The U.S. government's good intentions—we are the largest source of international food aid in the world by far, spending about $2 billion in taxpayer money each year—are directed not toward the suffering masses but to American farmers and shippers whose voices are heard most clearly in Washington. Under U.S. law, nearly all of our food aid is produced in the United States—predominantly by large agribusinesses like Archer Daniel Midland—and nearly all is delivered to stricken countries by American shippers. The system is shamefully rife with inefficiencies and misplaced priorities. For one, only 35 percent of the U.S. food aid budget is actually spent on food, according to a Government Accountability Office study from 2007 (PDF).
But perhaps the greatest problem is the damage our food aid causes to farmers in developing countries, who are essential to the future health of their societies. Often in the news lately has been the harm that U.S. deliveries have done to the Haitian rice industry over the past few decades. On March 10, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bill Clinton apologized for his administration's role in exporting cheap U.S. rice to Haiti, undercutting local growers. According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Haitian farmers provided 47 percent of the country's rice in 1988. By the 2008, the figure had dropped to 15 percent. And in a recent report on NPR's Planet Money, reporters described how bags of American rice are still being sold in Haitian markets.
"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked," said Clinton, who may play a greater role in the future of Haiti than any figure since Toussaint L'Ouverture. (He is U.N. Special Envoy and co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which is deciding how billions in recovery money will be spent.) "It was a mistake," he added. "I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else."
Haitian President René Préval, an agronomist, is so mindful of the harm caused by free food that he was already calling for an end to it in March, a decision that was not universally applauded in his hungry country. The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP), a major distributor of U.S. food aid, began phasing out its large-scale distributions in May under orders from the Préval government. WFP is now offering food and cash to Haitians who are employed on community improvement projects—clearing rubble, installing drainage —"designed in partnership with the Haitian government and with input from beneficiaries." Referring to the lack of free food, Frantz Magellan Pierre-Louis, a spokesperson for the mayor of the town of Jacmel, told The Globe and Mail newspaper in late April, "I don't know what the consequences will be, but I'm sure it's going to be a problem."