had pleaded a decade ago.  Imagine that.

Buy a copy of Roger Thurow’s latest book, The Last Hunger Season, here. 

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