Teach a man to fish

How the media can help fix our broken food-aid system

(Illustration by WeBuyYourKids)

In their 2009 book Enough: Why The World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman have an anecdote about Ethiopia during the 2003 famine that distills what’s wrong with America’s food-aid system. As trucks carrying tons of US grains and beans entered Nazareth, a city in central Ethiopia, they passed warehouses full of tons of Ethiopian grains and beans—the surplus from a bumper crop two years earlier that had failed to sell when prices collapsed. Now, the market was undermined further by the arrival of international food aid. “American farmers have a market in Ethiopia, but we don’t have a market in Ethiopia,” said the manager of a grain-trading operation in Nazareth. He understood that Ethiopian-grown grain alone couldn’t feed the hungry, but he also knew that American food aid had created a cycle of dependency that sapped the incentive of many of his countrymen to work to feed their families.

As far as the American public is concerned, food aid is a national success story. We feed the world! Where would those starving kids in Africa be without the largess of the American farmer?

The reality is far less sanguine. From the beginning, our food-aid system has been at least as much about helping American farmers, and the US economy, as it has been about helping hungry people in far-flung lands. The express purpose of the legislation that established the food-aid program in 1954 was “to lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands.” The law said that food aid had to be actual food, not cash, and that the food had to be purchased exclusively in the US and shipped only on US-flagged ships. This created a powerful alliance among the constituencies that stood to profit from this arrangement, the “Iron Triangle” of agribusiness, shippers, and charitable groups that distribute the food. (These NGOs are allowed to sell some of the food aid on local markets to help finance their development projects, an inefficient practice that the Government Accountability Office estimated cut funds available for development by $219 million over a three-year period.)

In short, American food aid is a big business, and one that cloaks itself in moral imperative.

It is also, as Thurow and Kilman—and plenty of others—have shown, a terribly inefficient way to help hungry people. (In Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role, the scholar Christopher B. Barrett explains that 60 cents of every tax dollar spent on foreign food aid goes to administrative and shipping costs.) More important, these American-only restrictions stifle efforts in the countries receiving aid to become agriculturally self-sufficient. It is a classic example of a right-thinking government initiative that no longer works as it should, and is out of step with the values that undergird it.

President Obama’s 2014 budget would require that up to 45 percent of the $1.4 billion in food-aid funding be used to purchase food in the country or region in need. Based on recent news reports, the Iron Triangle is likely to kill this idea, just as it did in 2005 when President Bush attempted similar reform.

But the problem won’t go away once Congress fails to act; neither should the media coverage of this issue. Breaking the grip of the Iron Triangle will require building support among the public for reform. Are we feeding the world, or ensuring that the world can’t feed itself?

Food, broadly speaking, is a major story these days. From celebrity chefs to sustainability, food safety to school lunch, it’s hard to open a newspaper or magazine, or turn on the television or radio without encountering something food-related. The food-aid problem isn’t as sexy or compelling as what the critics are saying about the latest episode of Chopped, or a report on yet another E. coli outbreak, but surely the media can make room for a story about life and death and the squandering of millions of taxpayer dollars.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.