Food aid does not alleviate poverty

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The Famine Early Warning System Network (Fewsnet)’s prognosis of harvest this year shows an increase in food production compared to 2009.
Most farmers in northern Zimbabwe produced a bumper harvest of maize, while those in the southern region succumbed to a dry spell.
The need for food assistance would increase after September as locally produced food deplete. Generally the country is out of an emergency phase, although some places need food assistance which may be covered by maize imports.
Perhaps it is time to review our aid interventions and how it can contribute to the economy. The Government of National Unity (GNU) has been begging for money since its formation, suggesting that, perhaps, money is the missing ingredient. In 2009 alone, humanitarian agencies in Zimbabwe appealed for $718 million, $92 million short of the $810 the government was asking for.
Of course they didn’t get everything they asked for but there was more money towards aid than the government. Emergencies are more attractive to donors than a GNU that is faced with credibility and legitimacy issues, despite that the government desperately needs the money to inject life into capital investment projects and civil service, platforms upon which meaningful and sustainable development is built.
The bumper harvest presents an opportunity to introduce ways that promote to human dignity and economic development tapping from resources in the aid industry. Assuming the aid industry got the $718 million they asked for, and injecting it into small-scale commercial activities would definitely trigger economic growth than channelling it towards a monthly ration of maize, pulses and vegetable oil, as if people survive on sadza and beans or nyemba only.
Human beings are not engines that run on the same type of fuel and giving food aid in a situation where food is locally available is denying people the dignity of dietary choice and missing an economic growth opportunity.
There is no doubt that food aid saves lives but doesn’t alleviate poverty or contribute to the economy. In fact it can be corrosive to the economy as it creates dependency. The money goes mainly towards consumption.
Social cash transfers are an alternative which has proven to be effective in combating poverty. They have transformed conditions of poor communities in Mozambique, Lesotho, and Zambia including some tsunami affected areas where they were used during emergencies.
They are effective when food is locally available, and the cash transfers will then target those who are unable to access or afford due to poor harvests or poverty. The cash is used to buy food locally and other basic needs thereby promoting the viability of those who would have harvested more than they need. Sometimes, a hybrid of food aid and cash based on the market value of a half food ration is used, where it is necessary, to protect and promote livelihoods.
Beneficiaries are identified using an agreed vulnerability criteria and are then required to open private bank accounts where their money is disbursed monthly or quarterly.
The banks assist with banking education and investment training. As saving increase, local banks will have more to lend for domestic investment which will further have a knock-on effect on other sectors of the economy.
In addition to restoring the dignity lost through submitting to consumptive handouts, it opens up a myriad of investment opportunities helping the communities to quickly take charge of their own lives. Food aid ignores that people’s lives are not only sustained by food alone but other basics such as health, education, clothing, debt repayment, transport and communication.
During food crisis families sell their assets in order to cater for these, which is where cash transfers become vital in cushioning them from selling their sources of livelihoods or exposing themselves to dangerous and risky coping methods.
In 2005, a cash transfer programme by World Food Programme (WFP) in tsunami affected Indonesia helped markets to recover which could have been disrupted by food aid.
In Zimbabwe, this model can give the farming communities the freedom to procure livestock, seeds, fertilisers and other farming implements thereby averting dependency.
Cash generally injects liquidity and stimulates local markets through cash transactions thereby promoting local retailers.
If food is procured from outside as is the case with food aid, none of the benefits will accrue to local economies, which explains why the US prefers to ship surplus food grown by its own farmers instead of providing money to Africa to buy from local markets. They simply want to promote their agriculture industry.
Not withstanding the strength and significance of food assistance, food aid is known to push people back into poverty abyss. Handing out food kills the motivation to be productive, while small scale farmers and retailers suffer as markets saturate with free food. The entire supply chain is affected from the farmers to wholesalers, banks, communication, to those selling food products including government service sectors such as health, education etc.
A once productive entrepreneur is turned into an aid beneficiary due to viability problems. A humanitarian crisis ensues transforming into a humanitarian market for food aid. Escaping from this trap is usually a colossal burden fraught with political manoeuvres.
It puzzles the mind that the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, the Banking Association of Zimbabwe, Commercial farmers’ Union and many others have not shown an interest in this seemingly candid industry but whose effect can erode economic potential.
Perhaps our business community needs to be reminded that the people they call customers are the people who become beneficiaries when they lose their productivity and capacity to pay for goods or services including the ability to sustain their livelihoods.
Food aid relieves unnecessary human suffering and offers them comfort in poverty.
l Tapiwa Gomo is a developmental consultant based in Pretoria, RSA