Do food aid and economic self-interest mix?

The recent decision to merge the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the new Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development isn’t the first time Canada’s aid program has been profoundly changed.

Five years ago, another major change occurred when Ottawa fully untied Canadian food aid.

Then, as now, it was a matter of balancing competing interests — the needs of people who are hungry in the developing world and the fortunes of Canadian farmers and other commercial interests.

It’s an old story, one that begins in the 1950s when Canada started its food aid program.

That was a time when our country was struggling with an agricultural surplus and people in Africa and Asia were facing hunger due to drought. Food aid was seen as a way to address both issues.

Sold as “feeding the (hungry) world,” food aid benefited many people in need. But it was also self-interest in disguise — a way to help Canadian farmers sell their surplus crops and stabilize prices.

CIDA was established in 1968 and in 1975, it developed a Food Aid Strategy that allowed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to use government funds to purchase up to 20 per cent of food aid from local farmers in developing countries. The balance was shifting towards helping others.

By 1980, however, pressure from Canadian farm organizations, as well as commercial groups supplying other food used for aid, caused the “untying” of aid to be scaled back. Only allow five per cent of food to be purchased locally — and then only in emergencies.

This was not the best, or most efficient, way to help people who were hungry. The purchase and shipping of Canadian food was costly and also took a lot of time — often at least two to three months. Sometimes it arrived after the emergency had passed — but just in time to disrupt the sale prices of newly harvested crops.

The policy was eased a bit in the early 1990s when NGOs such as the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFBG) were permitted to purchase up to 10 per cent of food aid locally, but it still didn’t resolve the challenges.

In the late 1990s, the CFGB and others asked the government to fully untie food aid, arguing that it was a more efficient use of government funds, allowed aid to get to hungry people more quickly, and didn’t harm local farmers. Overall, it was just a better way to help people in need.

CIDA supported the request, the Department of Agriculture was opposed, and politicians were cautious, fearful of a negative response from rural voters.

It took the tragedy of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami to change people’s minds. At first glance, it seemed appropriate to send food — people in coastal areas had lost everything. But only kilometres inland, crops were ripening in the sun. It soon became clear that sending food from Canada made no sense when there was food available close at hand.

Within three months, the policy was changed. Aid groups could buy 50 per cent of food aid locally. In April 2008, the government changed food aid policy again, fully untying Canadian food aid.

The result was a more effective aid program for people who are hungry, and better value for Canada.

Looking back on the fifth anniversary of the full untying of food aid, we celebrate this change. At the same time, we realize that balancing the needs of poor people in the developing world and Canada’s economic interests is an ongoing conversation.

The new merger of the aid, trade and diplomatic portfolios is once again creating discussion about the role Canadian aid can play in benefiting Canada.

While aid can be beneficial for Canada, it is the hope of the CFGB that the needs of poorest people on the planet will be highest priority — even if we don’t get anything in return.



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