Category: Foreign Policy

“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” Takes on Food Aid

Last Tuesday, my Cornell colleague, coauthor, and former advisor Chris Barrett was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart discussing food aid. The video segment in which he appeared managed to make a very serious point — the effectiveness of the Food for Peace program is greatly undermined by the shipping lobby — while remaining highly satirical, and you can watch it here:

According to an interview Chris gave to the Cornell Daily Sun, the taping of his part of the segment took about four hours.

For those of you who are not familiar with his work, Chris has worked on just about every aspect of food security, and I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint what he is most famous for. The above video, however, is about his work on food aid, the culmination of which has been his 2005 book with Dan Maxwell, Food Aid After Fifty Years.

For a more popular treatment of the weaknesses of US food aid because of the political economy landscape, I suggest reading Kilman and Thurow’s Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.

Getting Food Aid Right

How many of us read a story of disaster striking people half a world away and respond by getting out our checkbooks?  Tens of millions of us in any given year, and Americans are especially generous. Relief agencies received more than $1.2 billion in the wake of the disastrous 2010 earthquake in Haiti and $3.9 billion following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  But is anyone foolish enough to go to the local grocery store, buy food and ship it to communities devastated by disaster? Of course not. That would cost much more, take too long to reach people in need, risk spoilage in transit, and likely not provide what is most needed.

Yet with only minor oversimplification, this is precisely what our government’s food aid programs have done since 1954. Our main international food aid programs are authorized through the Farm Bill and must purchase food in, and ship it from, the United States. This system was originally designed to dispose of surpluses the government acquired under farm price support programs that ended decades ago.  These antiquated rules continue today thanks to political inertia in Washington.

As a result, only 40 cents of each taxpayer dollar spent on international food aid actually buys the commodities hungry people eat; the rest goes to shipping and administrative costs. And the median time to deliver emergency food aid is nearly five months. We can do better.

From a longer piece by my friend and frequent coauthor Chris Barrett on CNN’s Global Public Square blog. Chris is also the author with Dan Maxwell of what is without a doubt the best book anyone can read on food aid.

Reform Food Aid

From an editorial in last Sunday’s New York Times:

Food aid is one of the most important tools of American foreign policy. Since the mid-1950s, the United States has spent nearly $2 billion annually to feed the world’s poor, saving millions of lives. But the process is so rigid and outdated that many more people who could be helped still go hungry. Reforms proposed by President Obama will go a long way toward fixing that problem and should be promptly enacted by Congress. Continue reading

On the DFAIT–CIDA Merger


As part of its 2013 budget, the Harper government has decided to fold the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).

It is not uncommon for a developed country to have its development agency depend directly on its ministry of foreign affairs. In the United States, for example, the US Agency for International Development depends on the State Department. In France, the Agence française de développement depends on the Quai d’Orsay.


Many in Canada were up in arms about the DFAIT–CIDA merger. I suspect that reactions would have been very different had this merger taken place under a different (i.e., not Conservative) government: the Zeitgeist in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia is that nothing the Harper government does is ever right. (This isn’t to say I support the Harper government; those who know me well also know that I have spent two summers working for a Liberal cabinet minister when I was in college.)

I was given the chance to express my view on the merger in a Toronto Star article by Rick Westhead:

“We wish foreign aid was altruistic, but it’s always been an expression of foreign policy,” said David Morley, president of UNICEF’s Canadian operations. “Sometimes you felt the two (CIDA and Foreign Affairs) were going off into different worlds. This could be good, getting the aid portfolio closer to power.”

“Canada doesn’t do aid out of generosity or good nature,” said Marc Bellemare, a Quebec native and assistant economics professor at Duke University who studies development assistance. “Aid has always been tied to foreign policy. This is more transparent. At least we’re being more open about what it is.”

The story features the views of many other people, who have much smarter things to say than I do about the whole thing. Owen Barder, for example, notes that having development assistance and international trade be part of the same organization may well help Canada have a more consistent stance toward developing-country agriculture, given that most agricultural imports to Canada are slapped with a 19 percent tariff.

Owen also had an op-ed on the topic in The Globe and Mail in which he argues that Canadian development is more than just CIDA.

Resources on the Conflict in Mali

I have been taken by my research and teaching on food policy issues so far this year, so I haven’t had a chance to write anything about the conflict in Mali, where I have done some work which was cut tragically short by the March 2012 coup d’état.

The Center for African Studies at UC Berkeley, however, has a very nice collection of resources on the current conflict in Mali, which seems to be updated very frequently and which you can find here.

It includes everything from recent scholarship on Mali (including a link to my colleague Bruce Hall‘s most recent book, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960), Wikipedia pages, fact sheets, congressional hearings, blogs, media and journalism, background, statistics, as well as how to help.

Two sources which the above does not include and which are my personal favorites on the current conflict in Mali, however, are Tommy Miles‘ and Alex Thurston‘s Twitter feeds. Alex also has a blog called Sahel Blog. And in terms of scholarly research, Notre Dame’s Jaimie Bleck, a fellow Cornell alum, is doing really cool work on Malian politics.