The Case Against Emergency Food Aid

Niger’s food emergency has reached the world’s headlines, but the crisis there is only one part of a much larger disaster. On an extended trip this summer through rural areas of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa on behalf of the United Nations, I visited countless villages afflicted with extreme hunger and struggling to survive against the odds.

The villages that I visited – in Tajikistan, Yemen, Mali, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Malawi, Cambodia, and elsewhere – reflect the condition of hundreds of millions of impoverished people worldwide. Whether caused by drought, exhausted soils, locusts, lack of high-yield seeds, the results were the same: desperation, disease, and death.

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Incredibly, the actions of the richest countries – which promised solidarity with the world’s poorest people at the G-8 Summit in July – have intensified the hunger crisis. Even today, donor governments’ aid efforts are poorly directed. They respond to hunger emergencies such as Niger’s with food relief, but fail to help with long-lasting solutions.

The expanding hunger crisis reflects a lethal combination of growing rural populations and inadequate food yields. Rural populations are growing because poor farm households choose to have many children, who work as farmhands and serve as social security for their parents. This intensifies poverty in the next generation, as average farm sizes shrink. Food yields per acre (or hectare) are inadequate because impoverished farm households lack some or all of the four inputs needed for modern and productive agriculture: soil-nutrient replenishment (through organic and chemical fertilizers), irrigation or other water-management techniques, improved seed varieties, and sound agricultural advice.

The problem is especially severe in landlocked countries like Mali, Niger, Rwanda, and Malawi, where high transport costs leave villages isolated from markets, and in regions that depend on rainfall rather than river-based irrigation. Yields, on average, barely support survival, and crop failures are common and deadly, while long-term global climate change, caused mainly by high energy consumption in the rich countries, may be exacerbating the frequency and severity of droughts.

These impoverished villages need financial help to buy vital inputs for farming and to invest in basic infrastructure such as roads and electrification. Instead, donor governments and the World Bank have insisted for years that impoverished countries cut financing to these villages, under the guise of promoting “macroeconomic stability” – a polite way of demanding debt repayment – and reflecting the ideological delusion that the private sector will step in.

Instead, these policies have left hundreds of millions of people even more desperately poor and hungry, and even more vulnerable to drought, pests, and soil depletion. Millions die each year, either of outright starvation or from infectious diseases that their weakened bodies cannot withstand. And still, after twenty years of preaching that private markets would pick up the slack, these impoverished communities are further away than ever from using improved seeds, fertilizers, and small-scale water management technologies.  

The irony is that donors then respond with very expensive emergency food aid, which typically proves to be too little and too late. A shipment of an equivalent dollar amount of fertilizer and improved seeds from, say, the United States to Africa would yield perhaps five times more food. But donors have not yet implemented this obvious and basic lesson.

Malawi today is an urgent case in point. Because of rural impoverishment and a drought earlier this year, dire hunger afflicts millions of people. Donors are rallying for food aid, but they are resisting the obvious need to help the poorest million farmers (and their four million dependents) get soil nutrients and improved seeds in time for the planting season this autumn.

The cost of sending such help would be around $50 million, and the benefits would be $200 million to $300 million in increased food production next year (and hence less needed in emergency food aid). Moreover, Malawi has a proven track record of sharply higher food yields when impoverished farmers are helped with inputs. Yet donors continue shipping expensive food aid while ignoring Malawi’s desperate need to grow more food.

Over the longer term, increased food yields could be turned into sustained economic growth. First, rural households would be encouraged to have fewer children, and to invest more in each child’s health and education. Child survival rates would rise, reinforcing lower fertility rates. At the same time, increased educational opportunities for girls and women, and low-cost contraceptives provided by family-planning services, would empower them to marry later and have fewer children.

Second, and simultaneously, donors should help impoverished countries to invest in roads, ports, rural electricity, and diversified production (both agricultural and non-agricultural), in order to promote higher productivity and alternative livelihoods in the longer term. Villages currently trapped in hunger and subsistence agriculture would become commercial centers for food processing and exports, and even for rural industry and services supported by electrification, mobile phones, and other improved technologies.

This is a year of both widespread hunger and solemn promises by the rich countries. But emergency food aid is not enough. Impoverished communities in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are ripe for a “green revolution,” based on modern scientific techniques for managing soils, water, and seed varieties. Donors should lend their support by backing long-term solutions aimed at increasing food production, slowing population growth, and mitigating long-term global climate change.