The use of western food surpluses to provide aid is soon to end. Two cheersby Alex De Waal / July 23, 2005 / Leave a comment
International charities that dispense food relief to the stricken and the poor have just awoken to the fact that the coming WTO round in Doha might abolish food aid as we know it, as a by-product of reducing agricultural subsidies. During the cold war, following a deal between the US department of agriculture (USDA), the state department and other agencies of the US government, large-scale food assistance was given to friendly states and client regimes, such as India, South Vietnam, Egypt and some central American countries. The deal was that a minor but reliable portion of America’s subsidised grain surplus would be shipped off as food aid to emergency relief, infant and school feeding and for “food for work” projects such as road-building in poor countries. Later, the UN world food programme (WFP) was conceived as a further international channel for these surpluses.
Fifty years on, much has changed. We know far more about how agricultural markets work in rich and poor countries, we are much more sceptical about the reasons for and impact of food aid, and more selective in where we send it (much more to emergencies, rather less to development projects). Now, after the cold war, little is left of government-to-government food shipments except modest aid to the likes of Uzbekistan. But the producer-NGO deal is still there, and it looks like an increasingly outdated subsidised niche, which assures US millers of a profitable market while the development NGOs lobby for public money to keep them milling. But now it seems that this steady flow of food for aid may be about to evaporate, and the emergency relief agencies are in a fret.
They shouldn’t be. For years, agencies like Oxfam have been campaigning for reform on the grounds that agricultural subsidies and trade preferences in the rich world have been harming poor-country producers. There is a host of examples of how cotton growers in Zambia, cattle herders in Mali and others have been left destitute because they simply can’t compete with subsidised rich country agriculture. Now the anomaly—whereby one part of the international charity industry advocates stopping agricultural subsidies, while another part depends on them for its business—may soon be over. In Europe, the link between food aid and surplus disposal has already been broken. The changes in North America will—if they occur—be phased in over several years, but will be momentous nonetheless.