Food Aid: Bad for Peace?

(Photo: Peter Casier)

A new working paper (ungated version here) by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian may have interesting implications for U.S. policy on humanitarian aid. We’ve blogged before about the “crowding out” effect of food aid, but this research points to another alarming effect:

[A]n increase in U.S. food aid increases the incidence, onset and duration of civil conflicts in recipient countries. Our results suggest that the effects are larger for smaller scale civil conflicts.

Nunn and Qian find that the crowding-out effect of food aid is not to blame for the conflict increase. Instead, they say that their findings “support qualitative accounts of food aid either being stolen during transport or being taken from target populations by small armed groups that use the resources to fund conflict.”  Another reason for distributing food aid by text?

Joe Dokes

I think a more plausible explanation is the fact that a food shortage would make the populous more likely to compromise or simply give up. If I have a choice between starving or giving in the local authority, I'd simply give in. Thus, the side that is better fed would win, and thus the conflict would end sooner. If one looks at the Irish Potato famine in the 19th century the expectation of widespread riots and violence, this did not occur even though the starvation was a consequence of political action or inaction. Why, the populous simply didn't have the will to fight because of a lack of food.

I think for any conflict, any aide given to the weaker side would prolong the conflict. For example, NATO no fly zones clearly aided the rebels in Libya. Did it prolong the conflict? Certainly. Was the cost of the prolonged conflict worth the benefit? We simply don't know, and probably won't for the foreseeable future. Things could turn out better for Libya or worse, I hope better but we simply don't know.


Joe Dokes



Some months after the Haiti earthquake, I had a conversation with a German national who had been working for about 15 years for an NGO involved in helping developing nations to build up their agriculture. For the last several years, he had been working in the Dominican Republic, which is adjacent to Haiti on the island of Hispaniola. He said that the main effect he saw of the inflow of food aid -- specifically rice -- to Haiti was the destruction of the DR's rice growers' markets. The rice was basically sold at a rock-bottom price into the DR market instead of being distributed to the Haitian people. What they got was wormy, low-quality rice from the DR instead.

This fellow, who had transferred with his organization into Haiti after the disaster, was trying to persuade aid organizations to stop sending material aid and instead to hire able-boded Haitians to clear the rubble and begin rebuilding. Of course, that would mean trusting ordinary Haitians to look after themselves and make their own buying decisions, and this is what the large aid organizations are reluctant to do: let people take care of themselves. Maybe this is why the country remains in such straits.



So, what would be the best sort of aid?

Going over and starting a business that sews blankets? Going over and starting farms which grow rice?

Those sorts of projects take quite a while to get spun up to speed, and in the meantime there can be people dying of cold/hunger/etc.

How do we help keep people from starving without building a cycle of dependence because the aid destroyed the structures needed in the country/area.

Sarah Bailey

Your link ('distributing food aid by text') is to a previous entry about using food vouchers instead of food aid, but you know what's much easier and more logical? Just sending cash via mobile phones. The work involved with vouchers - setting up systems, agreements with traders, etc. - is lots of effort just so that the aid agency can restrict the choice of people to a few commodities as opposed to letting them use cash for all the food and non-food items they want. You can't send your children to school, buy a cooking pot or pay a debt with a food voucher (well, you can, but only by selling / trading food and vouchers and probably on unfavorable terms). Cash, food, vouchers and the like all have risks related to conflict, corruption, etc - no form of aid is immune. But cash transfers have been used for years insecure contexts like Somalia as they are less visible than food aid, support economic activity and people can buy what they need in markets.

Cash, and their cousins vouchers, tell us a lot about humanitarian aid (good and bad).



1. food is energy
2. give one energy and can be used for good or bad.
3. food is part of the solution