What's the Best Way to Deliver Food Aid?

(Photo: Feed My Starving Children)

(Photo: Feed My Starving Children)

The question of how best to deliver food aid is a controversial one.  In recent years, economists like Dean Karlan and Ed Glaeser have suggested that direct cash transfers are the most direct, efficient means of delivering aid to struggling families in the U.S. and elsewhere.  In response to the debate, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) collaborated with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) on several studies. Here’s the Ecuador study comparing the effects of aid in the form of cash, food baskets, or supermarket vouchers.  And here’s a summary of their findings in Ecuador, Niger, Uganda, and Yemen, which were also discussed at a recent IFPRI seminar:

Findings revealed that there is no one “right” transfer modality. The relative effectiveness of different modalities depends heavily on contextual factors such as the severity of food insecurity and the thickness of markets for grains and other foods. In three countries (Ecuador, Uganda, Yemen), cash had a relatively larger impact on improving dietary diversity as did vouchers in Ecuador, but in the fourth country (Niger), food had a larger impact on dietary diversity. Cash assistance was always significantly more cost-effective to deliver. In fact, researchers determined that if they repeated the study, but only distributed cash, they could feed an additional 32,800 people with the same project budget.


I am currently writing a paper on the ethics of humanitarian food aid policy. It seems that both cash and in-kind have the potential to create market distortions based on the prevailing market conditions. If the famine is supply-driven, then an influx of cash will only inflate prices. In this case, it would seem that in-kind aid would be less likely to create market distortions. However, in a demand-driven-famine, then an influx of in-kind aid will depress food prices. In this case, it would seem that cash, vouchers, or LRP, aid would be less likely to create market distortions. The takeaway: In order to avoid market distortions and harming aid recipients, it is important to understand the prevailing market conditions when administering aid and tailor aid narrowly to those market conditions.


Unfortunately, distributing cash aid directly would negatively affect the nonprofit staffers assigned to distribute said aid, resulting in their unemployment. Thus, cash aid is most likely off the table in aid organizations.

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I don't think so. It's not like cash magically distributes itself, with no staff needed to see that it gets to the recipients and no staff needed to identify qualified recipients. You'd just change the type of employee: fewer truck drivers (all of whom can get re-hired by the local trucking company, because people can't eat cash), but more accountants (and security guards, if you're handing out physical cash).


Well...not sure IFPRI discovered anything other agencies dotn know... Yes, cash is always cheaper to deliver .. But this does not mean that it is more cost-effective in many food deficit countries which import most of their supplies...


Either way, give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for well...more than a day.


Subject to supply conditions. Teaching a man to fish who lives (and will continue living) in an environment where none exist is just a waste of everyone's time.

Marc Orson

I find this post pretty interesting. I am a citizen of a 3rd world country that was hit by an earthquake a couple years ago. Help was provided by many countries and a lot of fundraising were held in order to support the people who suffered from the tragedy. I went to the market one day and what i saw shocked me. I saw blankets being sold outside. On them, you could read "donation from Spain for the victims on the xxxxx tragedy". My answer to this post is: The help is crucial during tough tragedies like these but people must innovate in order to get the help to the victims directly without passing through the middlemen. Can you imagine $$? that would be amazing! Did i tell you about the people who are still waiting for an apartment after their homes were destroyed? These people were promised a new home before the winter.... i stopped counting after 5 winters.