Cutting through the bullshit.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

What's the catch?

As executives, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and NGO workers scarfed ‘heaping platters of jumbo shrimp, lamb chops and crab-stuffed mushrooms… at the food aid conference organized by the Department of Agriculture and the Agency for International Development’ in Kansas City last Tuesday, according to Celia W. Dugger in today’s NY Times, an estimated 850 million people around the world were starving. Actually, the Millennium Development Goals site reckons that it was 823.1 million in 2002, the latest date that they have data for, so we can be reasonably sure that it’s much more than that five years down the track. Over a quarter of them were in that well known powerhouse of capitalist development, the posterchild of Thomas L Friedman and the Eustonites, India. And the MDG data exclude many countries where we know there are undernourished people, including Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and of course the ‘Land of the Free’ itself. In some, but definitely not all, cases, this is likely because the data aren’t available.

Charles Worledge, who works for the Long Island-based Sealift Inc., a major shipper of American food to the hungry, offered an insight essential to understanding the politics of food aid.

“I thought this was a charity,” he explained during the party, for which another shipping company played host. “It’s not. It’s a business.”

This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s paid any attention to aid in general and food aid in particular. It virtually goes without saying that most of the money going into food aid is specifically earmarked for purposes other than feeding hungry people.

A Government Accountability Office report released on the eve of this conference described in stark detail a system rife with inefficiencies: the amount of food shipped over the past five years has fallen by half as shipping and other logistical costs have soared. Only a little more than a third of federal food aid spending actually buys food. [my emphasis]

And in line with Worledge’s insight, we needn’t look far for the motivation.

Early in the 1950s, the government was the farmer’s buyer of last resort when commodity prices fell, and as a result it sat on mountains of grain. Public Law 480 and the Food for Peace program, adopted in 1954, provided a way to dispose of the surplus grain, which was costly to store, and at the same time feed the world’s hungry people. The law mandated that food for the program be grown domestically.

It was the storage costs that motivated this generosity, and, as a distant second, the desire to appear generous.

Over the years,…the requirement that it be grown in the United States never changed. In recent years, the United States has bought more than half the food for its aid programs from just four agribusinesses and their subsidiaries: Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Bunge and Cal Western Packaging, according to the Agriculture Department.


some in Congress, as well as lobbyists for interest groups that benefit from food aid, warn that untying aid from requirements that the food be grown in America and mostly shipped on American-flagged vessels would shatter the political coalition that has sustained the program for decades and made the United States the world’s largest food aid donor.

“Are we committed to eradicating hunger because it’s feasible, not terribly expensive and our moral obligation as the richest society in human history?” asked Christopher B. Barrett, a Cornell University economist and the co-author of “Food Aid After Fifty Years.” “Or are we just trying to placate a few agribusiness, shipping and NGO constituencies with a handout?”

But ‘Some researchers and advocates say it is time to rethink the American approach to fighting world hunger’.

It would be rude for researchers and advocates to point out that the US government, in part through its World Bank and IMF proxies, that has actually caused its fair share of world hunger in the first place. In any case, specifically, it was at the last food aid conference in Kansas City two years ago,

that the Bush administration pushed for a fundamental change in food aid that would have diminished profits to domestic agribusiness and shipping companies. It proposed allowing a quarter of the Food for Peace budget to be used to buy food in poor countries near hunger crises, rather than buying only American-grown food that had to be shipped across oceans… such a policy would speed delivery, improve efficiency and save many lives.

Now what kind of thing is that for George W Bush to be advocating. Surely his job as leader of the free world is to administer the US government in the interests of all US capital, not just his oil and armaments buddies. Why shouldn’t Archer Daniels Midland and Sealift Inc get a piece of the action?

‘Congress in each of the past two years killed the proposal, which was opposed by agribusiness and shipping interests who stood to lose business’. Opponents of the proposal ‘warn that cash sent to poor countries can be misused or stolen, and that a mismanaged program to buy food in poor countries could drive up food prices’. But that can’t be why the Bush administration is ‘pushing’ for this – just to drive up third world food prices? It’s got to be because he wants to keep the corn for ethnol.

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