Huge kudos to CARE for taking a bold and reasoned stand on how best to deliver food aid to developing countries. Kudos as well to the New York Times for yesterday's front page coverage of the CARE decision—how remarkable to see food aid so prominently featured in the NYT!—and its other recent coverage (subscription required) of how U.S. policy affects poor African farmers. As the NYT reported:
CARE's decision is focused on the practice of selling tons of often heavily subsidized American farm products in African countries that in some cases, it says, compete with the crops of struggling local farmers. The charity says it will phase out its use of the practice by 2009...
"If someone wants to help you, they shouldn't do it by destroying the very thing that they're trying to promote," said George Odo, a CARE official who grew disillusioned with the practice while supervising the sale of American wheat and vegetable oil in Nairobi, Kenya's capital."
The timing of CARE's controversial decision and the NYT articles are not coincidental. Congress is mid-way through debating a new five-year Farm Bill. The one passed five years ago was an embarrassment. It continued and even increased large subsidy payments to a small number of mega-farms, as was well documented by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization that let the cat out of the opaque bag of subsidy payments. In the process, lawmakers paid little mind to U.S. obligations under existing trade accords or to the discouraging effect on poor country farmers of cheap food surpluses created by U.S. subsidies (for more on rich country agricultural policies and their impacts on poor countries, see Kim Elliott's fine CGD working paper Agricultural Protection in Rich Countries: How Did We Get Here?
Ignoring pleas for reform from many corners, the House passed a farm bill in July that did little to improve matters. The Senate will take up its own version of the farm bill sometime in the fall, and almost inevitably, a conference committee between both houses of Congress will meet to work out differences. That means there is still time for the reform coalition to prevail in efforts to reduce payments to large U.S. farm producers, provide support to increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, and reform food aid (see Bread for the World's Seeds of Change campaign), which takes us back to CARE.
CARE's decision puts the emphasis first and foremost on how best to help African development, not on revenue generation, and not on getting rid of surplus farm products. That's as it should be for a charitable organization, and that's as it should be for U.S. foreign assistance policy. How best to help is admittedly a complex matter, as the New York Times article explains, but just doing good is not the same as doing what's best.
For those interested in learning more, CGD will be sponsoring a forum on September 10 on "A Healthy Farm Policy in a Globalized World." Speakers will include farm bill reform advocates from the non-profit sector, from Congress, and from research organizations, including CGD. Details to come on the CGD Website, or sign up for CGD event invitations from the E-mail Updates Page box on our homepage.