Latest US diplomatic tool: corn and grain

In post-cold-war era, politics, not hunger, plays bigger role indeciding who gets aid.

In nuclear-armed Russia, the United States is hoping to forestall instability. With North Korea, it is struggling to avert renewed conflict. In Indonesia, it is trying to help stem unrest in the world's most populous Muslim state.

Washington is pursuing different approaches in each case to avoid a crisis with major consequences for US political, economic, and security interests.

Yet there is a common element in its strategies: huge amounts of food aid. In the post-cold-war world, grain may have become the United States' foreign-policy tool of choice. American security interests - and not the recipients' level of hunger - are becoming important criteria for dispersal of US food aid, say some experts.

Take the examples cited above. Russia this month is to begin receiving 1.5 million tons of US wheat, part of a $625 million deal to ease shortages due to its fiscal crisis and poor harvests. Though the US denies a link, its massive food donations to famine-hit North Korea are widely seen as incentives to keep Pyongyang in peace talks. And US food aid worth $53 million is going to Indonesia, where poverty-fueled turmoil ignited by last year's economic problems threatens its nascent transition to democracy.

Yet all this largess and the huge shipments of food the US rushes to disaster zones are deceiving. While it remains the largest international food aid donor, the world's richest nation has slashed its programs since 1992 by some two-thirds, even as chronic hunger and malnutrition soar in many parts of the globe.

The exception was last year, when aid rose dramatically. But most of the increase was earmarked for Indonesia, Russia, and North Korea. Furthermore, the hike was made possible by a coincidental convergence of election-year politics, market economics, and bumper crops.

With many farmers beset by huge surpluses due to historically low prices and depressed Asian sales, the Clinton administration came to the rescue with emergency purchases of the excess. Otherwise, experts say, the US might have found it hard to help Russia, North Korea, and Indonesia as well as millions of victims of a surge of natural disasters.

"This was a lucky year for us," a US official says. "Surplus production in the US has masked what would have otherwise been a serious food crisis."

Where the aid is going

The biggest cuts in US food aid have been to nongovernmental development efforts that use food to pay workers in third world nations for building infrastructure like dams and roads.

Of the 8.3 million tons of aid dispersed by Food for Peace programs in 1986, 7.3 million tons went to such initiatives. Last year, they received only 2.5 million tons. That contrasts with more than 5 million tons that went to emergency relief, which now receives the lion's share amid rising ethnic and religious strife and natural disasters.

In a change mandated by international agreement, the US will phase out by next year free food aid to other governments. What will remain will be the remnants of its development food-aid program, another program that requires governments to repay the US for assistance (the US is the only nation that does this), and emergency relief programs.

These shifts are not confined to the US, but are an international phenomenon that worries many experts and private agencies. They come as destabilizing poverty, hunger, and food-production problems in the developing world are growing. The Agriculture Department in December forecast that the 66 poorest nations will be short 19.8 million tons of food in 2008 compared with 11 million tons in 1997 - an 80 percent increase.

Citing these trends, some experts argue that the US, because it has less food aid, now gives more weight to security interests than need when deciding how to disperse aid.

"What I don't see happening is a more stringent approach to who gets what ... according to real need," says Patrick Webb of Tufts University's School of Nutrition in Boston, Mass. "We are giving it to countries where there is some kind of political basis for action."

Some blame the explosion in humanitarian emergencies for the shift. Others point out that US food aid has always been driven in large part by politics. The changes, they say, reflect shifts in overall foreign policy with the end of the US-Soviet rivalry and the growth of global markets.

Subsidizing farmers

Until the end of the 1980s, the government bought agricultural surpluses for use as aid, much of which went to countries that took its side against the Soviet Union.

Food aid had other political purposes. The US provided huge amounts of wheat to Egypt after it signed the 1979 Camp David peace accords. It was also used to advance dtente with Moscow.

But all this changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With priority given to domestic issues, the food-aid budget remained level through the early 1990s.

Between 1992 and 1997, US contributions to the United Nations World Food Program and other agencies sank from 8.5 million tons to 2.8 million tons, accounting for most of the drop in overall international donations during the same period.

Sweeping domestic agricultural reforms, bumper crops, and the Asian economic crisis combined to produce last year's glut. Many experts, however, do not expect those conditions to last.

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