The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

“If you could grow the grain in Somalia, people wouldn’t be starving.”

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Sometimes a quote says more, much more, than the person saying it intended. Today an article in POLITICO looks into how potential reforms to international food aid programs in the US farm bill could impact the shipping industry. In defending the wasteful and inefficient practice of mandating that virtually all US food aid is grown […]

Sometimes a quote says more, much more, than the person saying it intended. Today an article in POLITICO looks into how potential reforms to international food aid programs in the US farm bill could impact the shipping industry.

In defending the wasteful and inefficient practice of mandating that virtually all US food aid is grown by preferred growers and then shipped by preferred shippers from the US to countries-in-need, Clint Eisenhauer, vice president for governmental relations for Maersk, a Danish-based shipping company, said, “but if you could grow the grain in Somalia, people wouldn’t be starving.”

Well, yes. Exactly. Let’s leave aside for a second the irony of an executive of a Danish shipping company lecturing anyone on why Congress should double down on regulations supposedly set up to promote American interests. The real issue is that Eisenhauer’s quote displays a fundamental misunderstanding of why people end up struggling to find enough food in the first place. In many food emergencies, food availability is not the challenge. The challenge is that people are too poor to afford to buy it, or they are displaced by conflict or crises. There is ample food available, often very close to where the hungry people are, but because of economic, political or other shocks, many people just cannot access or afford enough of it to support their families.

But more important than those basic facts is that even in many of the countries that most often require emergency assistance, countries like Sudan, Niger, Ethiopia, and yes Somalia, there is vast, untapped potential to grow food.  Lots and lots of food that could sustainably support the livelihoods of millions of people.  Suggesting that it is impossible to grow food in these countries is not just offensive, it’s factually wrong. Transforming how aid is delivered so that more can be invested in building self-sufficiency and resilience is exactly what we should be doing with our scarce foreign aid dollars.

 

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