Thursday, August 16, 2007

Caring for the World's Poor, Our Way

From the New York Times:

MALELA, Kenya — CARE, one of the world’s biggest charities, is walking away from some $45 million a year in federal financing, saying American food aid is not only plagued with inefficiencies, but also may hurt some of the very poor people it aims to help.

CARE’s decision is focused on the practice of selling tons of often heavily subsidized American farm products in African countries that in some cases, it says, compete with the crops of struggling local farmers.

The charity says it will phase out its use of the practice by 2009. But it has already deeply divided the world of food aid and has spurred growing criticism of the practice as Congress considers a new farm bill.

“If someone wants to help you, they shouldn’t do it by destroying the very thing that they’re trying to promote,” said George Odo, a CARE official who grew disillusioned with the practice while supervising the sale of American wheat and vegetable oil in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

Good news; CARE is finally taking the high road. But will the snub change Congress' mind about the way it shamelessly panders to American farmers? (Actually, minds in Congress are pretty much set in concrete, on this as on so many other issues, so I would hazard to guess no. Seeing that we have two senators from every state, regardless of that state's population, it's not a great surprise that the political process favors rural areas.)

Funny, because my sense is that Americans generally agree that we should stop infantalizing farmers by stuffing them full of perverse financial rewards that may (in some strictly short-term sense) be good for them, but are demonstrably bad for everyone else. They're adults, and they're in business, and they're smart. If capitalism-lite works for the rest of us, shouldn't it work for them? Do we really need top-down, market-manipulating agricultural planning?

In the United States, we seem to want to help the world's poor. That's what we say, anyway. Then let's stop attaching strings to our aid packages - stop insisting that recipients buy our farmers' surplus crops, hire our aid consultants, make this our show (yes, in the end, it's all about us, since much of our donated cash flows right back in our direction). Food distributed to poor countries in this way merely subverts their own markets, weakening them and everyone who will depend on them when we're gone.

Three years ago I had the strange and uncomfortable experience of standing in a concrete hut in Haiti, scooping out rice and corn meal and raw brown sugar to people who'd been hungry for months because they'd been too frightened to leave their houses. The latest period of violence had mostly ended, though, and now they were lined up in the sun holding pillowcases and torn bags and dirty plastic jugs and old aluminum pans, anything they could get to carry this windfall food back home. (The group I went to Haiti with bought the food locally, by the way.)

There's nothing better than doing whatever small good you can do for people who really need it, and there's no shortage of people in this world who do. But charity has its own backstory, and when it's really all about us and our needs, we should admit it. It's the least we can do, given the lottery we Americans won when we born here rather than there.

Generosity is the purest form of egotism - that's what a former international aid worker is quoted saying in this week's New Yorker. Sadly, that has resonance, and particularly for us in the US.

1 comment:

NUREG said...

I agree with what you're saying. I also wish that Congress would simply end ALL farm subsidies. Its ridiculous that we preach free-market values/economics to the rest of the world while paying subsidies to corporations here at home. American taxpayers shouldn't be lining the pockets of sugar growers, dairy farmers, etc.

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