Why Giving Food to Hungry People Makes Wars Worse

A new study finds that food aid prolongs civil wars.

A child carries a can of donated food as he walks through a camp for internally displaced people near Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo: Pascal Guyot/Getty Images)

Lynda Brendish is a freelance writer who splits her time between Los Angeles and Auckland, New Zealand. She writes about media, business and social issues for a variety of publications.

Of all the ways to intervene in a foreign conflict, handing out food seems like about the safest bet. Sending troops or weapons can backfire disastrously, but what could be the harm of giving hungry refugees something to eat?

Plenty, according to a new study by economists Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian of Harvard and Yale universities, respectively. Their disconcerting conclusion is that in many cases, food aid prolongs civil wars.

That seems to be, the researchers speculate, because so much aid is snatched by armed factions. “Reports indicate that up to 80 percent of aid can be stolen en route,” the study says. “Even if aid reaches its intended recipients, it can still be confiscated by armed groups.… In addition, it is difficult to exclude members of local militia groups from being direct recipients if they are also malnourished and qualify to receive aid.”

In Nigeria’s civil war of the late 1960s, for instance, the government demanded a percentage of aid from humanitarian agencies, which it then used to feed its soldiers. In the Somali conflict of the early 1990s, as much as 80 percent of food was stolen or confiscated and then traded for weapons in neighboring Ethiopia. In refugee camps filled with ethnic Hutu who fled Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 genocide, armed militiamen stole directly from people who had just received the food. In Afghanistan, aid organizations wound up feeding the Taliban. In all cases, the end result was well-fed soldiers willing and able to keep fighting.

The study, the first to empirically assess the relationship between food aid and fighting, adds to a growing body of criticism of food aid. In recent years, many critics have pointed out that such programs can depress local markets, cost lives by arriving weeks too late, and profit those who donate at the expense of those who need. The U.S., the largest donor of food aid, has come under particular fire for its policies, often implemented with little regard for what flooding local markets might do.

“For poor countries on a year-to-year basis, the quantity of food aid isn’t determined by the need of the recipient country. It’s determined by the needs of the donor country to get rid of excess food,” says Qian. “What we find is that when the U.S. has a boom year in wheat production…poor countries get more food aid. And when they get more food aid, they experience more civil conflict.”

There are better ways to help. Food aid procured locally supports regional markets and gets to beneficiaries more quickly. Promisingly, President Obama’s 2015 budget proposes allowances for buying food from sources in areas affected by a crisis, as well as cash and voucher distributions.

“If you’re distributing free corn in an area where people grow corn, who are those farmers going to sell to? Nobody,” says Glenn Hughson, who oversees East Africa for the Cash Learning Partnership, a coalition of NGOs working with money-based alternatives to food aid. “You’ve just destroyed all their livelihoods.”

Cash distributions offer flexibility, giving beneficiaries the ability to choose how to address their family’s needs. After all, a bag of flour doesn’t do a family much good when what they really need is to take their child to the doctor or buy a plow. Cash is also generally more cost-effective, eliminating the need for trucks, warehouses, and other infrastructure required to distribute food aid. Rather than depressing local markets, cash distributions can stimulate them.

“If I give you $100, you’ll spend it in the local market,” says Hughson. “Part of the product you’re spending it on comes from the local area; part of it the trader had to bring in from somewhere else. So the value of that money multiplies down the value chain of the particular product.”

Still, cash-based responses have their limits. They require an accessible and functioning marketplace where traders can secure enough goods to meet the demand, and that’s not always the case. That means food aid still has its place: If the market is washed away in a flood or sits in the wrong patch of militia territory, no amount of cash is going to help. “If the beneficiary does not want cash, you need to listen to that,” says Hughson. “You can’t just go and dump things on people. They need to be involved.”

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