In late October, David Beasley, the Director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) urged billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to “step up now, on a one-time basis” to address hunger globally. “Six billion [dollars] to help 42 million people that are literally going to die if we don’t reach them. It’s not complicated.”
But would you be surprised to learn that saving those 42 million lives is, in fact, complicated?
Part of the problem is how the money is spent. Musk tweeted back, “If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it.” Musk added, “it must be open source accounting, so the public sees precisely how the money is spent.”
Beasley responded, “I can assure you that we have the systems in place for transparency and open-source accounting.”
There have been problems in the past with the financial accounting and transparency of WFP and other United Nations agencies, but the larger problem is with food aid itself. After WFP won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020, it should have been a time of self-celebration. Instead, it enabled longtime critics of food aid to renew their criticisms of the WFP for dumping food on poor nations, driving down prices and bankrupting farmers, ultimately making it harder for poor nations to become self-sufficient.
This scenario has happened time and again around the world. In the 1950s and 1960s, surplus wheat from the US was sent to India, undermining local farmers. In 1976, the US sent wheat to Guatemala, in response to an earthquake, even though the country had just produced record yields. The decline of prices was so harmful to farmers that the government banned grain imports. Six years later, the Peruvian government asked the US government to stop dumping rice on the country, given its impact on poor farmers.
In 2002, Michael Maren, a former food aid monitor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Somalia published a book called “The Road to Hell,” documenting how food aid prolonged that nation’s civil war in three ways.
First, much of the food aid was stolen and sold to buy arms, furthering the conflict.
Second, the food aid helped destroy the centuries-old credit system that allowed pastoral farmers to borrow money during droughts to pay for food, which they repaid later during good times. By undermining the credit system, foreign food aid had helped undermine the social ties that had kept the nation together.
And third, the food aid undermined the very incentive to farm.
The WFP says it has learned from the past by giving one-third of its support in the form of cash aid, which is viewed as both more efficient, and more likely to avoid bankrupting small farmers. But cash aid can also fuel corruption, as I discovered the hard way 30 years ago when attempting to support a small, worker-owned coffee cooperative in Nicaragua.
My friends and I raised a few thousand dollars and gave it to the coop’s leaders. One year later, we returned to see how the money was spent. We were told one night by the coop’s angry cook that the coop’s all-male leadership had spent the money on alcohol and partying. None had gone towards upgrading the coop’s infrastructure. Naturally, the coop’s leaders denied it all, and said the money wasn’t sufficient, and they needed more. The lesson? When there is poor governance, aid money makes the situation worse, not better.
An even bigger problem is that what causes hunger in most cases is not the absence of food but the presence of war and political instability.
A few days after his Twitter exchange with Elon musk, the WFP’s Beasley released a list of recipient nations and how much they would each receive in food aid and cash aid if Musk, Bezos, or someone else ponied up the more than $6 billion WFP said was needed to save 42 million lives. The list included the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Sudan, Venezuela, Haiti and Syria. Notice anything in common between them? They are all at war or in political turmoil, which is preventing farming and the transportation of food.
Not all nations suffering from hunger and famine are at war. Some, like Madagascar, are suffering from drought. But we have known since economist Amartya Sen published his landmark 1981 book, “Poverty and Famines,” that most famines are deliberately caused as a weapon of war. They weren’t, for the most part, the result of food supplies in general or drought in particular, which farmers and societies have learned to deal with for millennia. Today, the world produces a 25 percent surplus of food, the most in recorded human history.
To his credit, Beasley acknowledged that “$6 billion will not solve world hunger,” adding that that “it WILL prevent geopolitical instability [and] mass migration.”
If that were true, then that $6 billion would be the greatest philanthropic investment in human history. Unfortunately, it’s not.
Just look at Democratic Republic of the Congo, the eastern region of which is again at war. In the 1990s and again in the early 2000s, Congo was the epicenter of the Great African War, the deadliest conflict since World War II, which involved nine African countries and resulted in the deaths of three to five million people, mostly because of disease and starvation. Another two million people were displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of people, women and men, adults and children, were raped, sometimes more than once, by different armed groups.
