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I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing that ever interfered with my learning was my education. I am Freeman Dyson, and I approve of this blog, but would warn the author that life as a heretic is a hard one, since the ignorant and the half informed, let alone those who should know better, will automatically trash their betters who try to enlighten them with independent thinking, as I have found to my sorrow in commenting on "global warming" and its cures.
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Saving African lives not a top priority in the US

Why send food to Africa’s starving? It would only save hundreds of thousands of lives. We have more important interests to worry about. American farmers, for one. American shippers, for another.

That, it would seem from the remarkable story by Celia Dugger today in the New York Times (African Food for Africa’s Starving Is Roadblocked in Congress, see below for full text), is the way many people think in Washington, including farmers and their lobbyists, shippers and their lobbyists, and some charitable organizations, no less.

It seemed like a no-brainer: changing the law to allow the federal government to buy food in Africa for Africans facing starvation instead of paying enormous sums to ship it from the American heartland, halfway around the world. Not only would the food get to the hungry in weeks instead of months, the government would save money and help African farmers at the same time.

…the administration’s proposal has run into opposition from three interests some critics call the Iron Triangle of food aid: agribusiness, the shipping industry and charitable organizations.

The charitable organizations in the Coalition for Food Aid oppose it partly because its arrival might “drive up food prices for the poor”, writes Dugger, without explaining that economic mystery. (Apparently the lobbyist she quotes can only mean the US poor, however unlikely it may seem that group, the most obese in the US, have a food supply problem.)

…Ed Fox, the agency’s assistant administrator for legislative and public affairs, said the issue was deliberately given a low profile. Little was to be gained from putting members of Congress in the position of choosing between agricultural constituencies and starving children, he said.

There are many arguments on both sides, of course, and nothing in a global world is simple. But surely there is no greater priority than saving millions of lives, especially children.

Why is this relevant to HIV?AIDS, and the ongoing program to deliver large quantities of expensive drugs to Africans, drugs whose medical relevance and beneficial effect is questioned and whose deleterious effect is demonstrated in the scientific literature?

There are many people who would say the same distortion of priorities has been at work in that field too for a long time. African lives are not the demonstrated concern of many in the field, however much they say so.

In her illuminating chapter on AIDS in Africa in her sensible and worldly book, Positively False (St. Martins 1995), British television documentary filmmaker Joan Shenton reports on her visit to Rakai village, Uganda.

I climbed up to a small cottage and a woman came out to greet me who looked very ill indeed. She was Nurse Namuburu Maxensia, the only member of the staff at the hospital. I told her who we were and she seemed keen to help us with information. Ill as she was, she came back to the hospital with us and she unlocked a large wooden cupboard door and showed us a stock of drugs supplied free by the WHO’s Essential Drugs Programme. These medicines used to be supplied free to the villagers but, under a new plan, a reduced fixed rate was being charged – as if anyone in the village could afford it. So that was why Gerald could no longer get antibiotics to help Najemba. Nurse Mexnsia told us that before the new plan had been introduced the hospital was full and there were sometimes 50 outpatients. “But now we get few”, she said ruefully, “because they can’t afford to pay.”

The next paragraph in the book is also worth quoting. It makes the disconnect between the activities of the young advisers sent by the West and the realities of life in Rakai look like some kind of horrid satire:

A few miles away from Rakai village, amid the desolation we noticed a neatly clipped hedge surrounding a smart cottage and garden. In the doorway was a gleaming Toyota. “Who lives there?” I asked Sam Mulondo. “The American couple who run the Rakai sex counselling programme,” he replied. We drove in and found a young man wearing shorts and a gold earring on the verandah and a young woman inside the house. Both were absorbed in their laptop computers. We exchanged greetings and left quickly. I felt sick. There they were, the ‘condom evangelists’ safe in their precinct. The ‘safe sex missionaries’ made occasional sallies with condoms stuffed in the back of their Toyota, telling the people of Rakai that it was their fault if they got ill because they had made love to somebody new.

Shenton and her companion, the journalist Celia Farber, concluded from their eye witness visit that what was lacking in Rakai was not medicine, however, but food, which was so short the grossly malnourished villagers had eaten their seed stock and the President of Uganda, Yoweri Musseveni, had only the week before made headlines with his appeal for food supplies and agricultural aid for the area.

In the case of food for famine, we think that the best quotation is the sting in the tail of Celia Dugger”s excellent article.

In Canada this year, the politics of food aid has unfolded in a starkly different way, with the leading nonprofit group, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the country’s main umbrella organization of farm groups, supporting a sharp reduction of the amount of food bought in Canada. “Canadian farmers are not going to say you have to source food in Canada regardless of whether starving people are waiting for it,” said the federation’s president, Robert Friesen.

(show)

The New York Times

October 12, 2005

Poverty Memo

African Food for Africa’s Starving Is Roadblocked in Congress

By CELIA W. DUGGER

It seemed like a no-brainer: changing the law to allow the federal government to buy food in Africa for Africans facing starvation instead of paying enormous sums to ship it from the American heartland, halfway around the world. Not only would the food get to the hungry in weeks instead of months, the government would save money and help African farmers at the same time.

