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Is assistance the real motive behind food aid?

One would expect the flow of food aid to follow a simple pattern: the greater the need in a country, the greater the donations from rich donor nations.

In reality, the dynamics of aid, particularly in the United States, are far more complicated and tend to spark fierce debate about political and economic motives.

Indeed, a recent paper shows that need is far from the only factor determining allocation of aid. Former colonial ties between countries and the policy objectives of donors also play a significant role in how food is distributed to hungry nations, according to economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Nancy Qian of Yale University.

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The study examines global bilateral food aid shipments between 1971 and 2008. Among the more striking findings: the largest donors of food aid in the world – the U.S., Canada, China and India – are also the least responsive to sudden food shortages in recipient nations.

In the U.S. (which supplies between 60 and 65 per cent of global food aid), much of this of this comes down to bureaucratic roadblocks, Ms. Qian says. Though the U.S. provides emergency relief in extreme cases, most of its ongoing donations are based on historic or long-term need. Year-to-year production shocks aren't taken into consideration.

But the U.S. is also the only donor that systematically ties food aid to its own domestic production. The study found that African aid tends to increase in response to surpluses in American markets rather than any outstanding need in recipient nations.

None of this will come as a shock to aid workers, Ms. Qian says. Since 1954, aid has tended to go "hand in hand" with price support for American farmers, as surplus food is sold or given to faraway countries in order to protect domestic agricultural prices.

The trouble is, by flooding recipient countries with cheap food, the U.S. disrupts their fledgling markets. Producers there can't possibly compete, and the country becomes more and more dependent on donations.

"Aid is extremely political," Ms. Qian said. "Need may be important but it's certainly not the only thing."

And as it turns out, for European nations, colonial history plays an important role in aid allocation. African countries are far more likely to receive food aid from their former colonizers and all countries tend to receive more from nations with whom they shared a common colonizer, the study found.

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"The point is, there needs to be a huge reassessment of the value of food aid," Ms. Qian said. "There are key questions about whether food aid can help or not help people."

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