Myths on hunger debunked:

An increase of food aid would eradicate hunger


Myth 4: An increase in food aid would eradicate hunger


Food aid can save human lives in extreme emergency situations (war, drought, earthquake, cyclone, etc.). But it is extremely costly and tends to deter local production when it is used in cases where it is not absolutely required.

A study showed that each dollar of food aid distributed costs 2.13 dollars to the US budget, because of the existing quasi-monopoly for the provision and transport of food, and the use of inefficient means for local transport and distribution. Furthermore, at least five months are required to deliver US food aid to the location where it is distributed.

Despite the cost and inefficiency of food aid, it attracts more financial resources than agricultural development assistance. For example, in 2002, OECD countries  allocated 4.8% of their official development assistance to finance food aid, compared to 4.7% for agricultural development assistance (OECD/DAC statistics). At approximately the same time, the European Commission used 5.5% of its official development assistance to support the development of agriculture, forests and fisheries, while 7.3% were allocated to food aid.

Over the years, food aid has become an institutionalised system which allows industrialised countries to subsidise their agriculture without breaking WTO rules and to compete unfairly with producers in non-industrialised countries that are not in an emergency situation. Through their PL480 law, for example, the US have thus been able to distribute 350 million tonnes of food over 50 years, although quantities have been progressively decreasing over the years.

Food aid serves better the purpose of the countries that provide it than those who benefit from it: it allows governments to offer support to producers in providing countries that is not taken into account in the estimates of support provided made in the framework of the WTO.

Food aid has also been often used for geopolitical purposes. For example, the US has been accused of using food aid to bring down the Ethiopian government during the 80s.

Locally, food aid contributes to undermining weak local commercial networks and reducing demand and prices in local markets. It may induce a tendency to dependency and changes in food habits that may contribute to the penetration of local markets by imported products (e.g. wheat flour in tropical countries) which cannot be grown locally.

It can also be diverted to the benefit of local elites that may re-sell products brought in by food aid agencies. In some cases, it has also been used to feed the army or its distribution was restricted to areas that were favourable to the government in place, to the detriment of those supporting the opposition (as in Zimbabwe for example).

Finally, food aid may have a negative impact on the support that governments give to agricultural development. This was well illustrated in the Ugandan Prime Minister’s opening speech to the first meeting of the Ministers of Agriculture of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in November 2002, where he explained that certain decision makers believe that they will always benefit from emergency support in case of a food crisis and that it is therefore in their interest to use the money they have at their disposal to invest in sectors other than agriculture.

To conclude, it is possible to say that food aid is certainly useful, but it must be used only in cases where food availability is the problem. In addition, its management should be carefully monitored and checked to avoid any misappropriation. But in all cases, food aid does not constitute a solution to hunger as it does not try to address the root causes of chronic food insecurity but only caters for emergency situations.

Materne Maetz

(September 2012)


Last update:    September 2013

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