Food aid must go local to do good

Aid groups have a responsibility to consider the impact of their programs on local culture.

Nestled amid the lush hills and sugar cane fields north of Durban, South Africa, Lindiwe, a local community worker, assists in preparing food parcels for delivery. Nearby, more than 100 women and a sprinkling of men, most diagnosed as HIV positive, are packed in a community center learning how to properly prepare vlugkokend (macaroni), sperziebonen gebroken (green beans), and hollandse bruine bonen (brown beans).

The food parcels, upon which the women and their families have come to depend, are provided by a Dutch nongovernmental organization (NGO) and only contain products from the Netherlands. Because many of the products are not part of the average South African's diet, recipients must first learn how to prepare the food. "They're not used to this type of food, so we have to teach them how to cook it. They haven't eaten macaroni before," explained a community worker from a local municipality.

In a state where 40 percent of the population is unemployed and more than 16 million people live on less than $2 per day, food assistance is essential. The need is even more pressing among communities affected by HIV/AIDS. The Dutch food parcels are therefore a welcome form of assistance, but their composition and potential effect on the South African diet is problematic.

While it is next to impossible to say how the Dutch program has affected people's eating habits in Shakaskraal, it is clear that many families are now consuming more instant soups and pastas and less cornmeal porridge, the local staple. This raises the question: What responsibility do international NGOs and governments have in considering the impact of their programs on local culture and heritage?

Amid such pressing concerns, President Bush announced plans this month to spend an additional $770 million on food assistance to poor countries, increasing total US food aid to $2.6 billion. During an address at the White House, Mr. Bush stated that he had called on Congress "to support a proposal to purchase up to nearly 25 percent of food assistance directly from farmers in the developing world" in order "to break the cycle of famine that we're having to deal with too often in a modern era" and to "build up local agriculture."

The president's acknowledgement of the importance of buying local products is a significant first step in reforming American food aid. The United States could have a much greater impact on global hunger, however, were policies directed at recipients and not American constituencies.

The effect of aid could be greatly multiplied if it focused even more on assisting communities in producing and distributing local goods. Otherwise food aid becomes more an act of charity than sustainable development practice.

Food aid has long been a controversial form of development assistance. More recently, in 2007, CARE International, one of the world's largest charities, announced that it would no longer accept $45 million in funding from the US federal government. The organization cited the prevalent argument that shipping American-grown agricultural products directly to African countries competes with local markets and forces prices down.

Presently, 90 percent of global food aid arrives ready to eat, instead of as an economic investment in local farming. This could potentially stop the cycle of aid. If the US began spending a greater portion of its food aid budget purchasing goods in-country or supporting local agriculture projects, it would be a major break with policy and would encourage other donors to do the same.

In "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman writes that "ecological imperialism, [a phrase coined by Alfred Cosby], helped European conquerors to permanently stamp their image on their colonies." While Western countries may not be explicitly engaging in "ecological imperialism" (or perhaps more appropriately, "agricultural imperialism") by shipping their own food products to deeply impoverished states, sending vlugkokend to Shakaskraal has the same effect.

Donor countries deserve credit for their noble efforts – however, it is their duty to understand and respect local cultural nuances in the countries in which they work. If they did just that, Lindiwe would be surveying piles of locally grown tomatoes and rice instead of packaged tomatensoep and rijst.

Drew Curiel is a Rotary ambassadorial scholar studying international development in Durban, South Africa.

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