The Dismal Science

Food for Naught

Does sending food aid to struggling nations do more harm than good?

Foreign aid in Afghanistan.
America’s Afghan aid dilemma is far from unique

Photograph by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.

Shortly after President Obama announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan last June, government auditors released the latest in a series of reports describing the theft and diversion of billions of dollars in U.S. aid and contract payments. What’s worse, the report noted that some of the funds were trickling down into the hands of the Taliban and other insurgents. Aid that was meant to boost Afghan incomes and promote peace were being turned on U.S. forces themselves, and making it all the more likely that America’s good intentions would leave violence and conflict in their wake.

America’s Afghan aid dilemma, it turns out, is far from unique. In a study just released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian find that our well-meaning helping hand has often had the unintended consequence of aggravating conflict. Focusing on U.S. food aid windfalls that were triggered by bumper crops in the Midwest, they find that unexpected increases in wheat shipments increase civil conflicts in countries unlucky enough to be the beneficiaries of American assistance. The study provides ammunition to those who have been calling for a reform in how U.S. lends a helping hand to developing countries.

Why should grain shipments fan the flames of civil war? The authors describe the case of Biafra’s attempted secession from Nigeria in the late 1960s to highlight the various ways that war and hostilities can feed off the good intentions of humanitarian aid. To crush the rebels, the Nigerian government set siege to Biafra. The (deliberate) result was widespread starvation; as a Nigerian official famously stated in 1968 peace talks, “Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war, and we have every intention of using it against the rebels.” Biafra’s dire circumstances were ultimately broadcast to the world, generating an outpouring of donations and volunteers who came to the breakaway region’s assistance. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in the New Yorker in 2010, “the humanitarian-aid business as we know it today came into being” in Biafra.

But relief workers couldn’t get food or supplies through the Nigerian blockade without the help of Biafran rebel leader Odumegwu Ojukwu, who insisted that only his own planes could fly into and out of the area. He charged relief organizations dearly for the privilege, and filled any remaining space in the aid flights with weapons and other supplies. The airlifted food that gave some relief to Biafra’s starving masses also nourished Ojukwu’s army—the rebels were malnourished like everyone else and hence qualified for assistance. The Nigerians eventually wore down the Biafran rebellion, but many claim that it lasted for years longer than it would have in the absence of the international response that brought food, supplies, and funding to Biafra’s rebels.

Is the example of Biafra indicative of the effects of humanitarian aid more generally, or an exceptional case? There are certainly anecdotes from relief efforts in Afghanistan that suggests a similar dynamic may be operating there: In The Crisis Caravan, Dutch journalist Linda Polman cites a U.N. official who estimates that around a third of NGO food aid in Uruzgan province was channeled to the Taliban.

At the same time, there is also reason to believe that food aid can prevent conflict, instead of making it worse. After all, the whole point of food aid is to boost incomes especially during hard times: If empty stomachs foster discontent and unrest, then feeding the hungry will make them less likely to do things like attack one another for food, or join rebel armies to fight in civil wars.  

Answering the question of whether aid encourages or inhibits conflict presents an analytical conundrum because aid—food or otherwise—is sent deliberately to communities that need it most. These tend to be places that are dysfunctional to begin with, where quite possibly there’s a civil war brewing already. Aid may also be sent to places of strategic interest to America—like Afghanistan—where our interests stem in part from the region’s vulnerability to conflict. So just as it would be crazy to conclude that American food aid to South Vietnam (of which there was plenty) caused the Vietnam War, it’s hard to know how much of a role U.S. assistance has had in prolonging conflict in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

This is one reason the authors focus on U.S. food aid: Because it flows to poor countries primarily through the Food for Peace Program, which operates somewhat independently of global need. From year to year, the food aid disbursed through the program is governed by and large by U.S. production, as the USDA stores surpluses to stabilize prices for American farmers then ships them the next year to needy populations around the world.

This American aid is thus dictated at least in part by the needs of farmers in Kansas, rather than the starving masses of Somalia or Afghanistan, which allows Nunn and Qian to identify a stream of food aid that is unrelated to circumstances in recipient countries. Instead of looking at actual aid, Nunn and Qian use the year-to-year harvests of U.S. wheat farmers to reflect the component of aid that’s caused by weather conditions in Kansas rather than turmoil or drought in the developing world. They then assess whether these somewhat random shocks to food shipments are associated with the ups and downs of conflict in traditional aid destinations.

The authors find a surprisingly large impact from this “random” foreign assistance on conflict. They estimate that a 10 percent increase in wheat shipments—well within the range that could result from a good harvest for American farmers –translates into a 6 percent increase of civil conflict for frequent aid recipients like Haiti or Honduras. More food aid makes it both more likely that conflict starts and also extends rebellions in progress, as was likely the case in Biafra. Yet in assessing the costs and benefits of humanitarian aid, it’s worth accounting for even moderately large increases like this, given the high cost of prolonged conflict.

Finding that there’s a downside to humanitarian aid doesn’t mean that we should turn off the spigot completely—food aid may contribute to conflict, but it also saves lives.  These findings do suggest that programs which promote accountability—like the Bush-era Millennium Challenge Corporation, which hands out U.S. assistance to countries based on their performance on governance and accountability indicators—may have their merits, even if it shifts assistance away from some of the neediest cases. The findings may also support allocating more aid to longer-term investments in economic and agricultural development—such as Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative—rather than crisis response. And it also argues for encouraging experimentation with smaller-scale local innovations that may be scaled after evidence of effectiveness, instead of sending shiploads of food. (Aid that takes the form of training and investment has been much-disparaged in recent years, with some arguing that we can best help poor countries by leaving them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But as Stephen Colbert suggested in response to one such aid critic, if we’re going to do that maybe we should start by sending them some bootstraps.)

The unintended consequences of aid produce a tradeoff that’s difficult to confront, weighing the suffering of famine and crisis-stricken communities against the potential of aid to further worsen their circumstances. Yet if we in the first world aspire to do more than celebrate our own virtue by shipping surplus wheat to impoverished nations, we need to engage in exactly this sort of painful calculus, equipped with a fuller understanding of how we’re affecting those on the receiving end of our good intentions.