Are Some Food Charities Perpetuating Hunger?
We’ve all seen the pleas for donations from charities depicting starving children in one part of the world or another. And yes, we want to help. We don’t want people to go to bed hungry at night.
But wouldn’t it be a disaster if many international charities were actually causing more starvation than they were preventing in some regions?
Sadly, this actually seems to be the situation in many poor countries around the world, according to a new documentary, Poverty, Inc.
Personally, I was dumbfounded as I watched the facts play out in this documentary.
Now we’re not speaking of disaster-relief here. Situations where food aid is required after an earthquake, a flood, a war or other disaster is not what we are discussing here. We are speaking of continuing food aid to many poor countries that in reality have the land and water resources to produce their own food.
As I researched the information further, I found the facts laid out in the documentary have merit. I am not the only one either. The documentary has won over 50 international film festival awards, including the Best Documentary Award from the FIFE Environmental Film Festival in Paris.
The core facts
I will lay out the principal facts here. But I would recommend you watch this documentary for yourself, and do your own homework.
In terms of food production, the world currently produces enough food to feed everyone in the world and then some. World food production can currently feed 1.5 times the world’s population. And the world produces 17 percent more food per person than just three decades ago.
One of the experts presenting in the documentary is Dr. Tim Schwartz. He wrote the book “Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking.”
According to Dr. Schwartz, the food missions that poured free rice and other free food into Haiti following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti have produced a legion of poverty-stricken and down-beaten people that continues to this day.
And his book provides evidence that the travesty in Haiti and elsewhere didn’t start with the earthquake. It has been an ongoing legacy of controlling food markets and supplies to the benefit of large food producers – while creating a continuing lack of food supply in poor communities.
In Haiti, immediate food supplies to feed those who were homeless and hungry after the quake were helpful. But the continuing boatloads of free rice and other big-ag foods have had another effect: They have put the local farmers and food producers in Haiti out of business. And their workers out of work.
How does this happen?
Just consider what would happen right here in the United States if truckloads of free food started arriving in every community. Certainly, rich or poor, people would pick up their free food, and forego their trip to the grocery store to buy food.
This would essentially put those farmers and the food producers who supply the grocery stores out of business, right? Yep, it sure would. If there was free food flowing into every town in the U.S. and people didn’t need to buy food, food producers would go out of business.
And what would happen to the farmers? They would also go out of business. And their employees would lose their jobs.
Then everyone would need more free food.
This is precisely what has happened in Haiti, as international aid companies have poured free food into Haiti. The people who worked on the farms producing food went out of business, and had to move into the city because this is where the free food was arriving.
So former farmers and farm workers came to the city and built up more and more shanty dwellings, as the folks who produced food in the countryside were put out of business.
The documentary interviews many of these victims in these communities in Haiti, and elsewhere in the world.
The documentary also shows former President Bill Clinton admitting to Congress that his aid programs made a mistake in Haiti. A mistake that may have benefited larger peanut farmers in his home state but caused Haiti food producers to go out of business.
African countries drowning in unwanted food aid
The Poverty, Inc. documentary also interviewed a number of experts in Africa, who documented that Africa is one of the most resource-rich regions in the world. Africa has plenty of rich and fertile farmlands to produce enough food for the whole region, thank you very much.
But the continuing flow of food aid into poorer African countries has also put farmers out of business. So investors don’t want to build farms, and farm workers become beggars of free food. Farmers that could produce all the food needed for these communities cannot sustain their farms because their markets – the people – are decimated by the flow of free food.
Profiting from food aid
In addition to other experts, the documentary also interviewed Andreas Widmer, Co-Founder of the SEVEN Fund of Switzerland. Widmer details that large agricultural entities and large companies are profiting from food aid, to the detriment of poor communities.
Here is how it works:
Food aid companies will seek funding from governments by lobbying and from the public by marketing drives. They portray starving people in poor countries and the need for ongoing free food.
The aid company receives millions, some even billions of dollars of resources from these funding sources. For example, the Catholic Relief Services aid company received 70 percent from governments. World vision received $175 million in 2012 from governments, and Chemonics received $500 million.
NGOs (non-government organizations) and contractors also profit from consulting services. Their employees are typically well-paid, and have ongoing contracts.
Dr. Ted Dalrymple, a psychiatrist, wrote “Zanzibar to Timbukto” and other books. He was an NGO contractor for food aid companies.
He once counted 27 food charity companies in Ghana, each represented by well-paid consultants and representatives, living in big houses and driving big cars in the capital.
The aid companies will then organize excess grain and other crops from large agricultural producers in the U.S. and other wealthier countries. Often the food is subsidized by the U.S. government. So the farmers get paid. And the aid companies provide the shipping services.
