There's been plenty of debate in recent years about whether humanitarian aid actually helps rid the world of extreme poverty. The inability of developed countries to make a dent in the problem, despite spending billions of dollars each year, is what economist and noted aid skeptic William Easterly calls the "second tragedy" of global poverty. But a recent study takes this skepticism to a whole new level, suggesting that food aid not only doesn't work, but also can prolong the violent conflicts it's meant to help resolve.
Looking at a sample of developing countries between 1972 and 2006, economists Nancy Qian of Yale University and Nathan Nunn of Harvard University found a direct correlation between U.S. food aid and civil conflict. For every 10 percent increase in the amount of food aid delivered, they discovered, the likelihood of violent civil conflict rises by 1.14 percentage points.
The results confirm anecdotal reports that food aid during conflicts is often stolen by armed groups, essentially making international donors part of the rebel logistics effort. According to some estimates, as much as 80 percent of the food aid shipments to Somalia in the early 1990s was looted or stolen. In her book The Crisis Caravan, journalist Linda Polman reported how Hutu rebels who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide appropriated aid given out in refugee camps in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, further fueling conflict in the region. Polman also estimated that Nigeria's 1967-1970 Biafran war -- one of the first African humanitarian crises to get global media attention -- may have lasted 12 to 16 months longer than it otherwise would have because of the international aid seized by rebel groups.
More recently, during the war in Afghanistan, there have been widespread reports of everything from Pop-Tarts to staple goods being resold at local markets. Even more worryingly, up to one-third of the aid to Uruzgan province has reportedly fallen into Taliban hands.
Does this mean we shouldn't give any aid at all? Of course not, say the study's authors, who hope instead that the United States, which is the world's largest supplier of food aid, shipping out 2.5 million metric tons in 2010, will reconsider just how this aid is given out. Qian points to the often arbitrary way the United States increases aid during times of domestic agricultural surplus as particularly dangerous. When American farmers grow more food, Washington tends to give away more, regardless of need.
Qian argues that it's time we all get a little more selective about giving. "If you randomly assign aid to countries without considering what's going on, that's going to increase conflict," she says. The main takeaway is if you want to stop civil wars, you've got to stop feeding the warriors.