Kung Fu Pand-Aid
It’s an age-old conundrum: People are hungry. We spend millions on food aid. They’re still hungry. What went wrong?
We wonder. Is there some sort of secret ingredient missing, something that when added to the mix would make it possible to feed the world? Some kind of especially nutritious grain? Controls to make sure the food doesn’t get stolen along the way? More aid workers to oversee it all? What is the secret ingredient?!
Let’s ask a chef. This chef. Mr. Ping?
There is no secret ingredient. What’s missing isn’t a hypervitamin salt or corruption-fighting spreadsheet. It’s that the majority of what we spend on “food aid” doesn’t ever leave our borders at all, but rather subsidizes American farming corporations, shipping corporations, and NGOs. Jonathan Zasloff has an excellent new blog post breaking this down slice by slice, so I’ll put it simply here: Congressional regulations, hammered out over decades of lobbying, have created a regime that requires the lion’s share of “aid” money to be spent on U.S. businesses, and not on food or aid at all.
This is widely known by people in the aid industry and government. In fact it’s the starting point for discussion. That’s why the only surprise about this week’s report that the Obama administration is trying to reform the system to “buy food in developing countries instead of shipping food from American farmers overseas” – and that the farming and aid industries and their allies in Congress are fighting them tooth and nail – was the bluntness with which everyone spoke on the record. The winning quote came from David Evans, president of Phoenix-based Food for the Hungry, who said: “If the money is not supporting the purchasing of U.S. commodities, then it will lose support in Congress. And as a result, $1.5 billion in critical resources will be gone.”
The aid industry, U.S. growers, and Congress will only support foreign aid if it supports the purchasing of U.S. stuff. Let’s just say that again: The aid industry, U.S. growers, and Congress will only support foreign aid if it supports the purchasing of U.S. stuff. That is how foreign aid works, almost always. And it is one of the key reasons why foreign aid does not work.
The New York Times lays out the stakes terrifically. The Obama administration, presumably informed in large part by this study, estimates that 17 million more people (say, the populations of Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Swaziland combined) could be fed if the somewhat modest reforms are made. Far more importantly, it would strengthen food economies and production overseas so that someday food aid would not even be needed anymore.
But doing that – in other words, fulfilling the supposed entire point of giving food aid – would, according to the lobbying opponents, would threaten U.S. interests including, quote, “hundreds of [U.S.] jobs.” So never mind.
Again, this is how this works. This is what happened last year when USAID changed its rules to increase to a mere 30 percent the funds it spends through national institutions overseas – strengthening them, allowing them to some incrementally larger degree to set their own priorities and clean up their own messes – and the major aid groups and their lobbyists went to war. And it says a lot about how we ended up with the situation in postquake Haiti where just one percent of humanitarian relief money went to the Haitian government, with vast sums spent from one U.S. government agency to another, and to with no public oversight or accountability for major U.S. contractors who profited handsomely. (Fun fact: Chemonics was founded by ERLY Industries, late owner of “one of the largest rice companies in the world.”)
In Kung Fu Panda, upon hearing Mr. Ping’s advice, Po – the titular hero – realizes what’s been missing in his quest. He hasn’t really tried to defeat his foe, because he didn’t think he could. He turns around, heads back to the palace, and beats up a cartoon tiger. In watching aidwork — and, even more importantly, the destructive impact of food trade policies — from the ground, it often seemed to me that what has been missing in food aid, and foreign assistance in general, hasn’t been a lack of answers, technology, or even understanding of the problem. We all know pretty much what has to change. What’s been lacking is the will.