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Sustainable Food Aid: The UN’s commitment to positive development

By:  Maija Ehlinger Self-sufficiency is the key to peaceful international collaboration and the internal growth of developing countries.  But too often, the reaction to famine or chronic malnutrition overseas has been to import staple foods like grains, flours and beans. Since the 1960s, international laws set up by the Food Aid Convention (FAC) have dictated how much food each country is obligated to provide to crisis areas. The United States alone give 2.5 million metric tons of food each year, an enormous number that is only possible through efficient Western farming practices and surplus.[1]

According to research conducted by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization earlier this year, the best way to augment food security and the diet of developing countries is to rely on local indigenous crops. In May 2012, the UN-run World Food Programme announced a pilot venture that would supplant imported food aid with locally-grown produce in school lunches. The program will start by stimulating the local production of haricot beans, an iron-rich crop that will be ground into a porridge that is a staple food source in Africa.  According to the World Food Programme, this project will provide seeds to 1,600 farmers throughout Ethiopia’s regional states. These farmers will provide meals for an estimated 7,700 students within the next three months.[2] This Ethiopian farming initiative starts after the successful implementation of a similar program in Kenya, where 1.3 million children are currently provided meals from home-grown produce. Although this is not a new idea, the UN is looking to extend such a relief model to all regions suffering from famine or chronic hunger, specifically Southeast Asia and the rest of northern Africa.

Perhaps the production of locally-grown haricot beans appears unimportant in the scheme of foreign affairs. However, it is important to see that international support of local farmers is the most sustainable model of aid as well as a great asset to the world of economic development. While only one percent of the federal budget in the U.S. is used for foreign aid,[3] the key is to use such funds in the most efficient way possible in order to support economic independence in assisted countries. Instead of shipping food supplies to developing countries, investment in local farmers will stimulate internal economic growth and provide a more dependable nutrient source for the local community. Since the U.S. provides the most metric tons of food aid each year,[4] it is critical that the U.S. Department of Agriculture support UN measures regarding financial investment in countries dealing with food shortages.

Because this new program provides financial backing over imported raw food materials, there is renewed commitment to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to end hunger and poverty. Although the alleviation of extreme poverty and hunger is grouped together as one goal in the MDGs, the traditional form of food aid fights hunger and famine while increasing economic pains for local workers. Food aid provided by foreign countries can be subsidized and sold at a cheaper price, thus undermining the crops that could be provided by local farmers. Instead, the UN’s current project will promote economic autonomy in developing countries, an idea that will foster healthier world markets.

The World Food Programme has continuously called for aid in the form of cash over food; an action thwarted by the US Department of Agriculture. Developing countries cannot compete with the agricultural monopoly held by the United States and other developed countries. Consequently, economic pains in poorer regions of the world are exasperated. But if the international community is serious about its promise to fight hunger and promote international development, there must be increases in global aid programs that make local produce a staple part of a country’s economy.

Development on the international scale is intrinsically tied to stable food production. The UN initiatives on global nutrition and welfare are taking steps toward successful allocation of aid and positive economic development. If the MDGs are to be achieved by 2015, an economic model that supports local growth over foreign assistance is necessary.

Maija Ehlinger is a rising junior working on a major in history and a minor in global health. Her main academic interests are in international health policy, and she hopes to pursue a career in the field of public health.  Maija is spending the summer in Atlanta interning at Emory’s Office of Marketing and Communications.


[1] Feeding the World: Is International food aid working? CBC News. Lak, Daniel. 3 May 2007. http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/international-aid/food-aid.html.

[2] Ethiopia: Farmers to Supplant Imported Food for School Lunches. Gashaw, Yidneckachew.  20 May 2012. http://allafrica.com/stories/201205220748.html.

[3] Solomon, Paul. How Much Does Uncle Sam Spend on Foreign Aid? PBS Newshour.  1 Feb 2012. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/02/how-much-does-uncle-sam-spend-on-foreign-aid.html.

[4] Feeding the World: Is International food aid working? CBC News. Lak, Daniel. 3 May 2007. http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/international-aid/food-aid.html.

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