Especially in developing countries, a large number of poor people are suffering food insecure (Figure 1). Weak infrastructure, growing production prices and the shortage of credit, etc. have hampered the world’s low-income people to react to the growing food prices. In addition, the weather condition and global financial crises, conflicts lead to the situation that more people need the food aid for meeting the basic caloric requirements. In this blog, I will first discuss the food aid related debates and illustrate the complex reality by using Ethiopia as an example.


Figure 1 (The 2017  hunger map)


Background and Current situation

Food aid, which can be regarded as the interventions supported by food, aims to improve the food security for the poor for both long and short-term which is divided into 3 categories (Figure 2).

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Figure 2 Food aid classifications 

  • Emergency food aid is designed to target specific beneficial groups who normally suffer man-made or natural disasters.
  • Project food aid is normally free distributed while also can be sold in the open market. It is designed to support the activities like disaster prevention and poverty alleviation.
  • Programme food aid, acting as a resource transfer, aims to balance the budget and support activities for payments. This kind of aid is provided in the form of a loan or a grant in the open market which is not targeting to some specific groups.


Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries and it faces severe problems of food insecurity. Based on the Ethiopia government projections, about 7.88 million people will need food assistance, despite the 11.5 million people who are already in need of emergency food assistance. The situations fo widespread poverty, recurrent droughts (1999-2000, 2002-2003) as well as rapid population growth (apart from its own citizens, Ethiopia also hosts 905,000 refugees who come from neighboring countries) heighten the crisis.



Food aid contributes to food security. For instance, the project and programme food aid increase food availability (it shows that over 570 million population in 30 countries benefits from the programme food aid in 1997-1999). And Frederic Mousseau believes the food aid which leads to food stocks at the regional and national level in developing countries is the most cost-effective way of tackling the world’s hungry. However, there are uncertainties and challenges the aid comes along with.

From the donor side, the uncertainty is the assistance is dependent on the donor priorities. There is a long-term decrease in the relative importance of food aid since the late 20th century. And the unilateral decisions can be made by the donor countries to reduce the amount of food aid. In addition, large fluctuations can be noticed between the food assistance level and donor aid expenditure. Furthermore, the donations to ex-colonies sometimes are perceived as a form of dependence on the old masters.

The food aid is also criticized for the disincentive effects on the agriculture market in the recipient countries. It may refer to the direct impacts of the import market; the indirect impacts of the customer preference shifting which influences the domestic market.

As to the food security aspect, Martin Mowforth (2014) criticizes some donor countries use food aid as one way to spread the genetically modified organisms (GMOs), even though they themselves regard GMOs as illegal biotechnology. It is identified that food aid is the main gate to introduce GMOs in most of the countries of the region.

The case in Ethiopia

To Ethiopia, the food aid flows averaged 728,000 tons since 1990 which covered the local procurement and ranged from 120,000 to 1.22 million tons between 1996 to 2002 (Figure 3). Cereal is the main form of the import food aid and it takes around 10% of total cereal availability. Even in an average year of production, roughly 50% of households are dependent on food aid which can contribute about 30% to their annual food requirements.


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Figure 3 The food aid from 1970 to 2002 in Ethiopia

Even if some evidence shows the food aid programmes have contributed to the effectiveness in reducing household vulnerability in Ethiopia, issues still arise. The government provides annual food assessments in areas like Tigray, Amhara. And the appeal of food aid for each year is largely based on the crop assessment which concerning the people in risks of starvation. Nevertheless, it is possible that the programmes do not reach the poorest households that struggling with drought. So the government has to decide whether to have the money spent on the poor at the national scale for improving the overall consumption level, or only targeting at the poor households which are in the drought-influenced areas, with extremely low consumptions. For most cases, the resources were believed to be well allocated.

However, a typical crisis is al presented that the situation of requiring food aid in Ethiopia lasts more than twenty years which is not short-term episodes. It is gradually out of the field that the humanitarian system was designed for. The humanitarian budgets for the nation have quickly outgrown development aid when facing with the recurring food shortages year by year. Moreover, food security may also be challenged during the assistance processes. From the cultural perspective and the local people mentality, they believe the food aid recipients are food-insecure: food aid can be seen as lazy, ignorant and resistant to change, and so on. On the opposite, one local farmer as one food aid recipient said ‘We only believe that food aid is going to arrive when we have it in our hands’. But due to the large demand, decreasing international donations, as well as the reduction of food aid budgets by the Ethiopian government (because of the fear of dependency), the rations for the poor households were a far cry from the 1980s.



The situation can be complex. There are critiques on the food aid for both short- and long-term, while the reality is that a great number of food requirements still exist in poor countries like the example of Ethiopia. However, the wealthy countries may not continuously provide the assistance as much as previously and the fluctuation of the total amount may also be noticed.