International aid: Does sending food to struggling nations do more harm than good?

Does Sending Food Aid to Struggling Nations Do More Harm Than Good?

Does Sending Food Aid to Struggling Nations Do More Harm Than Good?

The search for better economic policy.
Feb. 1 2012 1:18 PM

Food for Naught

Does sending food aid to struggling nations do more harm than good?

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Answering the question of whether aid encourages or inhibits conflict presents an analytical conundrum because aid—food or otherwise—is sent deliberately to communities that need it most. These tend to be places that are dysfunctional to begin with, where quite possibly there’s a civil war brewing already. Aid may also be sent to places of strategic interest to America—like Afghanistan—where our interests stem in part from the region’s vulnerability to conflict. So just as it would be crazy to conclude that American food aid to South Vietnam (of which there was plenty) caused the Vietnam War, it’s hard to know how much of a role U.S. assistance has had in prolonging conflict in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

This is one reason the authors focus on U.S. food aid: Because it flows to poor countries primarily through the Food for Peace Program, which operates somewhat independently of global need. From year to year, the food aid disbursed through the program is governed by and large by U.S. production, as the USDA stores surpluses to stabilize prices for American farmers then ships them the next year to needy populations around the world.

This American aid is thus dictated at least in part by the needs of farmers in Kansas, rather than the starving masses of Somalia or Afghanistan, which allows Nunn and Qian to identify a stream of food aid that is unrelated to circumstances in recipient countries. Instead of looking at actual aid, Nunn and Qian use the year-to-year harvests of U.S. wheat farmers to reflect the component of aid that’s caused by weather conditions in Kansas rather than turmoil or drought in the developing world. They then assess whether these somewhat random shocks to food shipments are associated with the ups and downs of conflict in traditional aid destinations.


The authors find a surprisingly large impact from this “random” foreign assistance on conflict. They estimate that a 10 percent increase in wheat shipments—well within the range that could result from a good harvest for American farmers –translates into a 6 percent increase of civil conflict for frequent aid recipients like Haiti or Honduras. More food aid makes it both more likely that conflict starts and also extends rebellions in progress, as was likely the case in Biafra. Yet in assessing the costs and benefits of humanitarian aid, it’s worth accounting for even moderately large increases like this, given the high cost of prolonged conflict.

Finding that there’s a downside to humanitarian aid doesn’t mean that we should turn off the spigot completely—food aid may contribute to conflict, but it also saves lives.  These findings do suggest that programs which promote accountability—like the Bush-era Millennium Challenge Corporation, which hands out U.S. assistance to countries based on their performance on governance and accountability indicators—may have their merits, even if it shifts assistance away from some of the neediest cases. The findings may also support allocating more aid to longer-term investments in economic and agricultural development—such as Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative—rather than crisis response. And it also argues for encouraging experimentation with smaller-scale local innovations that may be scaled after evidence of effectiveness, instead of sending shiploads of food. (Aid that takes the form of training and investment has been much-disparaged in recent years, with some arguing that we can best help poor countries by leaving them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But as Stephen Colbert suggested in response to one such aid critic, if we’re going to do that maybe we should start by sending them some bootstraps.)

The unintended consequences of aid produce a tradeoff that’s difficult to confront, weighing the suffering of famine and crisis-stricken communities against the potential of aid to further worsen their circumstances. Yet if we in the first world aspire to do more than celebrate our own virtue by shipping surplus wheat to impoverished nations, we need to engage in exactly this sort of painful calculus, equipped with a fuller understanding of how we’re affecting those on the receiving end of our good intentions.

Ray Fisman is the Slater family chair in behavioral economics at Boston University and author, with Tim Sullivan, of The Org.