The Food Aid Debate is a Distraction

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Since the global food price spikes of 2008-09 and the widespread riots that ensued, the world has begun to pay more attention to food security. The link between food and security is no longer in question.

There's been a lot of debate recently in the U.S. about food aid reform, especially since the U.S. Government proposed a shift toward more cash programs and increased local and regional purchases of food close to where it is needed. But what's lost in the lively discussion is a sense of long-term focus.

While emergency intervention is all too often necessary, focusing on building capacity and resilience at the farm level actually gives a chance to address the root causes of food insecurity. Granted, this kind of market development work is difficult. It requires coaxing everyone from smallholder farmers to government and financial officials to input suppliers to change their behavior. It can't be done quickly and capacity building gets less media attention than food aid, which often unfolds as compelling drama.

But building the capacity of smallholders and strengthening markets to sustain them is pivotal and sustainable, and can render food aid unnecessary in many, if not most, cases. We never read about the food crisis that doesn't happen.

Recent debates on food aid remind me of two illuminating visits to the Horn of Africa. One was to Ethiopia about 10 years ago in the midst of a punishing drought. The EU had recently moved to an all-cash program to allow for local purchases of emergency food aid and had been bemoaning the continued American reliance on shipping in U.S. commodities in crisis situations. However, in the midst of that famine, there was NO local food to purchase, either locally or even in nearby Uganda or Kenya. Externally sourced food aid was needed – in fact, it was the only option available. When the U.S. ships docked and unloaded white bags of food marked "from the American people" – it wasn't rejected, it was acknowledged as lifesaving and very welcome.

Fast forward to 2011. I found myself in East Africa again. Another big drought had hit the Horn, and the aid and development community was bracing itself for the worst. But the drought didn't create famine in Ethiopia that year, nor in Kenya. When the crisis hit, rural economies were able to respond, and food moved from surplus areas to food-deficit areas. Drought-resistant seed and climate-smart farming techniques had helped smallholder farmers build resilience.

Well-conceived 21st century food aid programs had helped create market systems that worked. Not for all though as, tragically, the drought still caused hunger. But in Ethiopia and Kenya, conditions that year didn't spiral out of control as they had before. In contrast, in Somalia, where a dysfunctional government had prevented agriculture and development initiatives, the famine killed more than 250,000 Somalis, half of them children.

What did it take to build such resilience in Kenya and Ethiopia? It took government policymakers buying into the best practices outlined in the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Plan and allowing private sector incentive-driven market development. It took 10 years of donor-supported strengthening of farmer and industry groups to make them able to articulate demands for services and accountability and to train their members in improved cultivation, handling, storage and marketing techniques. It took industry partners like telecommunications firms devising cellphone-based market information systems, and fertilizer and seed companies cooperating to distribute for sale smaller-sized bags of inputs. It took improved relationships with traders and truckers who linked smallholder farmer groups to mills that were willing to pay for improved volumes and quality product. It was difficult, but lasting, holistic market development work.

There is no reason to have to choose between food aid and deliberate long-term agricultural development – we need them both. We will likely, unfortunately, always have urgent crises that require food aid. Having all tools available – more cash, increased local and regional purchases as well as donor country-sourced food aid – will enable smart and successful emergency interventions.

One reason food aid debates can be contentious are the implications for the agriculture sector in the donor country. But U.S. agriculture, a strong supporter of food related relief to peoples around the world, need not be wary of long-term development strategies. In fact, there's good data that international agricultural development helps our domestic agriculture. For an example, one need look no further than sub-Saharan Africa's rising incomes and growing urbanization and how that has spiked demand for U.S. soy for their budding animal feed industries. These growing economies are America's growing food export markets.

I'm impatient with the tedious debate on emergency food aid reform. We'll always have another food crisis, and responding effectively will save lives. But the much more serious job, the most important and too often out-of-the-headlines job, is building the ability of those small African farmers to produce nutritious food in a sustained manner – so that when the next drought hits, and we know that it will, they don't become the next food aid emergency.

Paul Guenette is senior vice-president of ACDI/VOCA. This blog first appeared on the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network.