CHRIS BARRETT: While modern food aid was created largely to advance donor country interests and continues to be driven primarily along those lines, especially in the United States, food aid has been edging slowly towards a recipient oriented system. So why is food aid potentially useful in addressing poverty and food insecurity concerns?
First, let's think about the definition of food security. Food security was defined by the 1996 World Food Summit as "access by all people at all times to sufficient food for an active and healthy life." The key here is "access by all people at all times." Given that most countries have sub-populations that don't have good access to food, and given that almost 30% of the countries in the world don't have enough food in total to provide for all their population, there is a need to augment supply in many places, to augment supply typically through food aid in addition to commercial food imports.
Now, it's important to think through why do people suffer food crises. Up until the 1980s, the dominant view of famines in particular was a view associated with Thomas Malthus. The Malthusian view of famines was that rains don't fall, crops die, and as a result, the food supply is insufficient to feed all people. There is a certain truth to this. Food availability is necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure that people have enough to eat.
A very important advance of the 1980s was associated with the Indian economist Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize largely for his insights about famines, famines in India, famines in Ethiopia, and famines in West Africa in the 1980s and earlier, back to the 1940s to the colonial era in India. Sen's insight was that food of availability is not sufficient to ensure people will get to eat, that poor people who don't have enough purchasing power simply can't afford food. And even if the food is there on the market, they won't be able to buy it. And if they can't buy it, they can't eat it. And as a result, they go hungry. So Sen's insight was that it's not just supply side factors that matter to hunger and to famine, but demand side factors that matter as well.
This becomes critically important as we think about issues of targeting, on which we'll focus in just a few minutes. Famines are really the big target of food aid policy. We don't want to see excess mortality associated with under-nutrition. That's the definition of a famine, when people are dying because they are hungry. And as a result of their hunger, they fall ill. There are very few direct deaths due to hunger. Most hunger-related deaths are just that, related to, but not directly because of hunger.
But famine is a blight on humanity. Famine is the thing that people least like to see on television. And people respond. When CNN shows up in an area plagued by drought and one sees emaciated children, livestock carcasses on a wasteland, people immediately grab for their checkbooks and are concerned about the humanitarian imperative before them. The same thing after natural disasters, like Hurricane Mitch in Central America or the recent tsunamis in South and Southeast Asia. The peak associated with a crisis like this gets great media attention. But the process by which we got to that point is really the key. And that's what we need to attack through development policy and through resources like food aid.
Today, a key part of current thinking on food aid and on development programming in general is known as the rights-based approach. The rights-based approach refers to human rights, human rights as recognized in international conventions like the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which in Article 25 recognizes human right to food, or the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which in Article 11, likewise recognizes a basic human right to food.
Corresponding with those rights to food are obligations, are duties on the parts of governments, the sovereigns that hold authority over individuals, and an obligation on the part of the international community to meet, to fulfill, human rights recognized by all. Rights-based approaches, therefore, increasingly underpin operational agencies programming of food aid and of other resources.
So how do we best fulfill the human right to food or other human rights, for that matter? The answer to that question is very congruent with the answer to another important question-- how do we best reduce persistent poverty? The answer to these two questions really turns on the emerging insights of the economics of poverty traps, the idea that there are traps into which people can fall for prolonged periods of time, the idea that there is a long run, low-level equilibrium. People will just be stuck at a very low level in the absence of any significant intervention to lift them to a higher level, that in the absence of interventions, people can suffer indefinitely. And in that indefinite suffering, they can also become hopeless with all the attendant cultural, political, and social problems.
People who are in a poverty trap need a lift out. They need a pathway out of that long-term persistent poverty. People who are not yet in the poverty trap need a safety net to ensure that they don't become poor, that they don't lose their jobs, become injured, have to get rid of all their resources, and then face no prospects.
The economics of poverty traps is a way of understanding what it is that causes some people to suffer a shock and thereafter be permanently destitute. It causes other people to be born into poverty and have a very difficult time escaping it.
What we are discovering over time, through lots of research in different disciplines, is that the real keys to getting people out of long-term poverty are safety nets to ensure that the non-poor don't fall into the trap, and our direct interventions, especially to improve human health, nutrition, and education that will lift kids out so that children have the capacity as adults to work physically and cognitively.
As a result, food plays a central role in helping children to break the intergenerational poverty trap. And food plays a central role in safety nets to keep people from having to sell off the productive assets they own-- the land, the livestock, machinery, businesses they own-- just to be able to feed their families.
This idea of poverty traps underpins the recent United Nations Millennium Project final report, the strategy that the UN has adopted for halving poverty and hunger by 2015. And this conceptualization of poverty traps is central to understanding how best to use food aid as a resource to combat poverty and hunger around the world.
The idea of poverty traps is closely caught up with the management of food aid in the following way. We've seen a steady decline in the share of aid, of international development funds that go to long-term development, to agricultural research, to health and education interventions for children, for basic infrastructure improvements, road building, electrification, and such things in rural areas. We've seen a steady decline in these dollars over time from something on the order of 45% of all development flows in the early 1980s to about 20% today.
Now, with little invested in long-term development, as crises come, as hurricanes hit, as earthquakes occur, as droughts happen, we wind up having to respond with assistance. But the assistance typically shows up a bit late because it's very complicated to get assistance in time to a place far away. And it typically shows up in only partial form. It doesn't fully replace everything that's lost. So there's only partial recovery, which leaves people more vulnerable than they were before the first disaster.
And so subsequent disasters occur. And even more people fall into the trap. And as a result, we wind up in this vicious cycle, a relief trap, that is corresponding to the poverty trap, wherein development assistance increasingly goes to emergency relief and less and less of it can go to addressing the long-term fundamental problems that underpin vulnerability, that underpin people's exposure to and vulnerability to crises.
Food aid is a key part of the strategy to reduce acute food insecurity and poverty and to attend to human rights. The key here is not to pursue a strategy of food aid per se. A food aid strategy is misplaced. What one needs is a strategy for reducing poverty and a strategy for reducing hunger where food aid is one of a whole set of tools that one can apply in advancing such a strategy.
Now, this way of thinking about the problem raises several key issues, areas where progress can and will be made, and has been made in recent years, to help make food aid an effective tool in support of a broader strategy of poverty reduction.
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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 5 of 6 in the International Food Aid After 50 Years series.