A general definition of food aid is that it is the provision of food and related assistance to tackle hunger, either in emergency situations, or to help with deeper, longer term alleviation and achieve food security, so that people don’t have to live in hunger or fear of starvation. It flows in the form of food or cash to purchase food in support of food assistance programs. According to the United Nations, there are still over 850 million starving people in the world today, so there is a lot of work still to be done in achieving food security if you believe such is a goal to be desired.

The big donors of food aid are large international institutions that are mainly from the developed countries (i.e. The US, Western Europe, and Canada). Both the US and Canada were the first countries that started providing food aid since the 1950s and had both accounted to over 90% of global food aid until the World Food Program (WFP) joined in the 1970s. Other noticeable institutions are the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Non-Governmental Organization (NGOs) that are predominantly US-based (i.e. World Vision, CARE and the Catholic Relief Service (CRS)). The European Union (EU) on the other hand is the second largest food aid donator since the 1970s.

Currently there are three types of food aid and which are:

  1. Program Food Aid: – This is a form of in-kind aid whereby food is grown in the donor country for distribution or sale abroad to countries that are in dire need of food assistance. This is typically a government-to-government transfer. Rather than being free food, recipient countries typically purchase the food with money borrowed at lower than market going rates.
  2. Relief/Emergency Food aid: -This is typically for emergency situations, such in cases of war, natural disasters, etc. where food is distributed for free and presumably, out of good will of the donor nations.
  3. Project Food aid: – This is food aid delivered as part of a specific project related to promoting agricultural or economic development, nutrition and food security, such as food for work and school feeding programs.

Food aid is a noble endeavor at first glance; it shows the best out of humanity. However, there are a few negative effects of food aid that affect the recipient country quiet severely, sometimes severe enough to counter the initial benefits of food aid.

First, the recipient country should be cautious about the acceptance of food related assistance since it can/is still used as a foreign policy tool. The donor’s assistance may seem to be out of good intentions but behind these intentions lie domestic (donor) interests which in first sight aren’t recognizable and this is one of the big problems because food aid and famines can be and have been exploited as commercial opportunities. Therefore as mentioned earlier, recipient countries should be careful because it is/can be used to expand and gain more power (the donor) in these regions where policies are made up to benefit the donors needs.
For instance, the dumping of cheap surplus food on poor countries by the donors opens for them new markets so that they can sell their products, which then strengthens their exports. On the other side it weakens the recipients’ country because money flows out of the country and this encourages the increased consumption of cheap imports resulting in the undermining of local agriculture, thus driving the “non-competitive” farmers out of agriculture and increasing food insecurity, hunger and poverty.
The US in particular uses the Program Food Aid, which by definition seems to benefit the US a lot more that the recipient country. For example, in the 1950s, the US has been open about the fact that food aid was a good way to fight communism and for decades food aid has mostly gone to countries with strategic interests in mind.
Now since this food (from the Program Food Aid) is mostly (or mainly) for sale, it has been criticized for being expensive but there are reasons for such as:
– Fuel costs have risen in recent years, important for both for industrial agriculture and
– The value of the dollar weakening. While this can help poor countries in their debt
repayments, it increases the costs of food imports

In this case poor people will still struggle to afford some food if fuel costs keep rising and the value of their home currencies relative to the dollar keeps weakening. This also leads to the rise in national debt since money is flowing out of the recipient country and most debts are denominated to the dollar – the rise of the dollar relative to home currency raises the value of the debt. Furthermore, the rise of fuel costs reduces the amount of food aid for the hungry leaving them once again hungry and increasing food insecurity.

Secondly, is the dumping of genetically modified (GM) food as aid during famines and other undesirable food during emergency reliefs. One example that is worth dwelling on here was the exaggeration of the situation in Zambia and portraying that country’s refusal of GM food as threatening lives and being irresponsible. US government officials and other global related institutions also tried to use international and domestic political pressure to force Zambia to accept GM food. This included holding the Zambian Government responsible for starving its own people to death: “This famine is very dangerous and it’s going to kill a lot of people if decisions are not made quickly,” said Mr. Winter from USAID. At the same time A. Natsios, USAID Director, accused environmental groups of endangering the lives of millions of people in southern Africa by encouraging local governments to reject GM food aid. Natsios said, “They can play these games with Europeans, who have full stomachs, but it is revolting and despicable to see them do so when the lives of Africans are at stake.” He added, “The Bush administration is not going to sit there and let these groups kill millions of poor people in southern Africa through their ideological campaign.” FEWSNET, the USAID early warning system, also published several reports backing the US position and holding the Zambian government liable for the delays in food deliveries.

Obviously, USAID’s primary concern was not Zambian livesDespite alarming statements by USAID officials, there was no famine in Zambia. All malnutrition surveys conducted in the country in 2002 indicated very low malnutrition levels, below the 5 percent threshold which indicates a normal, non life-threatening situation.76 But another percentage may explain the US position in this matter: 34 percent of the corn planted in the U.S is genetically modified. US insistence that African countries accept GM food aid originated from the pressure of US agribusiness interests rather than humanitarian concern. As a matter of fact, the US Grains Council and the National Corn Growers Association delivered a joint letter to President Bush in January 2003, asking him not only to begin dispute settlement action in the WTO, but also to encourage acceptance of GM corn in food aid shipments.


Here is the solution: the United States and the EU should remove agricultural subsidies. One myth that people have is that Africans starve because of lack of food – that is a lie. Supply of food is not the problem, demand, or rather ability to access food is what becomes a problem in event of famine and starvation. Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president famously said that “Africans produce what they do not consume and consume what they do not produce.” There have been countries that have seen famine even in times that those countries were net food exporters – Ethiopia, Malawi, and Tanzania are examples but to mention a few.

So what is the role of subsidies? Subsidies in effect lower the prices of agricultural products in the global markets by increasing supply (supply that wouldn’t have been their if it was not for subsidies). So this lowers the profit that African farmers’ (who make the majority of the working population by the way) profit, which lessens their (farmers) ability to access food. The ability to access food is lessened because when the profits from products sold by Africans in the global market are less than expected, farmers’ wallets and hand bags (assuming they have them) have less than is needed to feed themselves and their families.

Here is a statistic: the profits that Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso lost because of US cotton subsidies are much more than the total amount of aid (including food aid) these countries have received since they were independent. This is incredible, that what these countries have foregone is much more than they have been given in charity. So, remove the subsidies in the US and Europe and African farmers will generate so much profit that they will be able to access, buy, food. It is easy to understand this. You can starve in a city, even next to a supermarket, unless you have money to access food.

Food aid is provided with the assumption that there is shortfall in supply, which is a myth – rather the truth is that people starve because they can not access food, because it is too expensive, or they have too little money than is needed.

Cut food aid, cause it is not benign anyway, if you really want to bring about food security (for African countries), then eradicate subsidies in the US and Europe – any economist would tell you that, well lets hope so.


By Stocky Hoffmann