Foreign Policy magazine looks at a new study from a pair of Harvard scholars that concludes that the more food aid we send to troubled countries, the more violence in those countries increases — largely as a result of trying, successfully, to steal the food.
Looking at a sample of developing countries between 1972 and 2006, economists Nancy Qian of Yale University and Nathan Nunn of Harvard University found a direct correlation between U.S. food aid and civil conflict. For every 10 percent increase in the amount of food aid delivered, they discovered, the likelihood of violent civil conflict rises by 1.14 percentage points.
The results confirm anecdotal reports that food aid during conflicts is often stolen by armed groups, essentially making international donors part of the rebel logistics effort. According to some estimates, as much as 80 percent of the food aid shipments to Somalia in the early 1990s was looted or stolen. In her book The Crisis Caravan, journalist Linda Polman reported how Hutu rebels who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide appropriated aid given out in refugee camps in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, further fueling conflict in the region. Polman also estimated that Nigeria’s 1967-1970 Biafran war — one of the first African humanitarian crises to get global media attention — may have lasted 12 to 16 months longer than it otherwise would have because of the international aid seized by rebel groups.
More recently, during the war in Afghanistan, there have been widespread reports of everything from Pop-Tarts to staple goods being resold at local markets. Even more worryingly, up to one-third of the aid to Uruzgan province has reportedly fallen into Taliban hands.
I think this highlights a serious problem that we have in trying to help those in some of the worst conflicts in the world. Foreign aid very often just props up brutal and dictatorial regimes and helps the elites in those countries far more than it does the people who really need it. The only way to avoid that is to replace those regimes or take out the warlords, but that’s not a serious solution; we can’t afford it and shouldn’t do it even if we could. But do we just stand by and let people get slaughtered and starve? I’d love to hear a serious discussion of this problem by political leaders, but we’re certainly not likely to get one.