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Today I Ate Food Aid Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Chad Hamre, Canada Feb 6, 2007
Environment , Human Rights , Technology   Short Stories
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Yesterday after a hard morning's work plowing my field, I came home hungry to a house with no food. I hadn't planned well and did not stock pile for the week's end. I rummaged high and low but all I could find were a few small pieces of cassava root which I optimistically roasted, hoping to end my hunger and rejuvenate my energy.

I could always buy food, but it was Sunday and I didn't feel like making the long walk to the market (1hour) to buy rice or maize, so I decided to tough-it-out until evening and hope my roommate Monde would bring some fresh fish for dinner.

I then sat under a tree, and with a few pesky but lovable kids poking at me for attention, tried to distract myself from hunger by reading. The previous weekend I had started Nelson Mandela's autobiography, and thus far I was enjoying it VERY much.

After a few chapters and to my delight, my kind neighbour, Bo Nyambe, brought over a steaming bowl of 'something' - something that I had yet to encounter after 6 months in Zambia. The fact that she brought it over without me asking or knowing that I was without food, is typical of the generosity and kindness of the people in my village. Imagine living among those who are statistically the world's worst-off in terms of access to health care, opportunities for education, and security of food, but here they are, quite regularly and selflessly sharing with me, a white, rich visitor from a distant land.

I shoveled large spoonfuls of this new food into my mouth and then asked "kingi ki ye?" What is it? Bulgur wheat I was told, bulgur wheat from World Vision! WHHHAT - I almost spat my food out as I gasped in shock?! There I was, an Engineers Without Borders Volunteer, eating official World Vision relief food - ironic. While I hadn't stood in line at the school waiting to hear my name called, I none the less had questions of ethics bouncing in my head. I couldn't help but laugh, but food aid and the need for it are far from funny issues.

The reason boatloads of food aid have been chugging up the Zambezi River to Western Province is water. Not floods from too much local rain (the Government's Meteorological Report shows below average rain fall this season) but rather from floods caused by surging rivers fueled by rain that has fallen in the DRC and Angola. The river by my village has gone up 15 feet in two weeks - a foot a day! I had been warned of the floods, but never believed, as such a dramatic change is difficult to imagine.

Anyhow, below average rain fall and extreme flooding are not a good combination. It means the maize has been stunted by water deprivation, and that before any harvest at all, the field can become completely inundated overnight. This sounds like a tall tale, but when I take my small canoe to work each day, I look down and see the tops of maize plants (7 feet tall), three feet under water! It's shocking.

So what's the logical solution to this problem? Food Aid, Food Aid, Rah Rah Rah! Well, not really, but many an organisation and many a government believe so. Today roughly 20,000kg of maize and bulgur wheat were sent up the river, and the same will follow tomorrow. Once it arrives in Kalabo, it is distributed through a fascinating ad-hoc private sector delivery service, where anybody with a boat or an ox-cart can receive one 50kg bag as payment for transporting ten bags to distant villages. This quickly gets the food to the places hit hardest. Globally 4 million tonnes of food aid are distributed annually, with Canada contributing just under 10% and the US approximately 60% of it all.

The case for food aid is strong; people are starving and they need help immediately. It's inhumane to let people suffer when there is a global food surplus. Additionally it makes donors feel good to hand out big bags of food to skinny starving people - it looks great in the press and slogans like "from the American people" printed neatly on the bags helps for recognition...

I believe though, that food aid is NOT the solution, and should not be considered official development assistance. I think of development as a process of lasting positive change and food aid does not qualify. In Zambia, I've seen it distort local markets, create dependency and completely glaze over the root causes of the problem. Food aid is self-perpetuating; it makes people slow in finding their own solutions to their food security problems; food aid creates more food aid. The real solution is simple and is demonstrated well by my neighbour and good friend Bo Ndate Scana.

Bo Ndate Scana, grows maize, rice, cassava, sorghum, millet and vegetables, he catches fish, gathers fruits, rears chickens and milks one cow - his livelihoods are certainly diversified. Between all of these different sources of food and income, he'll be fine through any particular weather disaster. If his maize floods, his rice will flourish, if his chickens die, the fish will bite, and under all conditions, the resilient and amazing cassava root will always bear good yields and feed his family well.

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Great Topic
Kirsten Jordan | Mar 25th, 2007
My friend Laura would totally agree with you on how food aid is not the solution to the development problem as it creates dependency; it may be a short-term solution, but not a long term one. She came back from a year in Malawi and like you is not a big fan of food aid for the very reasons that you mentioned. She believes that there should be sustainable development rather than the dependency. Her and I both know that the ultimate solution is to create a world where people can support themselves. This is as true in Canada as there too!

Parker | Jul 3rd, 2007
wow, i never really thought about the food aid program in that light. but it makes sense.... thanks for sharing!

Mariel GM | Jul 12th, 2008
I agree with you and with the comments above - food aid is not the solution. Moreover, I consider that food aid has gained popularity because it is an easy solution - "Spare a dollar and feed 324345 people in a deprived village in Africa". I hope one day food aid is used only for immediate solutions, and that we can see more works aimed at real development. Thanks for sharing this. Eating aid food must have been quite the experience.

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