Afghanistan: Against the grain

News and Press Release
Originally published
UN wheat handouts are not only undermining the cereal market for Afghan farmers. They encourage the cultivation of lucrative opium poppies too, writes Dominic Nutt.
It's not often you'll hear an aid agency call for the United Nations to stop handing out food to those in need. But in western Afghanistan, free UN wheat is flooding the market, destroying livelihoods and, arguably, encouraging opium production.

That is not to say that for a time these wheat handouts weren't needed. They were essential. Until last year, much of western Afghanistan and other areas of the country were gripped by severe drought and, in places, near famine. Up until 2002, UN wheat saved many lives.

The end of the drought coincided with the start of the US-led war on terror and the defeat of the Taliban regime opened the floodgates to returning Afghan refugees who had fled two decades of war to Iran and Pakistan.

Millions came back to a decaying country degraded by decades of conflict and years of drought, and which could not hope to provide jobs, houses or food for them all. It was essential that wheat be distributed, on a large scale, to anyone and everyone in need.

Now, two years later, the UN's World Food Programme is planning to target its distribution of wheat to six million people. But this time, surprisingly, handing out food on such a wide scale is not the answer - it will only make matters worse.

It is like keeping a patient in an intensive care bed long after an accident, when in reality they are ready to get up and begin physiotherapy. Afghanistan is at the point when it can - with help and support - begin to stand on its own two feet.

This growing season's rains have been excellent and all is set for a bumper wheat crop over the next few weeks. But the price Afghan farmers can now command for their wheat has tumbled, and this is in part because of the continued UN handouts. Why buy produce from local farmers when you can get it for free?

In the western province of Herat, wheat is selling for less 7p per kilogram (3p per lb). That is already an all time low, and when this year's crop is harvested in the coming weeks, the price is likely to drop further.

According to Christian Aid staff based in western Afghanistan and our local partner organisations, in some areas wheat is ripening in the fields and is left unharvested because farmers cannot afford to pay their labourers to pick their crop.

Yet in other parts of the country, people still need food.

At the same time, the lucrative cultivation of poppies for heroin production is proving ever more appealing to farmers who would normally grow wheat.

It is no coincidence that UN workers in the northern province of Faryab have noticed the greatest poppy cultivation in areas where they have been making most of their food deliveries.

To make matters worse, efforts at poppy eradication have been uncoordinated and ineffectual, while some local governors and warlords are widely implicated in the industry. The UN office on drugs and crime has announced that opium production had increased by 1,600 per cent in 2002, and cultivation is likely to rise further before it falls.

The UN rightly points out that, even without wheat handouts, the huge profit margins are incentive enough for Afghan farmers to switch to poppy cultivation. Susana Rico, the director of the world food programme for Afghanistan, said: 'Even taking the average prices and yield of wheat and poppy, the returns to a hectare of land for the latter far outweigh that of wheat, by approximately 4,000 per cent.'

Given this, and the fact that the fear of punishment by the Taliban for opium production has been removed, it was always to be expected that some would turn to poppies. But with the wheat market undermined, even more farmers will be encouraged to move in the same direction.

One obvious solution would be for the UN to buy wheat locally where the harvests are good and the market flooded, and distribute this excess to those communities still in need. This would boost the price, making it profitable for farmers to grown grain again.

But UN bosses in Kabul have ruled this out for the time being, preferring instead to accept the free wheat provided by the international community.

Of course it is a nightmare trying to plan and operate a programme on this scale in a country as problematic and dangerous as Afghanistan. Once the wheat has been loaded and allocated to a region, then it is hard to change plans and redirect it to another, more needy region.

But the UN's one-size-fits-all approach to a country the size of France is simply inadequate and is doing real damage to the people of Afghanistan it is meant to help. It is time for a radical re-think.