No more CARE packages

By Kevin Clarke| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Social Justice
Instead of dumping grain in poverty-stricken regions, we should be investing cash.

Bags of wheat or rice, stamped "U.S.A." and pitched onto a dockyard or piled to an impressive height on a warehouse pallet is among the imagery that typically accompanies hunger emergencies in the developing world. For decades the accepted response to such crises has inevitably included massive shipments of the four horsemen of U.S. agricultural might: soy, wheat, rice, or corn. Most Americans are proud of this evidence of U.S. generosity and international concern, and see such relief efforts as good Samaritanism on a giant scale.

One tendency among those uncomfortably afflicted by Catholic social teaching is to cast a colder eye on charity-based direct service like food aid and ask-even as we respond to social needs like hunger, homelessness, or any of the other wretched companions of global poverty-how such terrible anomalies arise in the first place. How in a world of affluence and excess, in a world awash in food, can 16,000 children still succumb to starvation each day? How can the so-called developed world move beyond merely responding to hunger disasters to preventing hunger in the first place?

Such a vast examination of conscience is never easy. It requires that old assumptions be challenged and may make new, disquieting demands on institutional, cultural, and economic privileges that have come to be perceived as simply a "normal" part of the human condition.

One old hand at disaster response has reviewed its hunger relief policies in this manner and come to a startling conclusion. CARE International has decided that some of its efforts to mitigate global hunger have only had the net effect of promoting long-term hunger among the most vulnerable people in the world and so will no longer participate in a major U.S. food aid program, phasing it out completely by 2009 and turning down approximately $45 million in U.S. foodstuffs.

According to the somewhat convoluted dictates of this program, the federal government buys crops from American farmers, ships them abroad using mostly U.S. carriers, and hands the commodity largesse off to charitable agencies such as CARE. The charities in turn sell the crops overseas and use the proceeds to finance their antipoverty programs.

CARE officials watched in growing dismay as this $180 million annual effort helped drain U.S. commodity surpluses while it drove small farmers in the developing world-whose own meager crops could not compete with the subsidized shipments-into the food handout queues organized by groups such as CARE. CARE rightly began to believe that this unfortunate cycle should be interrupted.

In this institutional self-examination CARE has been joined by food experts at Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children. Though they have not gone as far as CARE in explicitly turning down new commodity donations, policy analysts at these worthy organizations have likewise begun to ask who benefits most from the structure of this anti-hunger effort: the producers and processors of America's vast commodity surpluses or the starving and poor these relief organizations have pledged to serve? They ask essentially a simple question: Is there a better way to do this?

President Bush appears to be wondering that himself. In his efforts to turn the legislative Titanic known as the U.S. Farm Bill somewhere in the general direction of reform, he proposes that $300 million be diverted from traditional farm-subsidy programs and disbursed directly to governments and relief organizations abroad to buy food from local farmers.

CARE plans to begin to do the same as it launches a fundraising campaign aimed at replacing the millions it has forfeited in federal food aid with donations. Those will in turn be used to buy and distribute food resources locally, which helps shore up the economies of the developing communities it serves and sharply curtails its shipping costs and the environmental collateral damage engendered by such long-distance food redistribution schemes while still providing food to those in need.

Just some food for thought as we all ponder how to find some direction to a place where charity ends and justice-and common good sense-begins.