Food Aid: Part of the Problem?


September 20, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

Lund, Sweden. -- First the famine. Then the food aid. Then the doubts. Food aid as solution or as part of the problem?

Moscow, you have much to learn from years of bitter and melancholic experience in the Third World. For a start, read Prof. Amartya Sen's devastating analysis of the 1973 famine in Ethiopia in which 200,000 people died. The Harvard scholar discovered that, contrary to accepted opinion, there was food a-plenty in the country. The trouble was only that the very poor lacked the purchasing power to buy it.

If you are not partial to professors, read George Bernard Shaw's 1903 play, ''Man and Superman.'' The returned Irish-American, Malone, insists on calling the famine ''the starvation'':

''Me father died of starvation in the black '47. Maybe you've heard of it?''

''The famine?''

''No, the starvation. When a country is full of food and exporting it, there can be no famine. Me father was starved dead, and I was starved out to America in me mother's arms.''

No one claims the Soviet Union is exporting food, and certainly this year's harvest is the worst for years. But past experience should caution us from being stampeded into over-hasty, improvised, nationally competitive, food hand-outs.

Last winter when the call of famine also beckoned, the U.S. Undersecretary for Agriculture, Richard Crowder, found on a trip to Moscow that part of the trouble was panic buying and hoarding. If these two could be put right this winter, food aid would be less needed.

Third World experience underlines the dangers of getting hooked on food aid. The U.N.'s World Food Council has warned us in Africa of how food aid, sent year-in, year-out, ''has assumed alarming proportions, creating dangerous levels of dependency.''

But we are going to have our arms twisted this winter -- by Soviet politicians, desperate for a quick fix, and by American, European and Canadian farmers' organizations, which have an interest in their governments shipping surplus grain so that they have a good excuse to produce surpluses next year.

Part of the problem will be journalists. Famine -- or the smell of it -- makes for great prose. Malcolm Muggeridge made his name reporting from Moscow in the terrible winter of 1934: ''Famine is something quite peculiar. It concentrates all effort and thought and feeling on one thing. It makes everyone a frustrated glutton. Everybody brooding on food makes a smell which hangs about them like the smell of gravy and cabbage about a dirty tablecloth. Somehow famine goes beyond hunger and puts in each face a kind of lewdness; a kind of gray unwholesome longing. People's white gums and mouldering flesh suggest rather a consuming disease like leprosy, than appetite. Their eyes are greedy and restless, and linger on one another's bodies. Their skin gets unnaturally dry and their breath parched and stale, like dry air in a cellar.''

Certainly the Soviet peoples will be in need this winter, and just the well-publicized presence of food aid stacked in warehouses can act as a disincentive to the black market and the profiteers. The question is how to target the need, so that it doesn't end up being widely dispersed to all and sundry, rich and poor, food-surplus regions as well as hungry ones.

Ideally, food should not be given away, but sold in the market place. Aid should be regarded as a pump primer, not an end in itself. Some of the profit should be spent on improving the distribution system, and some in buying food from the parts of the country that are producing surpluses, or from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, whose newly productive, privatized farms are having trouble finding markets in protected Western Europe.

If we want to avoid some of the worst mistakes of past giving, Western donors could make a good start by refurling their flags and deciding to channel food through the worldly-wise U.N. agency, the World Food Program. It is, in my opinion, the most experienced of all the food-aid agencies. If used, it will put an end to jingoistic Euro-American-Canadian competition before it gets off the ground.

In the end, the question of food aid, whether it goes to Ethiopia, Bangladesh or Russia, is this: Is it helping the donors' consciences and farmers or the long-run recovery of the people to whom it's sent? Keep asking this question as the winter progresses, and not so many mistakes will be made.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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