CHRIS BARRETT: Hi, I'm Chris Barrett. I'm a professor of applied economics and management at Cornell University, and I'm here today to speak with you about food aid after 50 years. We wish to talk about how the American food aid programs and global food aid programs, more generally, have evolved over time over the past 50 years since food aid as we know it today began in 1954. First we'll talk about the basics of food aid-- the who, the what, where, why, and most importantly, the so what. Why food aid? And then we'll talk about some of the critical issues, first trying to explode a few myths about food aid and then talking about the critical issues surrounding the utilization of food aid to help poor and hungry people around the world.
Food aid today comprises one of the most complex and misunderstood instruments of contemporary international policy. It's widely perceived in very simplistic terms. Most of us think of the image of, for instance, a small child in a refugee camp getting food rations from an NGO or relief agency. This is accurate, but only up to a point. In donor countries, food aid is also a critical instrument of domestic agricultural policy. It's part of foreign policy, and it's part of trade policy. And it's this intersection of different considerations behind food aid that makes food aid an a especially contentious issue in contemporary policy.
Both through multilateral agencies-- meaning international agencies within the United Nations, agencies like the World Food Program or UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund-- and through government to government transactions known as bilateral transactions, there is a great deal of contestation over how best to use food as a resource to address the needs of hungry people around the world, especially in the context of emergencies. Recently, we've seen the emergencies in South and Southeast Asia surrounding the tsunami. We see recurring problems of drought in different parts of Africa. We see problems of conflict. The case of Darfur in Western Sudan is one with which people are very familiar right now. Hurricanes that slam into Central America, et cetera.
So the question becomes, why is it that food aid is contentious? And what can we do to make it a more effective instrument for helping people in crisis situations, but also for helping people who are chronically poor, chronically hungry to be able to aspire to and to achieve long-lasting well-being? So with humanitarian objectives behind food aid and yet it's also a part of foreign policy, it's a part of trade policy, many actors are in the mix.
And it's often very easy to take the appealing humanitarian image of food aid and to manipulate it for somewhat less honorable purposes. And the myriad effects of food aid when manipulated are subject of real concern in humanitarian communities, but also a subject of concern between, for instance, trade negotiators at the World Trade Organization right now in Geneva.
So the question then becomes, how do we put food aid to best use for addressing the legitimate problems of reducing hunger and reducing poverty around the world? And that's what I'd like to speak with you about today. In this study room I'll explain the basic structure, history, modalities, and performance of food aid over the 50 years since it came into existence with the passage of Public Law 480 in July of 1954. Along the way, I hope to explode a few myths. I also will outline an evidence based approach to using food aid more productively as one element of a broader strategy to reduce poverty and food insecurity in low income communities around the world.
Food aid has been a deeply flawed instrument over the past half century. But with limited substitute resources available globally for addressing poverty concerns and for attending to humanitarian needs and emergencies, food aid nonetheless plays a very important role. It has saved and improved hundreds of millions of lives over the last 50 years, and yet, there is the sense that there is great untapped potential. Many of food aid's flaws are remediable with concerted action by key players in the global food aid system. This study room draws heavily on a new book I have with Dan Maxwell. For those of you who want to know more about the details of what we would propose, or who want to look into the background on some of the points I'll raise, I encourage you to look at that book or some of the other references and website links listed in this study room.
Let's start with the basics. What is food aid? Food aid is an international flow of resources on concessional terms in the form of food or in the form of cash for the purpose of purchasing food. Let me explain this a little bit more carefully and clearly. Food aid is different from food assistance programs with which most of us are familiar-- programs like food stamps or the WIC program for Women, Infants, and Children in the United States, or food subsidies. Those are programs intended to help poor and hungry people, but they don't usually involve international transfers of resources. So we run very big food assistance programs in the United States, but we're not a food aid recipient. We're a food aid donor.
So there are really three key distinctions that define food aid. The first is the resources flow internationally. They have to cross borders. The second is that they have to be concessional. Commercial trade in food is not food aid because nobody's giving it away. And third is it has to be aid that's for the purpose of getting food to people. So aid that is in the form of cash for the purchase of medicine or military equipment or things like that is clearly not food aid. So we're going to be talking about the international sourcing of concessional food or cash for the provision of food.
So why is food sent across borders on concessional terms? The real reason is that many countries simply don't have enough food to meet the nutritional needs of all their population. Although we live in a world of plenty where we have something like 20% to 25% more calories available per capita than are necessary to feed everybody, nonetheless 30% of the countries in the world don't have enough food to meet the protein and calorie requirements of all their population. And so for that simple reason that there just isn't food enough available in many countries of the world, food is provided across borders in the form of food aid.
