Humanitarian workers are stopped at roadblocks and forced to give up vital food aid as a “tax” for safe passage.
Aid vehicles are commandeered by armed factions, sold or used in battle. Supplies stolen from refugee camps buy weapons for rebel armies.
Few would argue that humanitarian aid has done much to alleviate suffering. But foreign aid, and food aid in particular, has also been criticized for inadvertently promoting conflict.
A new study from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research argues that the issue represents a systemic problem.
Specifically, “an increase in U.S. food aid increases the incidence, onset and duration of civil conflicts in recipient countries,” write economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Nancy Qian of Yale University.
In a previous study, Profs. Qian and Nunn found that the flow of United States food aid tends to increase because of surpluses in American markets, rather than any inherent need in recipient countries. Through a price support program for American farmers, the U.S. government purchases surplus wheat, then ships it to needy countries as part of its massive food support program.
Nunn and Qian set out to determine whether those surplus shipments of wheat had a consistent effect on armed conflicts in developing countries. Controlling for a variety of factors including shifts in U.S. foreign policy over time, they compared 35 years of data on aid from the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization with statistics on war from the Armed Conflict Dataset at Sweden’s Uppsala University.
Their finding: following high production years in the U.S., regular recipients of aid experienced a jump in both the onset and duration of violent conflict within their borders.
Indeed, an increase in U.S. food aid of 1,000 tonnes boosted the incidence of civil conflict by 0.38 percentage points. The same shipment also decreased the probability of an existing civil war ending in a single year by between 0.48 and 0.61 percentage points.
In other words, if a country is already experiencing conflict, the extra wheat shipped by the U.S. in response to a bumper crop makes it more likely the conflict will continue, said Qian.
“And if there isn’t already a conflict, the U.S. production shock makes it more likely a new conflict will begin,” she added.
The effect was most pronounced in cases of small-scale civil conflicts involving governments. Aid made little difference to inter-state wars and large conflicts involving more than 1000 combat deaths a year.
Interestingly, countries with limited road networks tended to fare the worst, supporting accounts from aid workers about food aid being seized at roadblocks, Qian said.
The study stops short of offering policy suggestions and Qian emphasizes that its message is not “aid is bad.”
“These are problems no one intended,” she said. “But policy makers should know that we don’t want to be just randomly giving out aid. It should be targeted. It has to be.”