Kudos to the US Government for giving food aid to Ethiopia. This is good:
USAID has provided an additional 87,910 metric tons of emergency food aid, valued at approximately U.S. $50 million, to the Joint Emergency Operational Plan in response to the Ethiopian Government’s January 2009 appeal. This emergency food aid will provide a full ration to 1.18 million beneficiaries for four months in 72 woredas in the most severely impacted regions – Afar, Amhara, Oromiya, Somali, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, and Tigray Regions and in Dire Dawa Administrative Council.
That’s good, but it could better.
The US imports food aid to Ethiopia. It is bought from American farmers and shipped by boat to Djibouti, then brought by road to where it is needed in Ethiopia. The cost of all this works out at $568 per metric tonne. Here in Addis Ababa, today’s market price of wheat is $489 per metric tonne. It is cheaper out of the capital. So America’s generosity could buy 16% more wheat if it were bought locally. From that difference alone, another 190,000 people could be given a full ration of food for four months. Furthermore, buying the food locally would increase the incomes of farmers either in Ethiopia or in neighbouring countries and the improve livelihoods of other parts of the economy (e.g. haulage companies) needed to make the agriculture market work. Their livelihoods, which are undermined by imported food aid, would be improved if the food were bought locally. If there is sufficient supply response among local farmers (which there probably would be) so it does not have to be imported, then the generous aid would also provide $50 million of much needed foreign currency for Ethiopia.
This is not possible at the moment because American legislation requires that food aid be bought in the US, that 50 percent of commodities be processed and packed in the US before shipment, and that 75 percent of food aid managed by USAID and 50 percent of the food aid managed by the US Department of Agriculture be transported in “flag-carrying” US-registered vessels. The result is that only 40% of money spent on food aid by the US actually goes towards buying food; the rest goes to US transport companies.
Buying the food locally would be better, but best of all might be something even more radical. Why not give the money itself to people who are hungry? Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking study of famine, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, published in 1981, which included analysis of the famine in Wollo, Ethiopia, in 1973, begins with these words:
Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.
People are usually hungry because they are too poor to buy food. (They are often reduced to this poverty by the failure of their own harvest. But that does not mean that there is not enough food for them.) If we give them money (or vouchers, if we really have to) they can buy food locally. Food growers elsewhere will grow food, and traders will bring it to them. It will be the food they prefer and know how to eat (NB this often means not wheat). This will not only help to protect people from starving, it will support local and regional food producers, and other local businesses.
US food aid is all in bags labelled “From the American People”. It is a generous thought, but it might be less misleading if it were labelled “From the American People, mainly to the American People”.