So who are the donors, and who are the recipients of food aid? The basic geography of food aid has changed a lot on the recipient end over time. When food aid began in the mid-1950s, it was oriented very heavily towards post World War II recovery and towards the advancement of economic development in Asia. And it was a principal part of the US-Soviet struggle in the Cold War. So food aid in the 1950s and 1960s and into the '70s was focused heavily towards South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, India, Korea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Thailand. Such countries were the big food aid recipients of that era.
That's changed over time. As those countries enjoyed rapid economic growth, as the Cold War wound down, the focus shifted. The focus shifted, in particular, to Africa. And today, Africa is the largest per capita recipient of food aid. Lots of food aid still flows to Asia, but to very few countries-- places like Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Most people think of food aid associated with Africa today.
While the geography of recipients has changed a lot over time, the geography of donors hasn't really changed much at all. Food aid as we know it today started in the mid-1950s. It was really the product of generous farm support programs by the United States and Canadian governments to their domestic farmers. Those farm support programs generated surpluses, especially of wheat, that the government held in silos and donated overseas to support allies and to try to assist in development both of commercial markets for their own farmers, and to assist in the economic development of poor countries.
Over time, other donors have joined in the food aid programs. The European community, in particular, began to generate food surpluses that it would donate as part of its common agricultural program. It began to become a very major food donor starting in the 1970s. Japan has come on board as well. China a little bit. Australia. Other countries provide bits of food aid here and there.
The biggest donor, however, has always been the United States. In fact, while the United States was the largest donor on the order of something like 50% to 60% of global food aid back in early 1990s, today, it's become an even more dominant player, something on the order of 60% to 70% of global food aid flows as the European community, Canada, and a few other donors have reduced their food aid contributions in favor of more cash contributions in support of development objectives.
While the accounting is somewhat artificial sometimes, we usually divide food aid flows up into three sorts. So there are three types of food aid. The first, program food aid, was historically the largest. Program food aid is easiest understood as a very funny way of sending a check across a border. Program food aid is a gift from one country's government to another country's government, and the recipient government doesn't distribute the food, typically. It just sells it on the open market and uses the money, the proceeds from those sales, for programs they would pursue. So program food aid is a balance of payments transaction from one country to another in the funny form of food.
The second form of food aid is project food aid. Project food aid supports all these sorts of development interventions people commonly think of that aren't associated with emergencies-- things like maternal child health feeding programs, school feeding programs, food for work schemes that employ people who otherwise would have no work and put them to work in public works programs like road building or reforestation, et cetera. So project food aid goes from a donor, usually to a non-governmental organization, an NGO, or to the World Food Program of the United Nations, the WFP, to support projects.
The third form of food aid is emergency or humanitarian food aid, and this is really the public face of food aid. When most people think of food aid, they're thinking of emergency operations. They're thinking of deliveries of food coming into places struck by droughts, struck by hurricanes, other natural disasters, or places that are ravaged by war. And in these places, emergency food is directed explicitly to save lives, to keep people from having to move away from their homes, and keep people from falling ill.
And this general pattern of three types of food aid reflects a difference in orientation. Program food aid is food aid that's really intended to dispose of a surplus from a donor country and to provide some sort of benefit for a recipient country-- provide a fiscal benefit, a cash benefit for their budget. Emergency food aid is intended to save lives. Project food aid is aimed at some sort of long-term transition for development.
Over time, food aid's orientation has switched. We've moved from an era when in the 1950s and '60s, food aid was largely surplus disposal, and therefore food aid was largely program food aid, to today, when most food aid, roughly 2/3 of food aid flows, are for emergency purposes. They're to save lives in crisis situations.
This is mirrored in the United States programs. Again, the United States is the largest single food aid donor. In the United States in 1979 or 1980, food aid that was program food aid under something known as Title I of Public Law 480-- or PL 480-- program food aid was more than twice that spent on emergency and project combined. But over the last 20 years, program food aid, Title I PL 480 has declined by more than 90% in inflation adjusted terms. Today, emergency food aid dominates with project food aid a reasonably close second in US programs.
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The US, Canada, and other developed countries have a decades-long tradition of sending food abroad to less-fortunate people. We think of this primarily as a humanitarian practice. But it originated with and has evolved to serve other economic, political and strategic aims as well. Professor Barrett examines how food aid has evolved, to what extent it fulfills its humanitarian and economic development and other, donor-oriented objectives today, and what challenges it now faces.
This video is part 1 of 6 in the International Food Aid After 50 Years series.