When I was there in 2014, armed militias roaming the countryside had been killing villagers, including children, with machetes. Some blamed Al-Shabaab terrorists coming in from Uganda, but nobody took credit for the attacks. The violence appeared unconnected to any military or strategic objective. The national military, police and United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, about 6,000 soldiers, were either unable or unwilling to do anything about the terrorist attacks.
The sad truth is that wars are rarely settled from the outside and, when they are, it’s through long-term military occupation, not food aid. Even 20 years is not long enough, as the US failure to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan shows.
We have known for more than two centuries that almost every nation escapes hunger and famine in the same way. First, there is sufficient stability to allow farmers to produce and transport their crops to the cities, and for businesses in the cities to operate without being bombed or shelled. The ugly truth is that such stability is often won the hard way, after years or decades of war and even genocide.
Stability allows farmers to become more productive, and cities to develop new industries, such as manufacturing. Rising farm productivity means fewer people are required to work in farms, and many of them move to the city for work in factories and other industries. In the cities, the workers spend their money buying food, clothing and other consumer products and services, resulting in a workforce and society that is wealthier and engaged in a greater variety of jobs.
The use of modern energy and machinery means a declining number of workers required for food and energy production, which diversifies the workforce and grows the economy.
During the last 200 years, poor nations found that they didn’t need to end corruption or educate everyone to develop. As long as factories were allowed to operate freely, and the politicians didn’t steal too much from their owners, manufacturing could drive economic development. And, over time, as nations became richer, many of them, including the US, became less corrupt.
While a few oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia have achieved very high standards of living without ever having embraced manufacturing, almost every other developed country in the world, from Britain and the United States to Japan to South Korea and China, has transformed its economy with factories.
This remains the case today. Ethiopia had to end and recover from a bloody 17-year civil war, which resulted in at least 1.4 million deaths, including one million from famine, before its government could invest in infrastructure. Today, factory workers in the capital city of Addis Ababa continue to make clothing for Western labels including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and H&M. Ethiopia has been competitive both because of its low wages compared to places like China and Indonesia, where they have risen in recent years, as well as its investments in hydroelectric dams, the electricity grid and roads. As a result, Ethiopia has seen more than 10 percent annual growth over the last decade.
But all of that is now in jeopardy. There is a growing war in the northern Tigray region, and the Ethiopian government has blocked aid from being delivered, which has resulted in nearly a half million people suffering from famine. Now, the US and other nations are considering imposing trade sanctions in response, putting in jeopardy the livelihoods of factory workers in Addis Ababa.
The reason for continuing famines in a world of plenty is not just complicated but also tragic. Over the last 20 years, economists and other experts have criticized development aid for being counterproductive, making nations dependent upon outsiders, and undermining efforts at internal development.
Those complaints have mostly been ignored. Today, many developed nations continue to see charitable aid as an alternative to economic development. The latest guise to sell charity as development comes in the form of “climate adaptation.” The idea is that poor nations should forgo the use of fossil fuels, a necessary ingredient to industrialization and development, and instead rely on foreign hand-outs to adapt to higher temperatures.
For poor nations to finally free themselves from the clutches of would-be rescuers from the rich world, they will need to defend their right to develop, including through the use of fossil fuels, and seek to trade with rich nations on equal terms. That may be starting to happen. In response to calls by rich world leaders that Africa not use fossil fuels, South Africa’s energy minister on Wednesday called for united resistance. “Our continent collectively is made to bear the brunt for polluters,” complained Gwede Mantashe. “We are being pressured, even compelled, to move away from all forms of fossil fuels… a key resource for industrialization.”
He’s right. From climate change to food aid, rich nations are demanding the poor nations develop in ways radically different from the way they developed centuries ago, without agricultural self-sufficiency, industrialization and fossil fuels. It can’t work. The harsh truth is that poor nations must go through the same, often painful steps toward development, including, often civil war, in order to achieve the political stability they need to develop. Rich nations can be partners to poor nations. But we should stop trying to be their saviors.