Why a charity refused $45m of US aid money –

September 17th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Ethiopia is in the grip of a drought. Fifteen million people are receiving food aid. So why has one of the world’s major aid agencies, Care International, turned away $45m worth of food they could be sending to Africa? (more…)

Ethiopia is in the grip of a drought. Fifteen million people are receiving food aid. So why has one of the world’s major aid agencies, Care International, turned away $45m worth of food they could be sending to Africa?

As world leaders gather in New York next week to review progress towards the millennium goals of halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, Care is saying that aid is “too short term and focused too heavily on saving lives rather than protecting people’s livelihoods”.

Care’s hunger advisor, Vanessa Rubin, says the money the charity refused is tied to buying the grain from American farmers and shipping it in American carriers. Which means that much of the aid ‘money’ goes back to the US. When it arrives in Ethiopia some food goes to needy Ethiopians, but the rest is sold cheaply in markets, undercutting local farmers and giving little incentive for them to grow more. The combination of wastage and the damage done to the local market means the aid does more harm than good, says Care.

By 2015 it is estimated that the world will have spent $100bn on crisis relief. But given decades of failed aid policies some say – not just Care – that it is time for a radical rethink: we should welcome high food prices, ditch most food aid, encourage mass migration from the countryside to cities, and – above all – give money to charity when there is no crisis.

Rising food prices have been reported as a disaster for poor countries. Yet the UN World Food Programme in Ethiopia sees expensive food as an opportunity. Their country director, Sonali Wikrema, believes that it’s a wake-up call for Third World governments that have relied on cheap imports to keep the townspeople happy rather than investing in agriculture.

Many Third World cities have rapidly rising populations, and the sight of squalid shanty towns leads most people to believe this rapid urbanisation is damaging. But not Professor Steven Devereux, from the Institute of Development studies in Sussex.

He notes that famine in cities is extremely rare: in rural areas it’s all too frequent, especially given the vagaries of climate change. He also believes that farming productivity is held back by too many people on the farm. His solution is mass migration to the cities, not unlike that which occurred in Victorian Britain.

Most bewildering for the ordinary Western charity donor in the street is the research by Care which suggests that in the Niger famine of 2005 it cost $1 to save a child from malnutrition if reached early and $80 later that year when the problem reached world media attention. The logic of this is severe: for maximum benefit from your buck you should save it during crises and spend it when all is (relatively) calm.

Of course, it would be a hard man or woman who could hang on to a handful of grain and let the starving die so it could be planted and feed more next year. But it seems our most basic charitable urge – spending money to save lives when a crisis hits the headlines – could be pushing more people into life-threatening situations.

Little of this radical thinking is likely to trouble world leaders in New York next week, but it should trouble every one of us the next time disaster strikes.

Comments are closed.