One of the changes US President Donald Trump has been working to make since his presidency is a change to the laws regarding humanitarian food aid to the world, including the direct form that is provided through the UN World Food Programme and the indirect form that is provided through local organisations affiliated with American relief associations and civil society groups.
UN aid programmes are based on providing food to millions of people either in the form of physical or financial aid, such as emergency aid in the event of disasters, wars, or combatting poverty. American aid makes up 40 per cent of such aid. The US mainly provides aid in the form of food that is labelled "Gift from the American People". Is this gift really meant to feed the impoverished and rehabilitate poor communities or is it a part of a political and economic agenda that does not help, but rather hinders?
Trump issued orders to cancel two major food aid programmes, Food for Peace, established by President Eisenhower in 1954 to donate surplus US grain crops to poor countries, and McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Programme, affiliated with the US Department of Agriculture. Jordan is one of the countries benefitting from this programme.
The decision to cancel these programmes was faced with opposition from farmers unions, users of agricultural products and packaging and maritime transport workers, i.e. those benefitting from the programmes within the US, and therefore Trump's decision was reversed.
The White House issued an executive order requiring the transfer of US food aid aboard vessels flying the American flag, while the current law stipulates that only half of the vessels must fly the US flag. In addition to this, these changes will affect millions of displaced people in many countries, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan. The head of the United Nations World Food Programme, David Beasley, said regarding the war in Iraq: "We're the first line of offense and defence against extremism and terrorism." Beasley linked humanitarian aid with the national security policy and the "war on terror".
Despite the fact that everyone knows that this humanitarian aid was never free and without political interests and economic advantages, the American administration's latest remarks raised questions regarding what the aid actually is and its effectiveness in the short and long run, as well as how linked they are to imperial interests. What is wrong with the current food aid programme and how does it affect all the aid programmes, including that of the UN?
Oxfam America's report, as well as numerous economic reports, including a study by Katarina Wahlberg, the advisor on Social and Economic Policy Programme Coordinator at the Global Policy Forum, summed up the situation as:
First, 85 per cent of the aid provided by the food programmes is not gifts granted unconditionally. The US selects which countries it will help based on a political basis and not on the need of the people.
Secondly, the food aid is purchased in the US itself, i.e. from American farmers and suppliers, not from areas closer to the countries in need, and they are transported on American ships. This means that it is a "profitable trade" and a process with an economic development aspect in the US. Thirdly, the items need between four and six month to reach their destination as a result of the time taken to purchase and transport the foodstuffs. This means the aid is useless in cases of sudden emergencies. Fourthly, the costs of transporting and shipping the aid makes the American food aid more costly than purchasing food from areas closer to the areas in need.
Currently, those in need only receive 40 cents from every dollar spend on staple grains for food aid, and most of the money ends up in the pockets of middle men. These regulations protect private interests at the expense of the hungry, according to Oxfam America.
Fifthly, food aid usually undermines local agricultural production in the benefitting countries and threatens food security in the long run. The truth is that some donor countries have put in place food aid programmes that primarily promote their own interests rather than helping the hungry. For example, lawmakers established food aid programmes in the US in order to expand the US' export markets and to get rid of agricultural surpluses resulting from local farm subsidies.
Sixth, sometimes, food aid changes consumption patterns in the recipient countries. For example, the flooding of South Korean markets with American wheat has affected the cultivation of local crops, which, as a result, have become more expensive than wheat. One American official from the US Department of Agriculture gloated: "We taught a nation that hasn't eaten wheat before to eat it."
Seventh, the US provides genetically modified crops from major agricultural companies, such as Monsanto, as food aid, despite the concerns surrounding the consumption of these crops and the refusal of a number of countries to receive such aid. However, their need, particularly in times of disaster, and American pressure forces them to accept. However, Monsanto succeeded in 2013 in passing the Monsanto Protection Act, which grants it legal immunity, and therefore it is difficult to prosecute the company even if its products are proven to cause health and environmental damage.
So far, the aid and relief programmes have proven that they have failed to end hunger and have failed to provide urgent aid in many natural disasters and wars. Generally speaking, they are mostly subject to economic and political agendas that sometimes cause permanent damage rather than treating the problem. Such damage will only increase if its current goals, structure and implementation remain the same. Oxfam suggests that a solution to this deteriorating situation could be freeing up funds to buy more food locally in extreme emergencies and ending the sale of US food aid in developing countries in non-emergency situations because, as dozens of examples have demonstrated over decades, it results in killing local production and increases the unemployment and poverty rates in poor communities, as well as increasing their dependence on foreign aid.
The most important point that international aid organisations, including the UN and Oxfam, fail to mention is the role of major countries providing "humanitarian" aid in wars and creating conflicts, as well as their responsibility in what is known as the "poverty industry". This poverty industry results in creating wars and selling arms. What is the point of giving an Iraqi or Syrian child a free meal at school if their schools are going to be bombed minutes later by American planes?
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 15 August 2017.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.