Eat your Green[back]s

By Wyatt Shorter, Director of External Relations

26 August 2014

Death on Film – those are words often used to describe Kevin Carpenter’s famous 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a vulture stalking a child in southern Sudan. The image is not one we ought to be strangers to; in the past century alone, famines have been claiming the lives of tens of millions of people around the world. Thankfully, as a recent Economist article points out, this is a declining trend.

There has been a serious change over the past two decades in the way that the World Food Programme (WFP – an arm of the United Nations) addresses famine. This switch, the one from provisions of food to the provision of money and coupons that are said to stimulate the economy as well as improving nutrition, should not be lauded as they have been in recent reviews. In fact, considering the lack of long-term data, and the apparent willful blindness towards serious external threats, it is evident that this switch is not one that we ought to be supporting so ardently.

First and foremost, there is the question of corruption. While it has been true in the past that warlords, bandits, and ne’er-do-wells alike have poached and pillaged shipments of food bound for hungry recipients, it is even more likely that this will be the case with cash and vouchers. While food can, like all market goods, be resold for a modest return on what it would originally be worth, cash and vouchers skip the middle man and retain a higher value, while offering more flexibility in terms of spending and re-distribution. On a similar note, it’s much easier to buy an AK-47 machine gun with cold hard cash than it is to do so with a couple dozen cans of beans.

The WFP maintains that the goal of pumping money and vouchers in to these areas is that they can help resuscitate and nurture the local economy, but without parallel investment in education and the enrichment of land to create agricultural sectors in these areas, a project which falls outside the scope of this part of the WFP’s mandate, we have to ask ourselves exactly what market it is that we are nurturing! Just because farmer Kwame suddenly has $40 in his pocket does not mean the quality and fertility of his soil has changed for the better.

This is not all to say that this initiative ought to be abandoned – there are obvious merits to the idea of promoting self-sufficiency, and investing in production, so that local markets can flourish. The name of the game in economics is expansion, and that is what this initiative aims to achieve. Until long-term results show up, though, and until we can assure stability and adequately monitor corruption in the system, this cannot be touted as a perfect solution. As Kevin Carpenter proved to the world back in 1993, we can’t stop donating those dry goods just yet.

 

Wyatt is the Director of External Relations at CDS and a sophomore at the University of Toronto majoring in Political Science and Peace, Conflict, Justice studies. He currently serves as the Director of Partnerships for the Association of Political Science Students at the University of Toronto, as well as the Co-Director of Procedures and Training for the North American Model United Nations (NAMUN), one of Canada’s largest UN simulations. He previously was the Moderator for NAMUN’s Disarmament and International Security Committee (DISEC). Wyatt’s work in Toronto focuses on connecting students with work and publication opportunities in the professional and academic worlds.

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