Food or Cash?

According to the Catholic Relief Services, food aid can still do a great deal of good.

Charles Kenny ("Haiti Doesn't Need Your Old T-Shirt," November 2011) is right when he criticizes sending unneeded items to those caught up by disasters or poverty in the developing world. Humanitarian agencies like mine -- Catholic Relief Services (CRS) -- all have tales of receiving goods from well-meaning people who do not understand that even if the items were needed (which they rarely are), the cost and logistics involved in shipping them exceed their intrinsic value.

Kenny goes too far, however, in dismissing the entire U.S. food aid program. Certainly if we started today from scratch, we would not design the program exactly as we find it, but U.S. food aid does do a great deal of good. Right now it is helping millions of people in drought-stricken East Africa. In Zimbabwe, it is feeding more than a million people caught up in political dysfunction. It is feeding people in Darfur, in many countries in West Africa -- indeed all over the world.

Is giving cash always better, as Kenny maintains? No. It can be, but there are times and places where markets do not function or cannot provide sufficient nutrition. At CRS, we monitor markets to ensure that food and other aid is not damaging local commerce. We sponsor voucher distributions, seed fairs, and local food purchases to stimulate markets. We work with local farmers to get their food to buyers in order to help them escape poverty as they contribute to the local economy. In other words, we recognize and appreciate the market's power. Our work takes into account the direction of Kenny's criticisms.

A half-century ago, CRS conducted clothing drives. We don't do that anymore. Changes in the world economy mean that donated clothing is rarely if ever needed. Maybe one day the same will be true of food. Sadly, that day has not arrived.

Senior Director for Advocacy
Catholic Relief Services
Baltimore, Md.

Charles Kenny replies:

Catholic Relief Services provides amazing and invaluable assistance around the world and works hard to maximize the good while minimizing the harm created by the dysfunctional U.S. food aid program. That work, however, would be far easier if the link between supporting humanitarian responses and U.S. agricultural and shipping policies were broken.

The requirement that much of U.S. humanitarian assistance has to be food grown in the United States, and then transported on American ships, makes the program a slow, expensive, and woefully inefficient form of aid in nearly every case. Even in those crisis situations in which part of the right response might involve bringing in food rather than money, how often is Baltimore or Los Angeles the closest place to buy that food?

CRS is forced to work with the system as it is. As Bill O'Keefe diplomatically puts it, "We would not design the program exactly as we find it." Surely the food aid program we've got is in some situations better than the option of no humanitarian assistance at all. Apparently, that's about all even its supporters can say for it. The program is long overdue for reform.


Taking Exception

America's founding principles make the country unique, argues Marion Smith.

Stephen M. Walt's myth-busting piece about American exceptionalism ("The Myth of American Exceptionalism," November 2011) represents the sort of analysis that makes a hobbyhorse of deconstructing America's founding. The United States was and remains exceptional not because of its power, accomplishments, or inspiring tropes (as Walt seems to define "exceptionalism"), but insofar as Americans remain committed to the country's founding principles.

Properly understood, American exceptionalism captures the unique nature of a political order based on universal principles of human liberty and equal natural rights. These ideas cannot be disproved. Nor should Americans' steady adherence to them be ignored. Since 1776, these principles have guided the United States' attempts, imperfect at times, to stand for freedom and justice in the world. If one is looking for examples in U.S. foreign policy, how about the leadership Americans showed in defeating the Barbary corsairs off North Africa in 1805 and 1816, which helped bring about the end of white slavery and piracy in the region? How about America's commitment to ending European imperialism in North America through the Monroe Doctrine, which promoted a new system of justice for one-third of the globe?

In the 20th century, the United States opposed imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and Soviet Russia -- powers that went undefeated until American involvement helped tip the scales in favor of America's dearly held ideas, ones that have informed and should inform its interests.

Modern perversions of these diplomatic traditions do not invalidate the foundations of American statecraft. By focusing too much on the last 50 years of U.S. foreign policy, Walt denies America the surest way to put its diplomacy on a more prudent path.

Today, American grand strategy is indeed undergoing an intellectual crisis. Unfortunately, Walt has not identified the problem; his improvident dismissal of American exceptionalism is part of the problem.

Graduate Fellow
Heritage Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Stephen M. Walt replies:

Marion Smith's letter exemplifies precisely the sort of reflexive jingoism I criticized in my article. He offers no evidence to challenge my facts or interpretations, and the historical examples that he cites do not help his case. Few Latin Americans would call the Monroe Doctrine a policy that brought "justice" to the Western Hemisphere, which is hardly surprising in light of the United States' numerous military interventions and support for assorted military dictatorships there. Similarly, the U.S. interventions in World War I and World War II were driven primarily by balance-of-power considerations rather than high ideals. Has Smith forgotten that the United States stayed out of both wars until it was directly attacked and that its most important ally in World War II -- in terms of its overall contribution to defeating the Third Reich -- was the Soviet Union, a totalitarian dictatorship led by a brutal mass murderer?

America has a number of unique features, as I noted in my article. It possesses unprecedented power and enjoys an unusually high level of security. These traits give U.S. leaders the freedom to meddle in many parts of the world, sometimes to good effect but often with disastrous consequences. Americans have no monopoly on wisdom or virtue, and the United States will never manage to address its various shortcomings or preserve its past achievements if Americans do not see both clearly. Smith seems content to bask in a comfortable national mythology. I prefer to see things as they are, in the hope of making them better.