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August 18, 2007

The Bush Administration Actually Is Trying To Do The Right Thing

A wee piece I did for Mother Jones on the complex and bizarre American system of providing international food aid is now online. It turned out to be a far more interesting subject than I'd anticipated, and I wish I'd had more space to describe how everything works. The weirdest part of all is the Bush administration is actually trying to change U.S. policy for the better.

Posted at August 18, 2007 06:49 PM | TrackBack

Fits in. Cash is easier to dispose off to the RIGHT people or just promised and NEVER paid at all. (it happens)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at August 18, 2007 10:59 PM

Neat article!

(Nice to know Tom Lantos never disappoints. Ever the asshole.)

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 19, 2007 12:25 AM

I could be wrong, but I got the impression that even when governments (including the Europeans) give cash (for food or any other form of aid/assistance), it almost always comes with some sort of strings attached. They might give cash but require that a large part or the whole amount is spent inside their country.

Still, I suppose cash is better: at least the NGOs will be able to buy what they need, to negotiate the price, to schedule deliveries in a rational way. More flexible.

Posted by: abb1 at August 19, 2007 04:57 AM

...and I suppose the fact that with cash payments the NGOs would be able to negotiate the price is exactly the reason the ADM and Mr. Lantos don't like it. As it stands now, the ADM only has to buy Mr. Lantos - but they have to buy him anyway for other services; they're buying him in bulk. With the cash system they'll have to give kick-backs to various NGOs separately, and Mr. Lantos might get less too. Not good.

Posted by: abb1 at August 19, 2007 05:13 AM

Jonathan, thank you for an excellent article. I wonder if I could ask you to clarify something about the NGO's positions. You say that "Turns out that when food shipments finally get to where they're needed, they're often given to NGOs, which turn around and sell them to raise money," with the clear implication that this is unethical. What rationales do the NGOs give for this, and do you find those rationales reasonable? This practice may not be unethical of the NGOs, given the way the U.S. government has structured the aid. In the past, providing free food has often driven local food producers out of business, thus making recovery from famine harder. So selling the food at pre-famine market value may be more helpful than giving it away, particularly if the NGO then uses the profits for other programs. I don't know a lot about this particular issue, but in the field of family planning, a decent case has been made that selling contraceptives at below-market prices has better effects than simply giving them away. Of course, none of this explains why an ethical NGO would oppose changing the aid from direct food shipments to cash grants---in fact, it argues in the opposite direction, since cash grants could be used to make local purchases to bolster local food production---but it explains why an ethical NGO might sell the food under current U.S. government policies.

Did you find any articles or books that you found particularly insightful when researching this? I'm curious about your response to the above, if you have time, but what I need even more is to read up on this on my own.

Posted by: Autumn Harvest at August 19, 2007 12:09 PM

This topic brings on another pang of longing and regret for Jeanne's posts at Body and Soul. I hope she sees your MoJo article, as she was one of the very few people in the blog world to address the subject.

The Body and Soul archives being inaccessible other than very partially through the Wayback Machine makes it tedious to support that with an interesting link, but if I turn up one I'll post it here.

Jeanne having gone silent was and is sad for her readers, but I have no criticisms. Taking the archives offline is something else again, a regrettable step backwards. I'd hope that prolific writers who leave the field would at least make their archive available to the Wayback Machine.

Posted by: Nell at August 19, 2007 02:07 PM

just as counterintuitively, I'd like to discourage people from linking to this item. now normally, I sing the praises of ATR on a never-ending basis, sometimes even waking the neighbors and getting strange looks at the store.

But if a lot of people link here, the chances that someone will tell the Bushies that they're trying to do the right thing will only increase, and I don't think I have to tell you how that will play out.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at August 22, 2007 02:53 AM