Wednesday, 15 August 2007

When charity hurts

I'm not referring to dependency, such as when the unemployed get dependent on welfare or the starving on the food of others, but to the allegedly counter-intuitive African food aid policies America has practiced.

CARE, one of the world's biggest charities, is walking away from about $45 million a year in federal funding, saying American food aid is not only plagued with inefficiencies, but may hurt some of the very poor people it aims to help.

Its decision, which has deeply divided the world of food aid, is focused on the practice of selling tons of American farm products in African countries that in some cases compete with the crops of struggling local farmers.

"If someone wants to help you, they shouldn't do it by destroying the very thing that they're trying to promote," said George Odo, a CARE official who grew disillusioned with the practice while supervising the sale of American wheat and vegetable oil in Nairobi.

Under the system, the U.S. government buys the goods from American agribusiness, ships them overseas on mostly American-flagged carriers and then donates the goods to the aid groups. The groups sell the products in poor countries and use the money to fund their anti-poverty programs there.

As Congress considers a new farm bill, neither the Bush administration nor representatives are looking to undo the practice, known as "monetization." In fact, some of the nonprofit groups say it has worked well and are pressing for sharp increases in the tonnage of American food shipped for sale and distribution to support development programs.
"What's happened to humanitarian organizations over the years is that a lot of us have become contractors on behalf of the government," said Odo of CARE. "That's sad but true. It compromised our ability to speak up when things went wrong."

If CARE is correct, what the United States is doing is helping, not hurting, the people it is giving 'charity' to. It seems that instead of focusing on the task at hand — helping the poor, namely in Africa — US politicians are trying to milk this 'monetization' deal for all it's worth: by courting the struggling and already ridiculously subsidized US farming and agriculture industry. The Democrats wouldn't dare hurt the grasslands vote, nor would the Republicans or the environmentally-inefficient and counterintuitive corn ethanol-loving Bush administration.

In fact all of Capitol Hill seems to be scrambling to court the farmers. And while they say they're helping the environment and reducing dependence on foreign oil (e.g. ethanol), or saving starving children in Africa, in reality they are making it all worse while reaping in the political benefits, whatever they may be, of having American agricultural sector on their side(s).

We already know corn ethanol is counter-intuitive (it takes more net energy to make it than it gives out), although billions have already been wasted on it and it has resulted in higher prices of corn (among other commodities); is much of the US's foreign food aid the same way? Maybe Odo's wrong, but the allegations make sense.

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