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.

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.