CARE president Helene Gayle says Eric Werker is aiming at the wrong target in his critique of foreign aid.
Eric Werker ("Power to the People," November/December 2008) accuses aid agencies of adopting a paternalistic approach that includes "dumping" imported food in poor countries. He is firing at the wrong target. In fact, a number of humanitarian organizations object to this very practice. CARE, for example, decided to abandon certain food-aid strategies because they were doing more harm than good. What Werker should demand is a change in government policy. That’s what we're working for.
Eric Werker ("Power to the People," November/December 2008) accuses aid agencies of adopting a paternalistic approach that includes "dumping" imported food in poor countries. He is firing at the wrong target. In fact, a number of humanitarian organizations object to this very practice. CARE, for example, decided to abandon certain food-aid strategies because they were doing more harm than good. What Werker should demand is a change in government policy. That’s what we’re working for.
By law, most U.S. food aid to poor countries must be in the form of U.S.-grown food that’s shipped overseas on U.S.-flagged carriers and then directly distributed or sold to generate funds for other development work. Approximately 65 percent of the expense goes toward transportation and administration. This outdated and inefficient system is more beneficial to agribusiness and the shipping industry than to the poor — or to the American taxpayer.
The generosity of the U.S. government and its citizens would be far better served if more food aid came in the form of cash. That would give humanitarian agencies the flexibility to respond in the most efficient and appropriate way to each situation.
Sometimes the best way to help involves buying food supplies locally or regionally, which stimulates production within developing countries. Werker favors vouchers that poor people can exchange for whatever assistance they need most. Vouchers can be a powerful tool, one that CARE uses whenever possible and appropriate. But we can’t make them materialize from nothing.
There is no magic bullet to solve the global food crisis. Werker is right that the aid system badly needs reform, but he should send that message where it might make a difference — to Washington.
— Helene D. Gayle
President and CEO
Eric Werker replies:
I agree quite strongly with a number of Helene Gayle’s points, and I commend CARE for abandoning the monetized food aid it could receive from the U.S. government.
Gayle suggests I demand a change in government policy. That is exactly my intention. To put humanitarian-aid decisions in the hands of those who are most affected, we cannot rely on the goodwill and coordination of hundreds of nonprofit actors. Instead, we must establish systems that give incentives to humanitarian agencies to serve their beneficiaries first and foremost, not their benefactors. And the only "we" capable of putting those complex systems in place are governments and multilateral organizations.
Granting humanitarian agencies cash instead of food aid would certainly afford them more flexibility to meet the needs of crisis victims. But why stop there? Many aid workers advocate giving cash directly to the victims, rather than whatever else the agency might provide. My proposal for vouchers — an intermediate solution, really — takes seriously the notion that humanitarian organizations have an active role to play in supplying solutions that might not otherwise be provided through markets alone.
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.