Then the food is shipped to the poor country and unloaded in communities across the region, including communities that are rich in land and water resources.
The poor country’s market for those food commodities becomes destroyed by the continuing food aid. Not only will each region become dependent upon the food produced by the large ag producers. The ability for the region to compete for the markets in these food commodities is thereby blocked.
This creates a virtual international monopoly for those Big Ag food producers – mostly from the U.S. and Canada, who are supplying the aid companies in these regions. Many of these regions have plenty of fertile soil and water to produce enough food crops to not only feed their own people: But also to export to nearby countries.
Furthermore, because the food produced by these Big Ag producers is often subsidized by the U.S. government, there is virtually no ability for the poor country’s local producers to compete.
The U.S. producers also lobby the U.S. government for tariffs to prevent those farmers in poor countries from exporting their food to the U.S. market.
This ability to produce food is further stifled by the continuing arrivals of free food into the markets of poor countries that could produce their own food.
Yes, free food is certainly needed after a disaster. But large international aid companies often don’t stop after the disaster relief mission is complete. Many also don’t do anything to help communities re-develop their own food and water production. The free food just keeps arriving. This puts the communities’ farmers out of business, and the people begin to depend upon the free food.
Once this occurs, much of the commerce in the poor country stops. People are out of work because in poor countries, food production is one of the central forms of employment. As people cannot work, they depend on the free food. And as the farmers go out of business, there are no other food producers.
The problem has a spiral effect, one that creates increased dependency upon food aid.
This perpetuates poverty, and starvation.
Meanwhile, many of those who work in these charities continue to receive generous salaries, off the backs of taxpayers and individual donors. And those big agricultural farming companies who ship the rice and the wheat and other crops profit from the food aid because the U.S. government pays them subsidies for their surplus production.
So everyone is happy. Except for the people of the poor country receiving aid – unable to get out of their rut because the free food continues to destroy their markets for food production.
Jacob Donatien, a rice farmer from Haiti, says:
“The situation completely destroyed us. It resulted in many farmers abandoning farming. After the earthquake, we got stuck with all our goods… The market was flooded and there is no demand for our food.”
A Haitian farm worker adds that the free food “makes us lazier.”
Subsidies and tariffs, and corruption
The situation becomes grotesque when we see large farming concerns lobby governments to block out imports from poor countries’ food producers with tariffs. This is why countries become poor. Their ability to create wealth through food exports (often their primary commodity) is blocked.
Then the Big Ag producers ship surplus, subsidized food or free food into the poor country markets. This keeps the large producers in control of the international food market.
It gets worse. Food aid is also subject to corruption by the local poor country government workers. This has become evident in many countries where politicians in these countries begin to manipulate food deliveries. They will often profit directly from the food aid or they will manipulate the deliveries, giving some communities access and not others.
This is what has been occurring in some African countries, as government officials have re-directed food shipments to reward those communities that cooperate with the government.
The bottom line
If we want to really help people in poor countries, we need a new course. Yes, disaster relief is important when needed. But if we want to send something after that, perhaps sending supplies to plant crops, such as farm equipment and seeds is a better call. And perhaps some irrigation equipment and equipment for digging and installing groundwater wells.
And perhaps we could reduce our tariffs for poor countries, so those poor countries can also compete in the same market that richer countries enjoy. Then they can employ their farm workers by being able to export their crops once their own people are fed.
Yes, it can happen. Poor countries can feed themselves if we give them the support to do so. This is not the same thing as drowning them in free food. It means allowing poor countries to work hard and feed themselves and become more sustainable, independent countries.
Stocky Hoffmann from the African Economist sums the situation up nicely:
“For instance, the dumping of cheap surplus food on poor countries by the donors opens for them new markets so that they can sell their products, which then strengthens their exports. On the other side it weakens the recipients’ country because money flows out of the country and this encourages the increased consumption of cheap imports resulting in the undermining of local agriculture, thus driving the “non-competitive” farmers out of agriculture and increasing food insecurity, hunger and poverty.”
Sustainable charity strategies
It is not that we should no longer give. And certainly disaster relief is sometimes necessary. But for countries working to provide their people with sustainable food production, there are charities that provide aid to small farmers to help them develop their crops. Here is a list of charities that provide aid directly to rural farmers in poor countries.
Poverty, Inc. Fighting Poverty is Big Business. But who profits the most? 2015.
Schwartz T. Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking. BookSurge, 2008.
Brent Eng and José Ciro Martínez. “Why international food aid can actually make conditions worse for starving Syrians.” Washington Post, January 26, 2016
There is enough food to feed the world. Oxfam Canada.
Hoffmann S. Food Aid Does NOT Help Africa: It IS The Problem. The African Economist