Pirates: latest threat to Africa food aid

The US Congress looks at revising its hunger program.

A hulking UN-chartered cargo ship, docked at a port in Somalia this week, was halfway finished unloading its 850 tons of corn and rice when a band of gun-toting bandits stormed aboard and forced the crew to take the ship to sea.

It was the second hijacking of a UN food-aid ship in four months in Somalia. Some 78,000 people may go hungry if the situation isn't resolved soon. But more than that, it's an example of how difficult it is becoming to get food to Africa's hungry masses in ways that are safe, efficient, and effective. And it's one more reason why there's growing pressure for major changes to the massive global food-aid system, which is funded by US and other wealthy-nation taxpayers.

In a different sort of example, in Niger, the world's slow response to a food crisis earlier this yearmeant many thousands of people went with little or nothing to eat at first. But now, after delivering many tons of food, the UN is discontinuing most free food - to avoid disrupting Niger's markets as local farmers bring in their harvest, causing long-term damage to the country's ability to feed itself. This comes, ironically, despite continuing hunger.

Such problems support a view by a few experts that the entire food-aid system should even be scrapped - and that Africa would be better off with much less help from abroad.

Either way, it's an urgent issue with some 12 million southern Africans once again facing food shortages in coming months, the UN says.

Getting aid to the hungry is "really difficult" in current circumstances, so the people on the ground need the greatest "flexibility" and support, says Edward Clay, a senior researcher at the Overseas Development Institute in London. That's why he argues for one seemingly simple change now being debated in the US Congress that might alleviate a major food-aid problem: how to get food to crisis areas quickly.

The lag time between US officials deciding to help hungry neighbors and the food actually arriving can be six months. That's because 99 percent of US food aid is bought from US farmers, and shipped, primarily by US-flagged vessels, overseas. This is in contrast to Europe's preferred method of sending cash to buy food from markets nearer the crisis. Britain, for instance, spends 91 percent of its food-aid money this way, according to an analysis Dr. Clay did using UN data.

In a recent study, Clay found that so-called "tied" food aid - which refers to the US method of requiring food to be bought in the country donating it - adds at least 30 percent to the cost. "Untying" aid could add $750 million to the purchasing power of about $4 billion spent yearly on food aid by wealthy nations.

Clay argues that "tied" aid also ties the hands of relief officials. In Niger, he says, the recent crisis could have largely been averted if aid agencies had more cash to supplement hungry people's food purchases. "It could have been resolved locally," he says. Critics, however, worry that cash can too easily go missing on this corrupt continent.

The Bush Administration is backing a provision to "un-tie" much of US food aid. But critics say it would wreck along and profitable partnership among US farmers, agribusiness processors, shippers, and aid agencies that has created the largest food-aid program in the world. (In 2004, the US gave 4.2 million tons out of 7.5 million tons of global food aid, according to UN figures.) The plan looks unlikely to pass Congress.

In addition to the problem of piracy, the high cost of oil hurts aid delivery. Some aid agencies say they've been forced to spend money on rising delivery costs that could have been spent on food.

Meanwhile, Somalia's piracy problem is a byproduct of a country which has been without a government since 1991. Another food-aid boat was seized June 27 with a two-month supply of rice for 28,000 Somali victims of the 2004 tsunami. It was held for 100 days - and only recently released. The food still arrived in southern Somalia, where "people survive on almost nothing," says Abid Mohammed, a Somali businessman. "If those people don't get food, it doesn't take much to tip them over the edge." The UN may now truck its food overland to avoid pirates - but at a greater transport cost.

Yet some argue the food-aid system may not be worth having. "The food-aid equation actually hurts Africa more than it helps," says economist James Shikwati, director of the Inter Region Economic Network in Nairobi, Kenya. "If it was helping," he says, "the problem would be solved by now." In fact, he sees it as fundamentally unethical. "You can't say you're helping people if you're not helping them" break the cycle of famine. African politicians use hunger as a tool to gain votes, he says. Western relief agencies use it to fund-raise. This creates a "manna mentality" where Africans wait for bread "to drop from heaven."

And once again, the system faces a major test in southern Africa, where 12 million people are reportedly on the verge of hunger. In 2002, an appeal for help averted a famine in the region. This year, say WFP officials, Malawi faces its toughest "hunger season" in a decade - and risks being a "repeat of Niger."

Jason Motlagh in Niamey, Niger, and Peter Martell in Hargeisa, Somaliland, contributed.

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