July 27, 2014
I’m just back from the International Development Ethics Association meeting where I blew everyone away with my presentation on food security. Well, maybe I’m overstating it a bit, but people did seem to appreciate what I had to say. And come to think of it, what I had to say was not really all that original, having been said in 1960 by T.W. Schulz. I’m sure all of you will recall having read his scintillating screed “Value of U.S. farm surpluses to underdeveloped countries,” in the Journal of Farm Economics. Schulz was writing about the “Food for Peace” program. He was noticing that if you take a boatload of food from the United States and ship it off to some country where people are suffering from hunger there are two things that are very likely to happen, one of them good and one of them bad.
The good thing is that when this food is off-loaded in some port city where people are suffering from inadequate diets, they are going to be better off. Whether the food is literally given away or whether it is sold at some concessional price (as is, in fact, often the case) hungry people in urban areas are going to benefit. Now, this is not going to be surprising to anyone, because that is, after all, what the whole point of food aid is, isn’t it?
But here’s the bad thing. In most cases of hunger, there are supplies of locally produced food available. Sometimes there is a true shortage, but other times it’s just a case of sheer poverty among the hungry that prevents their access to food. And then when this boatload of grain shows up, all of a sudden there is a glut of food available in this locale. If the whole operation is being managed well, some hungry people get fed, but the fact that there is now a glut of food in that local market means that the situation is something like zucchini day at the local farmer’s market. You know what I mean. We sit there all winter long, hoping for some great summer zucchini, and then it seems like everyone’s garden comes in all at the exact same instant. You go to work and there are mountains of zucchini sitting there in the main office with a little hand-lettered sign saying “Help yourself- – – Please!!”
And what I’m saying is that all of a sudden you can’t give that zucchini away. You can make zucchini bread and fill your freezer with it till the cows come home but you sure aren’t going to sell any of that zucchini for anything like what it cost you to buy the seeds, water it and possibly pay for the mulch or fertilizer you spread around that garden plot. Well, this analogy transfers pretty nicely to the town in Africa or Asia where a boatload of food from the U.S. has just been off-loaded. If you were sitting there in the market place hoping to sell a few beans or some millet that you grew on your small plot outside of town, you are pretty much in the same situation as the poor schnook who thinks that everybody down at the office is going to slap him on the back and invite him to their daughter’s wedding because he showed up in the middle of the summer with a basket full of overgrown zucchini. In short, you are going to be sorely disappointed.
Of course since we’re doing a food ethics blog here I’m obligated to point at that the stakes are somewhat higher in this African or Southeast Asian locale. The woman sitting there with her basket of beans or millet is every bit as poor as those hungry people that the rich nation charitably intended to help out of their generousity and sheer goodness of heart. She may not be literally hungry at that moment because she does have a basket of beans or millet sitting right in front of her. But staying fed throughout the year depends on getting a decent price for those beans and now this boatload of food aid being off-loaded down at the town docks has pretty much put pigweed into that mulligan stew (as Mark Knopfler might have said it). That’s the bad thing.
In short, it’s more complicated than you think. It’s not an argument against charity for people who are in need of a helping hand, but it is an argument for being thoughtful about how you do that. The folks at the IDEA conference (who spend a lot of time thinking about how to help poor people) experienced one of those forehead slapping “HOW COULD I HAVE BEEN SO STUPID!” moments, and that’s why they liked my paper.
Now if we could just figure out a way to deal with this conundrum!
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University