Amal Hussain
Yemeni girl Amal Hussain who died only last week due to starvation / Photo credit: Tyler Hicks, NY Times

The recent death of the little 7-year-old Yemeni girl Amal Hussain due to starvation[1] again drew the world’s attention toward the reality of hunger and food security in the 21st century. According to FAO, the number of hungry people across the world is now at 821 million and still rising[2]. How is this possible when the world now produces more than enough food? Isn’t it easy to simply transfer food surplus to populations in need?

It is not. Six decades of using surplus as food aid have observed numerous challenges. Food surplus has been used for aid purposes by more developed countries since after World War II. The US is the largest donor, together with the EU, Canada, Japan, China and Brazil. Not only to fight hunger, food aid also contributed to emergency relief and development assistance.

UK food aid to people fleeing from Burma / Photo credit: DFID Flirkr

But food aid is indeed a contentious issue, as has been since its inception[3]. Despite its virtuous intention to feed the hungry, it was criticised to be donor-driven and focusing on the donors’ domestic interests instead of genuinely helping its recipients[4][5][6]. Donors may withhold aid if the results don’t turn out their way[7] because for them, food aid is also a handy foreign policy instrument for strategic objectives[8].

It is important to note that apart from emergency relief, food aid is not provided for free. It often takes the form of conditional loan, in which government of recipient countries are obligated to follow certain arrangements. For instance, when Indonesia accepted the loan from the US, they had to pay it back within 25 years while also agree to have US surplus wheat ‘disposed’ upon them, even though Indonesian don’t eat wheat(!)[9].

This points to another issue with food aid, which was that surplus food in donor countries may not be suitable or desirable for the recipients. In Senegal, the government was pressurised into closing its local rice market to force their citizens into buying US rice, simply because Senegalese prefer broken rice to US whole grain[10].

Surplus as foreign aid was also critiqued for destroying local food system[11], as many small-scale farmers in recipient countries were forced out of business because they couldn’t compete with the inflows of cheap foreign food products[12]. Thousands of poor Jamaican dairy farmers gave up their businesses in the hopeless competition with subsidised European milk dumped on their market[13].

Even more so, food aid was again held responsible for creating dependencies by weakening agricultural production and undermining local markets in recipient countries[14][15]. Haiti back in 1986 only had to import 7,000 tonnes of rice a year; but after a long period of imposing free trade, their dependency on foreign sources increases so much that by 1997 they had to import 196,000 tonnes a year[16]. A similar story can be heard from Kenya, a previously self-sufficient country has to import 80% of its food by the mid-1990s[17].

In addition, the use of tied food aid is not cost-efficient since it often arrives too late and the overall costs is a lot higher than regular commercial imports (by 30%), third country procurement (33%) and local purchases (50%)[18]. With the Farm Bill US food aid was the most expensive of all, because

Whilst there are food aid stories such as the Food for Work programmes helped to reduce food insecurity in Bangladesh and India, increased nutritional gains for participants in Kenya and lessened child malnutrition in Ethiopia[19], the ineffectiveness of food aid in curing hunger is rather inevitable, because it does not address the root causes. Even with foreign food aid readily available in their local markets at cheap prices, people are still hungry because they are too poor to buy food[20]. The fact that the world’s food is in surplus means nothing if there is a “shortage of purchasing power”[21].

A Haitian woman just received a 25kg rice bag as food aid from the US, distributed by World Vision in coordination with the U.S. Military and the United Nations World Food Program / Photo credit: USAID / R. Gustafson

Food aid has been changing for the better in that it has become increasingly multilateral, with distribution authority being shifted from governments to non-profit organisations such as FAO, WFP and other NGOs[22][23]. The recent efforts toward untying aid among donor countries is expected to improve the delays in transportation and cost-effectiveness of food aid whilst allowing recipient countries the freedom to procure food locally or regionally[24]. In this way, food aid would become a genuine form of humanitarian assistance rather than just a ‘surplus disposal mechanism’[25].

The shift in donor-recipient relationship to more than just North-South, with new donors who are not from the West (e.g. China, Brazil) and the increase in regional trade agreements between Global South countries[26], has already proved effectiveness in reducing dependency on Western donors.

Furthermore, donors nowadays are also much less imposing, for example, USAID would only provide food aid when requested by and in close consultation with recipient governments[27] to ensure no intentional harm is done to local food systems.

All in all, using surplus as food aid is not and should not be the primary solution to hunger. At its best, food aid can only be a bandage over temporary wounds and offer additional resources to the problem at hand. The problem of global hunger is too great that it requires all possible solutions as well as enabling conditions to address and tackle from the root causes of poverty, inequality and unnecessary warfare. Only by improving the overall welfare of the population can hunger be finally ended.

The future of food and agriculture infographic by FAO




[3] Barrett, C. (2012) Book review “Hunger in the Balance: The New Politics of International Food Aid” by Jennifer Clapp. Journal of development studies, Vol.48(10), pp.1559-1560.


[5] Schultz, T.W. (1960) ‘Value of U.S. Farm Surpluses to Underdeveloped Countries’, Journal of Farm Economics, xlii, 1025.

[6] Rietkerk, A. (2016) ‘The Constructive Use of Abundance’: the UN World Food Programme and the Evolution of the International Food-Aid System during the Post-War Decades, The International History Review, 38:4, 788-813,

[7] Drazen, A. (1999) What Is Gained By Selectively Withholding Foreign Aid? Mimeo, University of Maryland

[8] Mousseau, F. (2005) Food Aid or Food Sovereignty: Ending World Hunger In Our Time. The Oakland Institute


[10] See footnote 4

[11] Smith, J.W. (1994) The world’s wasted Wealth 2: Save our wealth, save our environment. Institute for Economic Democracy.

[12] See footnote 8


[14] Kirwan, B.E. and McMillan, M. (2007) Food Aid and Poverty, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 89(5), pp. 1152-1160

[15] Ferrière, N. and Suwa-Eisenmann, A., (2015) Does food aid disrupt local food market? Evidence from rural Ethiopia. World Development, 76, pp. 114-131.

[16] Aristide, J. B. (2000). Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization. Common Courage Press.



[19] Awokuse, T.O. (2011) Food aid impacts on recipient developing countries: A review of empirical methods and evidence. Journal of International Development, 23(4), pp. 493-514.

[20] See footnote 9

[21] ibid

[22] Clapp, J. (2015). Hunger in The Balance: The new politics of international food aid. Cornell University Press.

[23] See footnote 6

[24] Lentz, E.C., Passarelli, S. and Barrett, C.B. (2013) The timeliness and cost-effectiveness of the local and regional procurement of food aid. World Development, 49, pp.9-18.

[25] See footnote 22.