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The Intricacies of International Aid

October 9, 2009

This is a digression from the medically-related stuff I usually post on, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to reminisce about  my graduate school days where I spent an entire semester studying international emergency relief.  And it’s a reminder that in many parts of the world the most important medical issues concern many things we take for granted.

Foreign Policy has a great article on the pitfalls of international food aid.  As mentioned in the article, the debate over the value of food aid, especially what and how it should be delivered, has been ongoing for many years.  The specific debate detailed in this article is very interesting and has no easy answers.  Unfortunately, the article conflates two separate issues.  The author puts the discussion of international food aid within the context of the recent earthquake in Indonesia.  In such situations, emergency food aid is vital for displaced people.  Unquestionably, this aid should be appropriate (especially for children) and delivered quickly and efficiently–a task not easy to accomplish in developing nations, let alone one that has recently had a natural disaster.  However, the author further discusses issues such as displacement of local markets by cheap foreign food aid.  This impact of international food aid on local markets is less of a concern during an emergency and the following months.  However, this issue is absolutely critical in places where longer term food aid is being utilized.  War torn countries and refugee camps are such examples.  In this instance, why would an individual buy food in local markets when free food is flowing into the area?

There’s also the extremely sensitive issue of where the food for aid comes from — and what its effect may be on local trade. AAH charges that U.S. government food aid displaces local farmers by dumping cheap U.S. surplus grain. “Most countries have functioning markets and regional surpluses that go overlooked in the food aid equation,” Whitney says.

Although this issue is of less concern in emergency situations, it should always be taken into account whenever foreign food aid is applied.  Failure to take into account impacts on local markets can destroy livelihoods and lead to dependency on aid.

In terms of what kind of food aid should be provided, I’ll leave that up to the nutritional experts.  But, I have eaten Plumpy’Nut before and it is very good.  One thing they failed to mention about Plumpy’Nut–it doesn’t require water which keeps kids away from water-borne illness, a major killer in these situations.

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