The poor of Africa need more than just food

From a talk given by Stephen Devereux, fellow of the University of Sussex's Institute of Development Studies, at London's Africa Centre
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From a talk given by Stephen Devereux, fellow of the University of Sussex's Institute of Development Studies, at London's Africa Centre

From a talk given by Stephen Devereux, fellow of the University of Sussex's Institute of Development Studies, at London's Africa Centre

9 August 2000

The slow response of the international community to the recent drought emergency in Ethiopia has focused attention once again on the role of food aid in addressing Africa's problems of poverty and food insecurity.

Critics of food aid point to its disincentive impacts on agriculture and local economies. Large volumes of food aid increase marketed supplies, lowering food prices and discouraging local production and trade. Expectations of food aid create a dependency mentality that encourages governments to neglect agricultural policies. Food-for-work projects divert farmers from their agricultural activities, reducing food harvests. Imports of exotic foods such as wheat distorts consumer tastes, undermining demand for locally produced crops.

The basic paradox is clear: the ultimate objective of development interventions must be self-reliance, but food aid by definition implies dependence on others for subsistence needs.

Emergency relief is justified if it saves a single life, but, as the 1999 Food Aid Convention argues, food should be purchased locally or within the region ("triangular transactions") if possible, and more attention must be given to the non-food needs of refugees and internally displaced people. On the other hand, non-emergency food aid - supplementary feeding, school feeding and food-for-work projects - is deeply problematic. Evaluations of food-aid projects concur that most achieve little lasting nutritional impact.

Even the World Food Programme now promotes non-emergency food aid on developmental rather than nutritional grounds. Supplementary feeding for malnourished mothers and children treats the symptoms of hunger, not the causes, and similar criticisms apply to school-feeding schemes, since meals provided at school often simply substitute for meals at home. Yet school meals can improve enrolment and academic performance, potentially reducing poverty in the long term.

Food-for-work projects now focus as much on the assets created as on the food transferred to participants. Projects are selected to improve agricultural production (such as terracing for soil conservation), to promote market development (feeder roads), or to reduce women's workloads (tree planting to reduce fuel-wood collection times). Disincentive effects are avoidable with careful design - for instance, food-for-work projects should be timed not to coincide with the farming season.

Conversely, a tendency to target women on public works by introducing gender quotas can be counterproductive, imposing heavy burdens on women who are already overworked and allowing men to neglect their responsibility for providing the family's food. Participatory assessments have also identified a growing preference by public-works participants for payment in cash rather than food, which should be respected.

The international food-aid regime must change. Emergency relief will continue to have a role in Africa for decades to come, but "food aid for development" is a contradiction in terms. The pragmatic justification - that donors are more willing to transfer food to the poor than cash - is not good enough.

Cash transfers instead of food aid can convert vicious circles into virtuous circles. Providing cash to the food-insecure will stimulate local trade, strengthening emerging markets and providing incentives for farmers to produce surpluses for sale.

Sustainable solutions to poverty and food insecurity lie in supporting agriculture - it makes more sense to restore access to agricultural inputs than to provide food handouts when harvests fail - and in finding viable non-farm sources of livelihood. What the African poor need is support for sustainable livelihoods, not unsustainable dependence on food aid.