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?

Foreign aid in Afghanistan.
America’s Afghan aid dilemma is far from unique

Photograph by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.

Shortly after President Obama announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan last June, government auditors released the latest in a series of reports describing the theft and diversion of billions of dollars in U.S. aid and contract payments. What’s worse, the report noted that some of the funds were trickling down into the hands of the Taliban and other insurgents. Aid that was meant to boost Afghan incomes and promote peace were being turned on U.S. forces themselves, and making it all the more likely that America’s good intentions would leave violence and conflict in their wake.

America’s Afghan aid dilemma, it turns out, is far from unique. In a study just released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian find that our well-meaning helping hand has often had the unintended consequence of aggravating conflict. Focusing on U.S. food aid windfalls that were triggered by bumper crops in the Midwest, they find that unexpected increases in wheat shipments increase civil conflicts in countries unlucky enough to be the beneficiaries of American assistance. The study provides ammunition to those who have been calling for a reform in how U.S. lends a helping hand to developing countries.

Why should grain shipments fan the flames of civil war? The authors describe the case of Biafra’s attempted secession from Nigeria in the late 1960s to highlight the various ways that war and hostilities can feed off the good intentions of humanitarian aid. To crush the rebels, the Nigerian government set siege to Biafra. The (deliberate) result was widespread starvation; as a Nigerian official famously stated in 1968 peace talks, “Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war, and we have every intention of using it against the rebels.” Biafra’s dire circumstances were ultimately broadcast to the world, generating an outpouring of donations and volunteers who came to the breakaway region’s assistance. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in the New Yorker in 2010, “the humanitarian-aid business as we know it today came into being” in Biafra.

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But relief workers couldn’t get food or supplies through the Nigerian blockade without the help of Biafran rebel leader Odumegwu Ojukwu, who insisted that only his own planes could fly into and out of the area. He charged relief organizations dearly for the privilege, and filled any remaining space in the aid flights with weapons and other supplies. The airlifted food that gave some relief to Biafra’s starving masses also nourished Ojukwu’s army—the rebels were malnourished like everyone else and hence qualified for assistance. The Nigerians eventually wore down the Biafran rebellion, but many claim that it lasted for years longer than it would have in the absence of the international response that brought food, supplies, and funding to Biafra’s rebels.

Is the example of Biafra indicative of the effects of humanitarian aid more generally, or an exceptional case? There are certainly anecdotes from relief efforts in Afghanistan that suggests a similar dynamic may be operating there: In The Crisis Caravan, Dutch journalist Linda Polman cites a U.N. official who estimates that around a third of NGO food aid in Uruzgan province was channeled to the Taliban.

At the same time, there is also reason to believe that food aid can prevent conflict, instead of making it worse. After all, the whole point of food aid is to boost incomes especially during hard times: If empty stomachs foster discontent and unrest, then feeding the hungry will make them less likely to do things like attack one another for food, or join rebel armies to fight in civil wars.