The Murky Ethics Of Food Aid

We FYI’d this WaPo article on the food aid debate at the WTO Doha round, but we wanted to revisit it for a sec. The issue is (very basically) that the U.S. wants to give its food aid in American crops, and the EU wants the U.S. to give food aid in cash, like it does. Why the conflict? Because, or so the theory goes, food donations cause local agricultural markets to crash, damaging the target country’s economy and fostering self-sufficiency issues. If the aid comes in cash, the money can be used to jumpstart local agriculture, or in the case of a major crop failure, at least the country could choose what kind of crops it gets and from where. It seems like the compromise at Doha will take the form of, say, food in dire emergencies and cash as a longer-term strategy, but why the difference of opinion in the first place?

A lot of it goes back to our farm bill, the current version of which is being hashed out in Congress as we speak. The government subsidizes farmers to grow way more crops than we can possibly consume, and rather than let this oversupply crash global crop prices, the government buys the stuff and either burns it or sends it overseas. Now obviously, crop-based ethanol is changing the game, which is probably why the U.S. is bothering to compromise at all. But the point is, this is a very subtle way in which America is engaging in a less-than-ethical foreign policy, so subtle as to be nearly undetectable among the avalanche of unethical foreign policies in other arenas. While it’s seemingly intuitive that giving food to countries where people are starving is an unequivocal good, when it’s done in a manner that is more attuned to domestic political concerns than the sustainable welfare of the intended recipients, it illuminates an ugly undercurrent of selfishness that the government does a fairly good job of hiding from the American citizenry.

(Actually, there’s a slight problem with this analysis. While we continue to believe that America is wrongheaded in its food aid policies, it’s fair enough to be apprehensive about giving cash to corrupt governments of famine-plagued countries when it’s often the governments themselves that cause the food crises in the first place. That’s why this is murky.)

U.S. touts Doha food aid accord, but details elusive [WaPo]


The Murky Ethics Of Food Aid