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CRS in Foreign Policy Magazine: Food Aid Does a Great Deal of Good

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Catholic Relief Services joined in a recent debate in Foreign Policy magazine on the efficacy of U.S. food aid that assists poor people around the world. CRS distributes more food aid in our global programs than any other private humanitarian agency. Bill O’Keefe, CRS’ vice president for advocacy, takes issue with an earlier article that dismissed food aid as an inefficient way to feed the poor overseas.

Charles Kenny (“Haiti Doesn’t Need Your Old T-Shirt,” November 2011) is right when he criticizes sending unneeded items to those caught up by disasters or poverty in the developing world. Humanitarian agencies like mine — Catholic Relief Services (CRS) — all have tales of receiving goods from well-meaning people who do not understand that even if the items were needed (which they rarely are), the cost and logistics involved in shipping them exceed their intrinsic value.

Kenny goes too far, however, in dismissing the entire U.S. food aid program. Certainly if we started today from scratch, we would not design the program exactly as we find it, but U.S. food aid does do a great deal of good. Right now it is helping millions of people in drought-stricken East Africa. In Zimbabwe, it is feeding more than a million people caught up in political dysfunction. It is feeding people in Darfur, in many countries in West Africa — indeed all over the world.

Is giving cash always better, as Kenny maintains? No. It can be, but there are times and places where markets do not function or cannot provide sufficient nutrition. At CRS, we monitor markets to ensure that food and other aid is not damaging local commerce. We sponsor voucher distributions, seed fairs, and local food purchases to stimulate markets. We work with local farmers to get their food to buyers in order to help them escape poverty as they contribute to the local economy. In other words, we recognize and appreciate the market’s power. Our work takes into account the direction of Kenny’s criticisms.

A half-century ago, CRS conducted clothing drives. We don’t do that anymore. Changes in the world economy mean that donated clothing is rarely if ever needed. Maybe one day the same will be true of food. Sadly, that day has not arrived.