So you thought food aid was about feeding the starving then, did you?

By Tim Worstall , written on April 29, 2014

From The News Desk

Apparently food aid isn't about aiding those without food. Rather, it's all about subsidizing the Pentagon's budget:

"The secondary reason for food aid is food," Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who introduced the bill, said in an interview Thursday. "The No. 1 reason is military readiness."
There we have it, that's the reason for a bill that's just been passed by the House. Who gives a shit about the people dying of starvation in other countries when we could screw up the system to make sure that we've got plenty of things that go bang?

The background to this is an absurdity called the Jones Act. This, among other provisions (for example, insisting that cargo between two US ports must be carried on US-owned, crewed, built and flagged ships) insists that food aid being sent off to the starving elsewhere must be carried on those US-built, owned, crewed and flagged ships. You'll not be surprised to find out that said US ships are rather more expensive than those using cheaper labor, or those using rather newer, more fuel efficient, engines. But there we have it from the horse's arse, one of our elected Solons, that this is actually the point. We want to make food aid more expensive so that, for however much we decide to spend on food aid, we can alleviate less starvation.

The specific thing that this bill does is raise the percentage of such aid that must be carried on those Jones Act ships, thus making the food aid system even more inefficient. Quite rightly the Obama Administration opposes this change. Don't, however, think that this is a respectable Democrat arguing with idiot Republicans: the AFL/CIO is over on the Jones Act side here. It's not a party partisan dispute, it's one about the ability to use food aid to favor certain pockets instead of the purpose of food aid, to feed the hungry.

Back some years, the George Bush Administration went to Congress and asked for the food aid rules to be relaxed. Someone, somewhere, had actually read up on the theory about famine and noted Amartya Sen's (Nobel prize winning) point that modern famines aren't actually about a shortage of food. There's always food available, if not right there and then at least within a few day's worth of modern transport. There's also no shortage of demand for food: logically, starving people do have a demand for food. What is lacking is effective demand. That is, those starving don't have the resources to make it worthwhile in economic terms to truck that food over to where they can eat it. As Sen goes on to point out the solution to this is to give the poor people some money and the standard interactions of markets will mean food starts to arrive, food that they've then got the money to purchase.

If that's all too free market for you then it's still better to send over a few suitcases of cash to where that food is, hire some trucks and then drive over to where the starving people are. Give it to them if you like. So, when famine broke out in Niger the Bush Administration asked Congress to let it send some cash over to places like Burkina Faso, Nigeria and the like and buy the plentiful local sorghum in those places and ship it to the people looking for something to eat. Congress refused. Nope, if there's going to be food aid then it's got to be American food and shipped on American ships.

Which, as aid groups have been noting for some years now tends to turn up after a delay of about six months. Long enough, we might note, for those who are going to die to do so and also, in most tropical areas, around and about the time of the next harvest. Meaning that free American grain turns up just when farmers are trying to recover by selling their most recent crop.

For at least 15 years administrations of various political hues (and of course this means that it's not actually the political view of whoever gets elected, this is the view of the entrenched bureaucracy) have been insisting that more hunger can be alleviated at lower cost if we don't ship US food on expensive US ships but instead use either the cheapest transport we can or, better, simply send money to buy food locally. But as we can see they're met by a Congress and polity that insists that actually feeding starving people isn't the point at all: no, we should instead be considering the benefits to already rich and well fed Americans as paramount:

"If you're going to use public resources to engage in humanitarian aid, you should do so while maximizing the use of U.S. industries and to create good jobs in this country," said Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO, the nation's biggest labor federation.
What a morally contemptible position. The point of humanitarian aid is to provide humanitarian aid. You know, aid so those thousands of two year olds reach their third birthdays instead of having their souls harvested to "create good jobs in this country."

[Photo via FMSC on Flickr]