Malawi: Food Aid Ethics

Fred de Sam Lazaro introduces his reports from Malawi and the ongoing debate over the benefits of providing cash or crops to recipient nations. He also looks into the growing effects of domestic farm law on world food markets.

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BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Between tragedies such as the one in Myanmar and the disastrous worldwide rise in food prices, a question long debated by relief experts has become urgent: What’s the best way for the U.S. to help the hungry? Under the billion-dollar-a-year Food for Peace program, the government sends others surplus commodities, such as wheat and corn. Would it be more economical and effective to send cash instead? Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Malawi in southern Africa.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At about 10:30 each morning, some 800 children in the southern Malawi village of Kasungu break from their studies for porridge. The principal says attendance climbed 50 percent since the meal program began three years ago. In this country of 13 million, beset by chronic hunger, it’s the only reliable meal of the day for most kids.

BRIGHTON MTIKOMOLA (Principal): They haven’t eaten anything else, so when they come here, take this sort of food — now and then they take this sort of food — then it makes them increase their performance.

DE SAM LAZARO: They have more energy?

Mr. MTIKOMOLA: Yeah, more energy.

DE SAM LAZARO: The soy or maize for the feeding program is mostly donated by many countries, but the largest contributor is the United States, through a program called Food for Peace. It began in the 1950s as a means to use U.S. grain surpluses to help countries hit by food crises. But today Food for Peace has grown into a $1.2 billion program, and it has critics who say U.S. food aid may actually stifle African farmers and perpetuate dependence in recipient countries, and they say Food for Peace benefits American private contractors more than the hungry.

The United States is the world’s single largest food aid donor, but there are intermediaries: agribusinesses and shipping companies, which by law have to be American, and they consume a good part of the U.S. food aid dollar. The Government Accountability Office says two-thirds of that U.S. food aid dollar goes toward administrative overhead.

Last year one of the largest private food aid charities, Atlanta-based CARE, decided it would stop accepting U.S. food donations in 2009.

CECILY BRYANT (Country Director, CARE, Malawi): We felt very strongly that the inefficiency and the waste that was happening throughout the current system just had to be addressed, and if we didn’t take a stand and try and make a change then this would just continue.

DE SAM LAZARO: Bryant argues it would be much more efficient if U.S. assistance came directly in the form of cash. The money could be used to train farmers and to buy grain locally, cutting cost and delivery times while developing markets for African farmers. In fact, several aid agencies generate cash to run just such programs by selling donated American commodities to African wholesalers and traders. The practice is called monetization.

UNIDENTIFIED CARE EXTENSION AGENT (speaking to group of farmers through translator): This is where we grow soy beans. You need 75 centimeters between ridges for highest yields.

DE SAM LAZARO: On this day, care extension agents used test plots to demonstrate new crop varieties and types like soy beans — a high protein crop that is growing in acceptance here in Malawi.

Ms. BRYANT: Food alone isn’t going to change anything in the long run. We’re working with farmers to teach them to harvest greater yields, to be able to market surplus once they reach that level.

DE SAM LAZARO: Despite Malawi’s problems with poor roads and storage and uneven food distribution that leave many hungry, there have been overall grain surpluses. Rains have been good for two years, and subsidies have helped farmers buy seeds and fertilizers. President Bingu Mutharika says Malawi must lessen its dependence on charity.

President BINGU WA MUTHARIKA: We now have had the success — two successive years of surplus. When I took over, we were told Malawi was poor and that we must go to the rest of the world and beg that we are poor, and the world will feel sorry for us. I said no, that’s not the way the world in globalization works. People will come to Malawi to invest in opportunities if we are helping ourselves and they want to be part of that success story. Nobody, nobody wants to be part of a failing story.

DE SAM LAZARO: Indeed, the United Nations food aid agency, the World Food Program, is now using cash it gets from non-U.S. donors to increase local purchases of grain. But for many farmers the concept of a surplus is new — one they almost fear jinxing.

MARY ELLEN MCGROARTY (World Food Program, meeting with farmers): So they don’t anticipate having a surplus this year?

DE SAM LAZARO: These growers weren’t sure how to answer a simple question from an agency better known for giving away rather than buying food.

Ms. MCGROARTY (meeting with farmers): Let them understand that we’re not seeing where we can deliver food to. We’re looking to buy food.

DE SAM LAZARO: Despite such local difficulties, the World Food Program bought 90,000 tons of grain from Malawi last year.

DOMENICO SCALPELLI (World Food Program): That’s a huge amount of food, and it’s the biggest amount — the largest amount we’ve bought ever from Malawi. A lot of it was not only for Malawi, but a lot of it also went to Zimbabwe, it went to Democratic Republic of Congo. We bought food even for West Africa, so — and that was because the price was the best at the time and the quality was good, competed internationally. Part of the philosophy behind it is to try and bring up local farmers and traders to a point where they can, in fact, compete internationally.

DE SAM LAZARO: It’s a goal some in Washington support. The Bush administration has proposed that a quarter of U.S. food grain be sent in cash, and that idea has the support of many Democrats in Congress. But it gets nowhere in the influential House and Senate agriculture committees, whose members come predominantly from farm states. They’ve insisted that all assistance remain in the form of U.S.-grown commodities and shipped on U.S. flag carriers.

Representative Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat, says cutting agencies a check instead of sending grain or cooking oils could do more damage in some developing countries.

Representative EARL POMEROY (D-ND): You go into some of these small economies with a check, buy a bunch of commodities for food aid, you’ve just drove prices out of sight. You hurt everybody else.

DE SAM LAZARO: More importantly, Pomeroy says he fears any changes could jeopardize fragile congressional support for what remains the world’s largest food aid program, even though it accounts for just $1.2 billion of the $280 billion U.S. farm program.

Rep. POMEROY: One of the things about the structure of our program is that it’s been able to sustain congressional support through all kinds of political circumstances. Even in the years I’ve been in Congress, I’ve seen very different environments relative to the receptivity of members of Congress to supporting foreign aid.

Ms. MCGROARTY: So for purchasing we want to be targeting associations. I mean, it’s impossible for us to deal individually with each farmer and each farm.

DE SAM LAZARO: World Food Program officials say they make local purchases carefully. They reject criticism that this causes prices to rise. But they’re not about to reject Food for Peace donations.

Mr. SCALPELLI: I am asked this question quite a bit, and I’m not going to bite the hand that helps feed essentially a million Malawians today, and the United States government is indeed the number one largest donor to Malawi still.

DE SAM LAZARO: Other food aid agencies, unlike CARE, say they must continue to monetize their U.S. donations.

(to Nick Ford): Would you not prefer just straight cash assistance?

NICK FORD (Catholic Relief Services): Absolutely, and that’s going to be a much more efficient use of the American taxpayers’ money. We still have a service to provide the target communities for our development activities. Monetization provides resources that do address the root causes of hunger and poverty in these countries.

DE SAM LAZARO: What all sides agree on is that more food aid, whether in cash or food, is needed. Only 30 percent of Malawi’s children receive even this spartan daily school meal, and that number could fall as global food prices continue their record rise.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Lilongwe, Malawi.