Don’t feed the world? How food aid can do more harm than good

While the media again reports 'famine in the horn of Africa' caused by 'drought', Rasna Warah looks at the real reasons why people are going hungry

January 2, 2012
6 min read

Every year since the mid-1980s, when the late Mohammed Amin filmed the famine in Ethiopia, the UN and humanitarian aid agencies have announced a ‘historic disaster’ in some part of the world. In 2004, it was the Indian Ocean tsunami that wreaked havoc in parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. In more recent years, it has been the conflict in Darfur in Sudan that displaced millions of people, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan – and now the famine in Somalia.

There is a familiar script that accompanies each of these humanitarian crises. Each disaster is described as ‘historic’. Fundraising appeals are supported by heart-wrenching images of displaced or starving women and children. The international community, led by the UN, descends on the disaster area, cameramen in tow, to witness the humanitarian catastrophe first-hand. This is often followed by fundraising concerts and live appearances by celebrities at camps for displaced people.

The problem is that the images and stories that we see or read in the international media are not as impartial as we would like to believe. More often than not, they are told by aid agency staff on the ground. Journalists rely almost exclusively on an aid agency version of the disaster. The narrative becomes both predictable and one-sided.

Dutch journalist Linda Polman believes that the ‘unhealthy’ relationship between journalists and aid agencies does not allow for independent, objective reporting and is often slanted in favour of the agency doing the ‘reporting’. Media-savvy aid workers fully exploit the eagerness with which journalists accept their version of a disaster or crisis. For their part, says Polman, journalists ‘accept uncritically the humanitarian agencies’ claims to neutrality, elevating the trustworthiness and expertise of aid workers above journalistic scepticism.’ There is almost no attempt on the part of news organisations to independently verify the facts and figures disseminated by aid agencies – which, as I discovered when I worked with a UN agency, are sometimes inflated or based on erroneous data.

Humanitarian crisis or fundraising opportunity?

Despite the usual acceptance of aid agencies’ figures, an increasing number of sceptics are beginning to wonder whether the famine declared in Somalia is as big as they would have us believe, or whether UN agencies and international humanitarian aid organisations have prioritised fundraising over accuracy.

The temptation to exaggerate the extent of a crisis in order to raise more funding is always present, says Ahmed Jama, a Somali agricultural economist based in Nairobi. Jama believes that some parts of Somalia that have been declared as suffering from famine, such as the fertile lower Shabelle region, may actually be food secure, and that the people suffering there may not be locals but those who migrated to the region from drought-prone parts of the country. He says that it is in the interest of UN and other aid agencies to show a worst-case scenario because this keeps the donor funds flowing.

The UN uses a scale developed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation-managed Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit to determine levels of food insecurity. This ranges from ‘generally food secure’ to ‘famine/humanitarian catastrophe’.

The unit’s estimates for the number of Somali people ‘in crisis’ in the period August–September 2011 indicate that less than half a million people – not the four million cited by the press – were experiencing famine. About 3.5 million people were experiencing some form of food insecurity but they were not dying of starvation as widely reported. And some of the food insecurity was related to inflation and rising food prices, not necessarily to drought.

Since 1995, the European Commission (EC) has been providing millions of euros for rural development and food security projects in Somalia. Yet every year Somalia continues to receive food aid.

In fact, food aid has become a permanent state of affairs in the country since the civil war in 1991. ‘Clearly there is a mismatch between the resources made available by the EC to UN agencies and the dismal picture emerging from what are generally considered the most agriculturally productive regions of Somalia,’ says Jama. ‘How is it possible that the EC investment in agriculture could not avert a famine in those regions?’

Does food aid help?

George-Marc André, the European Union representative to Somalia, cautiously admits that the EC is concerned that its efforts in Somalia are being hampered by UN agencies flooding the capital Mogadishu with food aid. In an environment where free food is readily available, he explains, farmers do not get value for their produce. Delivering food aid during the harvest season further distorts the food market. André says that UN agencies such as the World Food Programme could actually have ‘slowed down’ Somalia’s recovery by focusing exclusively on food aid, instead of supporting local farmers and markets.

Given that most of the food aid comes from the US and other countries outside Somalia, there is also concern that declarations of famine do more to help farmers elsewhere rather than supporting local producers. The food aid industry allows countries such as the US to offload food surpluses to poor countries. This distorts local markets and disrupts local food production. In other words, food aid destroys local economies, especially when it is provided over long periods of time, as in Somalia.

What is not mentioned in the appeals for funding is that a lot of the funds are used to pay off officials and militia to allow aid convoys to pass. In Somalia, the ‘entrance fee’ charged by warlords has in the past amounted to as much as 80 per cent of the value of the aid.

Also suppressed are reports about the regular diversion or theft of food aid, which is rampant in Somalia. In March 2010, for instance, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia reported that as much as half of food aid was stolen or diverted by corrupt contractors, local businessmen, local NGOs and even by UN employees. That report led the US to withdraw funding from the World Food Programme, although it now says it is carefully monitoring food aid and that very little is being diverted. However, in August this year, the Associated Press reported that the sale of food aid in Mogadishu’s markets is still quite common and often occurs with the full knowledge of UN personnel on the ground.

Like Somalia, Haiti offers a perfect example of how aid can destroy a country. This island in the Caribbean has received so much foreign aid over the years that it has been described as ‘a poster child for the inadequacies of foreign aid’ because of its extremely poor development record and widespread poverty. Every few years, a new disaster strikes Haiti and the world rallies around through massive fundraising campaigns. But Haiti, like its distant cousin Somalia, continues to remain poor, under-developed and the site of much misery – ideal ingredients for yet another fundraising campaign.

Rasna Warah, a columnist with Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, is the author of the recently published book Red Soil and Roasted Maize: Selected essays and articles on contemporary Kenya


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