Some “Local” Food Iniative That Really Make a Difference

In all of the talk about eating locally, we often forget that North America exports a huge amount of food to other countries. Some of it with strings attached.

CARE ­ a major international development NGO ­ has announced a major policy shift in their food aid strategy. The aid organization will no longer accept American federal financing for food aid. US food aid funding comes with strings attached ­ it requires that the funds be used to purchase American commodities which are then resold in developing countries to finance poverty reduction programmes. But the practice undermines agricultural production in these regions, perpetuating the need for food aid while supporting major American agribusiness firms. CARE now faces the formidable challenge of making up lost funding.

In order to support US farms and to have an end user for an awful lot of US-grown food that would otherwise go to waste (because despite the fact that in poorer US cities, many people don’t have access to a supermarket, the US actually grows more food than they can use), food aid to foreign countries is handed out not in the form of money for those countries to buy the food they want and need, but in the form of US-grown foodstuffs. The deal was always if you want aid, you must take it in the form of US commodities in order to qualify for the additional cash.

The New York Times reported last week that CARE has turned down $45 million a year in US financing.

CARE’s decision is focused on the practice of selling tons of often heavily subsidized American farm products in African countries that in some cases, it says, compete with the crops of struggling local farmers.
The charity says it will phase out its use of the practice by 2009. But it has already deeply divided the world of food aid and has spurred growing criticism of the practice as Congress considers a new farm bill.
“If someone wants to help you, they shouldn’t do it by destroying the very thing that they’re trying to promote,” said George Odo, a CARE official who grew disillusioned with the practice while supervising the sale of American wheat and vegetable oil in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
Under the system, the United States government buys the goods from American agribusinesses, ships them overseas, mostly on American-flagged carriers, and then donates them to the aid groups as an indirect form of financing. The groups sell the products on the market in poor countries and use the money to finance their antipoverty programs. It amounts to about $180 million a year.
Neither the Bush administration nor members of Congress are looking to undo the practice, which has gone on for more than a decade. In fact, some of the nonprofit groups say it has worked well and are pressing for sharp increases in the amount of American food shipped for sale and distribution to support development programs.

Not all aid agencies agree with CARE’s decision and many will continue to accept US aid justifying the system by saying that they are able to sell off the commodities for a profit. But most NGOs agree that cash, which would allow more self-reliance and support of local crops in the country receiving aid, would do far more to strengthen the local economy there, allowing individuals to set up small businesses growing and selling crops that could compete with imports.

The original New York Times piece requires a member login, but it’s worth the read.