Critics slam system as food aid to Guatemala lags

The WFP is short on donations while an estimated 285,000 people could go hungry in the next six months.

On a late afternoon here, Domingo Poron and his brother, Antonio, harvested rocks on the land where they once harvested corn, beans, coffee, and plantains. The rock crop is plentiful this year, washed down from steep mountain slopes when hurricane Stan caused torrential rains in early October.

More than 500 small farmers in San Pablo lost crops. Now, rocks are all that many people have left in this impoverished town on the shore of Lake Atitlán, a popular destination for international tourists.

Hurricane Stan caused more than 1,500 deaths and $1 billion in damages in Guatemala. Though the immediate crisis has subsided, experts say that 285,000 people are at risk of going hungry over the next six months. The World Food Program (WFP) is nearly two-thirds short of reaching the $14.1 million requested in food aid for Guatemala. "It does not augur well for an operation that is very short, very time sensitive," says spokesperson Trevor Rowe.

Some much-needed food aid is on the way, but the unusual number of devastating natural catastrophes in the past year has caused donations to lag, and this delay is sparking fresh debate over international food aid programs.

Some critics say food aid from the United States - by far the world's largest contributor - is expensive, slow, and often misdirected. Others say it is time to reexamine the global agricultural policies they blame for worsening the poverty and high malnutrition rates that make developing countries like Guatemala so dependent on such aid in the first place.

Organizations like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Oxfam International, and the Oakland Institute say food aid benefits special-interest groups in the US at the expense of recipient nations and starving individuals.

These interests, primarily agribusiness, shipping companies, and nonprofit aid organizations, have been dubbed the Iron Triangle of food aid.

Currently, US law requires the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which provides the bulk of US food aid, to purchase food exclusively from US farmers. Under the 1985 Farm Bill, at least 75 percent of this food aid must be shipped on US vessels.

Could food aid be cheaper, faster?

But the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said in a recent study that the cost of food aid could be halved if food were bought in the countries where aid is needed.

Even if this is impossible, costs could be cut by one-third by buying food in neighboring countries, according to the OECD. Plus, food would get to emergencies faster.

Large private aid organizations - the third leg of the Iron Triangle - depend on food aid for large chunks of their budgets. Food aid is often sold in local markets to raise funds for development programs. According to USAID figures, about 55 percent of food aid to Guatemala was "monetized," or sold locally, during US Fiscal Year 2005.

Local producers affected

Critics say this practice is inefficient and detrimental to local producers. Plus, selling food on the open market doesn't guarantee that it gets to the most needy.

"The evidence consistently shows that sales of food aid ... are the most disruptive of local production, local markets, and therefore of long-term food security," says a recent report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Even before the disaster, Guatemala had the highest rate of infant malnutrition in Latin America - affecting nearly half of children under 5 years old.

Food aid isn't new to Guatemala, either. USAID provided a total of $108.1 million in food aid to Guatemala between 2001 and 2005, including $12.4 million through the WFP, according to USAID.

The WFP hasn't taken sides in the food-aid debate between critics and defenders of the current system. "The bottom line is, we welcome food," says Mr. Rowe.

However, he says the WFP analyzes each situation to make sure food aid doesn't have a detrimental effect on local markets or producers.

"We don't want to set the stage for another hunger crisis," says Rowe.

On the other hand, USAID has begun to publicly recognize flaws in the current system.

It recently proposed a budget change that would have allowed the agency to use $300 million of its $1.2 billion food-aid budget to buy food closer to disaster areas.

"In emergency situations, we could move more quickly if we could buy locally," says Leonard Rogers, deputy assistant administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID.

But the idea - which was included in President Bush's 2006 budget proposal - didn't get past the congressional appropriations subcommittees.

"The fact is that the food aid program we have is very popular with the American Congress and the American people," says Mr. Rogers.

Critics say the status quo comes at the expense of the world's hungry. "Congress is basically saying our policy is to fatten the pockets of shipping companies and agrobusinesses instead of feeding starving stomachs," says Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, a California-based, liberal think tank.

Food aid will be a hot debate in the upcoming World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong.

Some members are proposing that the dumping of surplus commodities as food aid be considered a violation of trade rules.

In Guatemala, food aid will be needed for at least six months while farmers replant and harvest new crops, or find new jobs.

But Byron Garoz, a rural development expert at the Guatemalan Coordination of NGOs and Cooperatives (CONGCOOP), said food aid should stop when the emergency does.

"Afterwards, we need to support local production," he said.

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