The new approach had an impeccable sponsor in Republican-dominated Washington. The Bush administration, famous for its go-it-alone style, was trying to move the United States – by far the world’s biggest food donor – into the international mainstream with a proposal to take a step in just this direction. A lot of rich countries had already done so, most recently Canada.

So why is this seemingly sensible, cost-effective proposal near death in Congress?

Fundamentally, because the proposal challenges the political bargain that has formed the basis for food aid over the past half century: that American generosity must be good not just for the world’s hungry but also for American agriculture. That is why current law stipulates that all food aid provided by the United States Agency for International Development be grown by American farmers and mostly shipped on United States-flag vessels. More practically, however, it is because the administration’s proposal has run into opposition from three interests some critics call the Iron Triangle of food aid: agribusiness, the shipping industry and charitable organizations.

Just four companies and their subsidiaries, led by Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, sold more than half the $700 million in food commodities provided through the United States Agency for International Development’s food aid program in 2004, government records show. Just five shipping companies received over half the more than $300 million spent to ship that food, records show.

Members of Congress often applaud the benefits of food aid for American farmers, but that is not really how it works, as Christopher B. Barrett, a Cornell University economist and co-author of “Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting its Role,” noted. “It’s the middlemen who enjoy most of the gains,” he said, “not the farmers.”

Mr. Barrett’s research has established a third side to the triangle of interests with a deep stake in the status quo: nonprofit aid organizations. He and his co-author, Daniel Maxwell, a CARE official, found that at least seven of them, including Catholic Relief Services and CARE itself, depended on food aid for a quarter to half their budgets in 2001. Those groups distribute food in poor countries. But what is less well known is that they have also become grain traders, selling substantial amounts of the donated food on local markets in poor countries to generate tens of millions of dollars for their antipoverty programs. Given that at least 50 cents of each dollar’s worth of food aid is spent on transport, storage and administrative costs, selling food to raise money in, say, Africa, is an exceedingly inefficient way to finance long-term development, Mr. Barrett said. Better to just give nonprofit groups the money directly.

Had the Agency for International Development had the authority to buy food in Ethiopia in the mid-1980’s, when a million perished, or in 1999-2000 when 20,000 died, it could have saved many more lives, said its administrator, Andrew S. Natsios, who added, “Speed is everything in a famine response.”

He pushed within the administration for a proposal that would allow up to a quarter of his agency’s food aid budget to be spent in developing countries. President Bush approved the idea, he said, and it was included in the proposed 2006 budget introduced in February.

Ed Fox, the agency’s assistant administrator for legislative and public affairs, said the issue was deliberately given a low profile. Little was to be gained from putting members of Congress in the position of choosing between agricultural constituencies and starving children, he said.

But if the proposal was little noticed by the general public, it did not escape the attention of groups representing the so-called Iron Triangle, who argued that cash used to buy food was more likely to be misused or stolen than were in-kind food donations. They maintained that the administration’s proposal should not come at the expense of a program “upon which American producers, processors and shipping companies rely,” as a statement from an ad hoc coalition of 17 companies and associations put it.

The Coalition for Food Aid, which represents 16 nonprofit groups, also opposed it. While supporting the idea of buying food in poor countries, said Ellen Levinson, the coalition’s lobbyist, its members favored a more limited pilot program paid for only with additional appropriations, not money from the agency’s core budget.

Ms. Levinson criticized the administration for failing to spell out how its plan would work, and said a carefully monitored pilot was needed to ensure that food bought in poor countries was safe and that the purchases did not drive up food prices for the poor. She also cautioned that food bought near a crisis would not necessarily be quicker to arrive, noting that the European Union has been very slow to release cash for food in some cases.

But Oxfam, which accepts no direct American food aid and is not part of the coalition, has actively supported the administration’s proposal. In testimony submitted to Congress, it pointedly noted that the current system offered too many opportunities “for a variety of private interests to skim off benefits in the procurement, packaging, transportation and distribution of commodities.”

And CARE, the second largest distributor of United States food aid and a member of the coalition, had a change of heart. It has now given unconditional support to food purchases in developing countries.

The food aid debate will flare again later this year as global trade talks approach, with the European Union proposing that rich countries give a growing portion of their food aid as cash. But, for now, the administration’s proposal is going nowhere. Senator Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, still hopes Congress will ultimately allow up to 10 percent of food aid to be spent in poor countries. “It’s a question of trying to save lives,” he said.

But opposition remains strong. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who heads the House Agriculture Committee, said even Mr. DeWine’s modest compromise “would break a coalition that has resulted in one of the most successful food aid programs in world history.”

In Canada this year, the politics of food aid has unfolded in a starkly different way, with the leading nonprofit group, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the country’s main umbrella organization of farm groups, supporting a sharp reduction of the amount of food bought in Canada. “Canadian farmers are not going to say you have to source food in Canada regardless of whether starving people are waiting for it,” said the federation’s president, Robert Friesen.

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